(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)
Written by Matthew Robbins and Guillermo del Toro, based on the short story by Donald Wollheim
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Intellectuals, a question -- is it okay to like certain artists simply because they kick f---ing ass? Don't laugh! This is a serious question that intelligent people have been dealing with for centuries now, ever since the distinction was made between "high culture" and "low culture" to begin with; of whether smart people should be champions only of smart projects, or if there's room in a smart person's life for projects that are simply viscerally exciting (i.e. gets your blood pumping faster in the heat of the moment, but with not very much to contemplate afterwards). I myself, for example, am a big fan of science-fiction, and there are lots of projects within that genre that I am ashamed of myself for liking so much -- Logan's Run, The Empire Strikes Back, Dark City, oh, I could just go on and on all day if I wanted (and sometimes have -- needless to say, if you ever meet me at a drunken dinner party, do yourself a favor and don't bring up the subject). But does this mean that I should recommend such projects to others? Or should they remain the unspoken guilty pleasures that the smart person inside of me in those situations insists that they are?
It's a particularly appropriate subject to ponder, in fact, when it comes to the latest movie in this essay series, the 1997 low-budget horror film Mimic; and that's because the film was made by Guillermo del Toro, pretty much the posterchild for "elevated genre artists who are nonetheless somewhat of a guilty pleasure." One of a trio of Mexican filmmakers just now starting to gain critical respect (along with schoolmates and chums Alfonso CuarÃ³n and Alejandro IÃ±Ã¡rritu), del Toro has spent decades of his life now toiling in the ghetto of this mostly disrespected genre, including being the creator of the perennial undergraduate stoner classics Blade II and Hellboy; in fact, it's only been with the release of his latest film, the Oscar-nominated Pan's Labyrinth, that he's received almost any critical accolades at all.
Mimic is from the beginning of del Toro's career, and it frankly shows; it's his first-ever American film, in fact, which was supposed to be the kickstart of his Hollywood career but wasn't, but which did earn him the opportunity five years later to make Blade II, which actually was. And shall we just be honest right from the start? Mimic is stupid; oh Lord, what a ridiculously stupid movie Mimic is, so stupid that I am in fact having grave doubts about doing a long write-up concerning it in the first place, even as I sit here writing it. But then again, I really liked Mimic as well, and am ultimately glad I took two hours out of my life to watch it; but that's because I'm a fan of low-budget horror movies too (or at least some of them), and am especially a fan of all the visual tricks that del Toro has now become famous for.
Starring Mira Sorvino in one of those infamous "you just won an Oscar and now you're going to be in WHAT?!" roles, Mimic is basically a creature feature; a movie with a fairly ridiculous storyline that exists basically as an excuse to show off a bunch of giant ugly bugs. That storyline? Well, in a nutshell -- seems that there's a bunch of cockroaches in New York, carrying around a disease that is wiping out an entire generation of children. And it seems that Sorvino is one of those supermodel genetic engineers (you know, like in every low-budget horror movie), who is convinced by her colleagues to basically play god and create a new type of killer bug code-named JUDAS (which for those who don't know was the name of Jesus' betrayer in Christian mythology), whose natural secretions both attract and kill anything that comes in contact with it. And thus are the bugs let loose in New York's underground, but not without taking some Jurassic Park style precautions: genetically engineering the bugs to be sterile, that is, as well as all one sex, so that no reproduction can take place.
But wait, what's this? The bugs do find a way to reproduce? And not only that, but now consider humans as their actual prey? And so do what they were engineered to do, which is to mimic the shape and size of their prey, the behavior of their prey, as to fit into their prey's surroundings as much as possible (in this case the New York subway system)? And wait, there's a sassy blue-collar subway cop (Charles S. Dutton) who's suspicious of the entire thing? And who keeps conveniently asking for further clarification of the story right at the points where the audience needs it too? That can't be! And wait -- did someone say "magical autistic boy who just happens to be in the center of the entire mess for some reason that only makes sense in low-budget horror movies?" Oh, and did I mention the part where they're trapped in an outdated section of the subway system that's been abandoned for half a century, yet are able to bring on the power to the entire thing simply by touching two exposed wires together in some electrical closet? Or the Ludicrously Unrealistic Ending Whose Illogic Simply Must Be Seen To Be Believed? Oh yeah, there's that too!
Yeah, stupid is what I'm trying to get at, a fact that's pretty difficult to deny, even if John Sayles did act as an uncredited script doctor on the project (and by the way, John Sayles acted as an uncredited script doctor on this project). But there's good news, though, for del Toro fans; and that's that Mimic is as much a feast for the eyes as all his other movies, and in fact after watching it, it's ridiculously easy to see why he would be hired to direct Blade II, which for those who don't know is a highly stylized series of stories about good-looking vampire warriors. In fact, the more of del Toro's work I end up seeing (this is my third movie now of his), the more I realize that there's an entire series of running themes and motifs throughout his oeuvre -- body horror, for example, a fascination with manmade subterranean spaces, an ability to do things with simple lights that most directors spend their lives wishing they could do.
It's undeniable that del Toro is a visual genius, which is maybe the most interesting thing of all about his career; that he has used this natural advantage to work his way through the traditional moviemaking system, to do an unexpectedly great job with every crappy assignment he is given, eventually rising in power and reputation so that he can get projects like Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth green-lighted in the first place. It's an old-skool way of doing things, a path that requires a lot of patience; because seriously, when you're someone with a Hellboy or Pan's Labyrinth inside of you, do you really want to be sitting around making piece-of-crap bug movies starring Charles S. Dutton and magically autistic children? No you do not; you want to be out there making Hellboy or Pan's Labyrinth! As silly and ridiculous as this movie can get, I have to admit that I have a lot of respect for del Toro after seeing it, for taking what was plainly a terrible job offer and nonetheless turning in a final movie that is much better than its story and budget give it any right to be. It shows a tolerance for the traditional system that I myself do not have, nor do a lot of underground artists; and that, after all, is why del Toro got to make Hellboy, and why you and I paid nine bucks like a couple of schmucks to go see Hellboy.
So, to wrap things up:
--Avoid at all costs if you're not a horror fan.
--Not too bad if you are a horror fan, or wish to become a del Toro completist.
--Yes, I'm still feeling slightly ashamed of myself for writing this long a review of Mimic in the first place.
--And seriously, enough with the magical autistic children who just happen to be in the center of low-budget horror messes. For that matter, enough with Charles S. Dutton too. Seriously.
Out of 10:
Overall: 6.1, or 8.3 for horror fans
Best viewed: On an empty stomach, that's for damn sure.