Bug Horror as Mimesis

Film: Mimic
Year: 1997
Director: Guillermo del Toro (also co-writer)

Whenever I picture Guillermo del Toro, I catch myself picturing George R. R. Martin instead. Apologies to both artists (avid readers here, in case you didn’t know) for the mental mash-up, but I suppose the conflation could be worse-founded: both are celebrated fantasists, might from behind be easily mistaken for Kris Kringle, and have a propensity for endearing us to characters before tossing them to the Beast. (Also those “G” initials are an insurmountable challenge for my corner-cutting synaptic feed.) Such, at least, is the case with Mimic, del Toro’s cavalcade of creepy crawlers, the director’s second feature and a movie that was rightly received as one of the few worthwhile retreads of Alien.

Horror and science fiction of course found a new gospel in Alien, which cemented, if not introduced, the long-echoed premise of a quasi-ensemble crew of diverse (morally, ideologically, ethnically, physically—just about every way but nutritionally) humans who make the fatal misjudgment to split up while enclosed in a dark and steam-racked network of tunnels, enabling themselves to be picked off at the leisure of an unfamiliar and peckish nonhuman species. The permutations within this frame are endless—some more imaginative than others. The movies on Mimic’s side of the divide, though smaller in number, are weightier for bringing fresh vision and variation to the story.

In this case, the story revolves around giant, mutated test-tube cockroaches that have set up shop in the dark and steam-racked New York subway and endangered conceivably dozens of people—and soon the whole planet, once they figure out how to emigrate. Del Toro has a gift and an obvious affinity for visualizing the sweaty, slimy, hazmat-encrusted and long-abandoned hollows of the metro where these hulking bugs are stowed away (from what I hear, shooting such terrain is his favorite part of the job). But his movie stands out further for engendering a genuine sense of peril. Storytellers in this genre often, intentionally or not, drop clues toward the outcome of certain threads in the storyline. If a character is to be disposed of later on, they are treated as a disposable character from the start; their presentation foreshadows their fate, which, though it may not be explicitly identifiable, is easily perceptible and quick to derail our suspense. Del Toro (like his near-doppelganger G. R. R.) doesn’t believe in disposable characters. While the roided-up bugs’ preferred snacks in Mimic do tend to be Catholics and kids (especially bug-hawking, buck-toothed preteen gangstas), we are never certain who is in danger, and how much of it they are in at a given moment.

In particular, I have to commend Mimic for presenting—and thus intensifying its singular appeal on the meandering and inbred Alien family tree—one of the most compelling female heroes in the realms of both horror and science fiction (maybe the most who has not been played by Sigourney Weaver or Jodie Foster). Women in these genres tend to be filled-out filler—eye candy with an I-can’t programming—maddeningly unlike real people. But when they are allowed (three guesses who runs the industry) to be butt-kickers, it is usually in the impassive, cold-blooded vein of the American action man—and not even in his clever iterations like John McClane. Even more than of bozo blondes who don’t know how to hold a fork, I grow tired of watching superhuman slabs who are so excruciatingly well-equipped to handle the odds against them that they can afford to be aloof throughout the entire two-hour blitz. Such a hero is no hero at all: he’s an autopilot. By contrast, Mimic’s entomologist-heroine Susan Tyler is quick-thinking, resourceful, and brave (which I stress is incompatible with fearlessness), not to mention emotionally complex and mortally badass. In other words, she is written as too many Hollywood writers would only think to write a man. That she is brought to life by the centered spark of Mira Sorvino, fresh from Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite where she gave one of those performances that flings an actor from anonymous larva to Oscar-toting imago in a few months, is no small fortune either.

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