Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Screenplay: Matthew Robbins and Guillermo Del Toro (based on the short by Donald A. Wolheim)
Stars: Mira Sorvino (Susan Tyler), Jeremy Northam (Peter Mann), Charles Dutton (Leonard), Giancarlo Giannini (Manny), Josh Brolin (Josh), Norman Reedus (Jeremy), F. Murray Abraham (Dr. Gates)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1997
Country: USA
Monster movies are almost always better when the rampaging terror was somehow brought about by man's own faults, namely his incessant tampering with science. In the fifties, many a monster was born of man's attempts to tap nuclear energy. The giant ants in 1954's "Them!" were mutants of nuclear radiation, and even Godzilla himself would have remained in peaceful slumber had we not constantly awoken him with our pesky testing of atomic bombs.

But now that the threat of atomic war has passed, and we don't think twice about nuclear power plants, a new kind of scientific meddling had to be created. This void was, of course, filled with genetics. Now there is new breed of sci-fi/horror films, one where man's meddling with genetic codes brings the same doom as his earlier trials with splitting the atom.

Latest in this line of movies is "Mimic," Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro's first foray into Hollywood. The premise is simple, but greatly effective: a horrible plague is spreading through New York, killing off an entire generation of children. Scientists discover that the disease is being spread by common cockroaches, but they don't know how to stop it. A brilliant geneticist, Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino), breeds a new kind of bug, code named "The Judas Breed." The Judas Breed can mimic cockroaches, then secrete a liquid that kills them, thus wiping them out and stopping the spread of the plague. Of course, the Judases are supposedly sterile and engineered to die after six months, but as those nosy scientists learned four years earlier in "Jurassic Park," nature finds a way.

Three years later, Susan is a hero, she is now married to one of her co-workers, Peter (Jeremy Northam), and everything seems fine. That is, until they learn that the Judas Breed didn't die out, but has in fact been multiplying at a hideously rapid pace in the bowels of the New York subway and sewer systems, growing lungs, increasing their size, and developing ways to mimic the human race, so in the shadows, they look like six-foot men in a trench coats.

Once the story is in place, the movie turns into a battle between a handful of humans and a whole lot of giant cockroaches (a combination of digital effects and animatronics). Much of the action in "Mimic" takes place deep in the slimy guts of the New York subway system, where Susan, Peter, a police detective (Josh Brolin), a cop (Charles Dutton) and a father looking for his missing son (Giancarlo Giannini) find themselves in a gory stand-off with the flying bugs, who begin to come out of the walls in alarming numbers. In the great climax, the humans find themselves trapped inside an abandoned subway car while the roaches buzz and click around outside, battering themselves against the doors trying to get in.

There were many great moments in "Mimic," due to Del Toro's gifts as an incredibly visual director. He films everything with a eye finely tuned to detail. Of course, in this film, most of the detail consists of slime, bug guts, dripping sewer water, fecal muck, oozing pipes, and other bits of nastiness that make you squirm in your seat. His obvious goal is to out-slime "Aliens," and for the most part, he wins. In one great scene, after Susan has just tested the Judas Breed for the first time, the camera carefully pans across the floor of a sewer tunnel, showing a literal carpet of dead cockroaches. It is one of the most artfully rendered gross-out shots I've ever seen, and for those who despise roaches as much as I do, this scene alone is worth the price of admission.

Del Toro first made a name for himself in 1992 with his first film, "Cronos," an original take on old vampire lore. The film won an award at the Cannes Film Festival, and swept the Caesars, the Mexican version of the Oscars. With "Mimic," he gets to work with a large budget, digital wizardry, and top actors like Sorvino and Northam, who give strong performances to add support to the movie's main star, which is its scary visual flair.

"Mimic" is the descendant of a long line of sci-fi/horror films. What it lacks in originality, it amply makes up for with style, wit, and finesse. A number of scenes could have been positively ludicrous (actually, the whole story of giant cockroaches is treading a thin line), but Del Toro overcomes all obstacles, and churns out a decidedly effective, very creepy, and exhilarating ode to the drive-in creature features of days gone by.

Like last year's surprise hit "Scream," "Mimic" gives you exactly what you expect, but goes about it in such stylishly effective means that you forget you've seen it all before.

©1997 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3.5)

James Kendrick

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