Them There Bugs

When the beautiful entomologist rips open the chest cavity of a huge bloodthirsty insect in the sci-fi nightmare Mimic, it turns into Thoracic Park. This movie, like Spielberg's, features evolution gone haywire and dramaturgy gone to hell. In the prologue, the heroine -- the reckless and courageous (or foolhardy and stupid) Dr. Susan Tyler -- is fighting a child-killing epidemic spread by cockroaches. She creates a "Judas breed" of insect from the DNA of the termite and the praying mantis; this high-tech hybrid eradicates the roaches. The new breed is supposed to self-destruct, the victim of its own sped-up metabolism. Right away alarm bells go off in our heads: No creature capable of killing every cockroach in New York City would die out so easily. Three years later Tyler and her epidemiologist husband, Dr. Peter Mann, learn that the Judas breed has not merely survived but has grown at a terrifying rate. Naturally, being brilliant scientists, our two intrepid doctors go off on their own. With no one to help them except a surly transit cop and a game aide, they dive into the bowels of the New York subway system, the urban-legend equivalent of Roswell and the Bermuda Triangle combined.

Directed and co-written by Guillermo Del Toro, whose debut, Cronos, hit the festival circuit a few years ago, Mimic is (like Cronos) a textbook example of the art-horror film. With few exceptions, the art-horror film is a Judas breed of its own, though the only ground it infests is specialty theaters. In art horror, or AH, the characters act as silly as they do in plain old horror -- let's call that noble form OH -- but they do it with angst instead of esprit. In AH the "Boo!" effects are as dependent as they are in OH on sudden jolts of sound or mysterious forms lunging from shadows, but they're draped and muffled with symbols and metaphors. And the narrative hooks used to snag our attention are just as hokey, except in AH they rarely get fulfilled. In Mimic Dr. Tyler goes from taking a home pregnancy test to tracking the breed's sole male; the species' future depends on his virility. You wait in vain for some Rosemary's Baby action to develop, especially since the insects are "mimicking" the human form. Instead Dr. Tyler just acts motherly toward an autistic boy.

An autistic boy? Yes, well, the AH factor goes off the charts with the appearance of a wet-eyed young savant who not only can name a shoe's type and size on sight but who also play spoons in a way that imitates the deadly insects' clicking sounds. He somehow bonds with the head insect, dubbing him "Mr. Funny Shoes." The film's most campy and thus most amiable moment comes when the kid's Gepetto-like father (Giancarlo Giannini), a subway shoeshine man with a fresh-from-Italia accent, realizes that "Meestah Funny Shoezzz" has kidnapped his son. The two stories finally connect when the shoeshine man collides with the scientists in the tunnels beneath Manhattan. You may hope that the eight-year-old will turn out to be as surprisingly cunning as the doctors are surpassingly dumb. No such luck. He's aghast when Mr. Funny Shoes has his dad as an hors d'oeuvre.

Mimic will attract the unwary because of its alien-autopsy allure. The mixture of pathology and exotic shocks is an inexhaustible attraction in contemporary pop culture. It's no coincidence that graphic medical soap operas like Chicago Hope and ER and serial-killer shows like Profiler and Millennium and paranormal series like The X-Files took off at the same time. Mash them together while channel-flipping and they become the mainstream version of the cyborg and hybrid phantasmagorias of "avant-garde" sci-fi. In the last week I've watched, in quick succession, the two Tetsuo man-machine gorefests and Del Toro's Cronos, which features an eternal insect inside an archaic machine that turns men into vampires. I feel like my brain needs a lube job. But some audiences can't get enough of humans, nonhumans, and engines being torn apart and recombined in kinky-scary or decadent "aesthetic" fashions -- gross-out takeoffs on millennial transformation. The junior-high point of Mimic comes when Dr. Tyler smears Judas guck over her friends to make the insects think the exterminators are part of the colony. What a concept: insect repellent extracted from insects. Will Jack in the Box get the tie-in rights, or Raid?

From its insect monsters to its underground conflagrations, Mimic resembles the 1954 sci-fi film Them!, about giant mutated ants emerging from the sands beneath atomic test sites in New Mexico. But Them! was swift, unassuming, and logical, unfolding its central mystery in the first half-hour and spending the next hour on adventure and suspense. Mimic is static, highhanded, and confused, wasting most of its 105-minute running time simply on spelling out the premise. Even at the film's climax, the filmmakers can't decide what they're trying to say. After all, Dr. Tyler, a veritable Baroness von Frankenstein, is as fiercely ambitious as the creatures she engineered.

Mira Sorvino plays the role with a monotonous intensity that made me think of middle-period Liv Ullmann. Then I read she had wanted to be the female Harrison Ford. Giancarlo Giannini at least looks colorful against the likes of Jeremy Northam (Dr. Tyler's husband) and Josh Brolin (his assistant); Charles S. Dutton brings an aptly derisive air to the role of the transit cop. But Del Toro's handling of the cast is witless. Why push into smarmy closeups of F. Murray Abraham as Dr. Tyler's mentor if he's not going to become an insect in disguise?

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