Before Guillermo del Toro gave us the luscious realm of Crimson Peak, the sensuous beauty of The Shape of Water or the captivatingly haunting world of Pan’s Labyrinth, there was Mimic. The 1997 American directorial debut from the critically acclaimed Master of Horror, Mimic stands as a pivotal and influential film in del Toro’s career.
Infamously saturated with creative control issues, Mimic was as much an introduction to Hollywood for the Mexican filmmaker as it was the other way around. Although easy to overlook when held up next to many of del Toro’s later works, it would be a shame to do so. Mimic not only boasts early stylistic and subject hallmarks that would soon come to define del Toro’s style, but also highlights his thoughtful attention to character through subtle and intelligent means. Never given the full appreciation it deserves, it’s time to give Mimic and its lead character Dr. Susan Tyler a closer look.
Before we dive in too deep, it’s important to note that there are two distinct versions of Mimic. One is the theatrical release, notoriously edited and altered at the hands of the Weinstein’s. The other is the later released Director’s Cut, approved and accepted by del Toro. For the purposes of this article, we will be basing all discussions on the Director’s Cut, as it is a more complete realization of del Toro’s vision (and an overall better film).
Portrayed by Mira Sorvino, Dr. Susan Tyler is an entomologist who becomes enlisted by CDC agent Dr. Peter Mann (Jeremy Northam) to create a genetically engineered insect in an effort to fight a child-killing disease called Strickler’s Disease. Carried by the common cockroach, Tyler‘s creation is a part termite, part mantis biological counteragent. Appropriately dubbed the ‘Judas Breed,’ this new mutant insect was intended to rapidly eradicate New York’s cockroach problem and die out within 6 months. Initially deemed a success, things begin to get a bit more complicated three years on. Now married, Mann and Tyler discover that the Judas Breed has managed to not only survive, but evolve into something much more dangerous, sinister and terrifying than they could have ever imagined. Part creature feature, part sci-fi horror, Mimic explores the classic man-playing-god concept in del Toro’s own unique way.
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“[…] neither defined, confined, or determined by her gender, Susan’s character is allowed to progress, react and evolve uncommented on.”
When it came to the casting of Dr. Susan Tyler, the choice to go with Mira Sorvino was not only interesting, but strategic. Fresh off her 1996 Oscar win for Best Supporting Actress in Mighty Aphrodite, Sorvino was a hot commodity. With offers pouring in, her initial instinct was to turn down the role due to its dark, horror laced tone. However, Miramax pestered her incessantly, urging her to read the script, meet with del Toro and watch his first feature film, Cronos. So, she did. In a 1997 Charlie Rose interview, Sorvino explained how she was moved to tears by Cronos‘ beauty and del Toro’s unique approach to the horror genre. She compared his vision to films like The Shining and Dead Ringers. If the conversation were to happen today, she may have even dared to use the term ‘elevated horror.’ However, the final nail in the proverbial coffin came after Sorvino read the script. In the same interview, Sorvino said she finally agreed to take the part after seeing that Susan was an “active female role.”
While the words may sound simple enough, the actual implementation of the concept is where Susan Tyler‘s character gains hefty traction. For example, early in the film we become introduced to Susan as she is announcing and releasing the Judas Breed into the New York sewer system. Intimately involved in every step of the process, Susan not only spearheads the scientific creation of the mutant bug, she is the one to relay the information to the public and physically release the insects out into the world. Extremely cognizant of what she has done, we see her express early concerns over the potential long term impact. Although never dismissed, she is encouraged by those around her to celebrate the lives she has saved. While she stomped out one deadly issue, the weight of that action is yet to be felt…and she knows that. This expressed hyper-awareness of future hypotheticals lays the groundwork for her character’s actions when Judas does indeed crawl out of the sewer once again.
Further supporting Susan‘s character development and the idea of an ‘active role’ comes del Toro’s more general, big picture approach to her character’s place within the movie. Avoiding many common pitfalls that seem to plague similar female characters, Susan‘s gender identity continues to take a refreshing backseat throughout the movie. Her actions neither defined, confined, or determined by her gender, Susan‘s character is allowed to progress, react and evolve uncommented on. Notably devoid of male gaze throughout the film, Susan‘s wardrobe is relatively gender-neutral. Her professional and personal dynamics with other characters remains respectful. Her hair and makeup minimal and natural. Even when it comes to her desire to start a family with her husband, the balance of desire and responsibility is shared equally between the two characters. While it seems ridiculous to celebrate the fact that Susan‘s character is respected properly and never exploited for a cheap ‘comedic’ comment or viewer titillations, it is a reality many films have conditioned us to begrudgingly expect.
Once Susan discovers that her creation did not die off as intended, we see her approach the matter in a manner befitting of her profession and her character developed thus far. Calm, logical and rational, she is able to separate the reality of the situation and develop a solution to counter it. Realizing that her intentions did not result in actualities, she accepts the responsibility and works to correct the issue. Exhibiting a mature approach to this well-intentioned mistake, Susan has no issue with killing her darlings and thus further subverts similar representations in film. Self-less and determined, Susan moves into action, descending deeper and deeper into the sewers. Never once complaining about dirt, grime, danger or the various extenuating circumstances that have led up to this point, Susan fights this new strain of Judas with her own specialized knowledge.
“Even though Susan is resourceful and more than capable, she also has no problem accepting help from those around her. “
Even though Susan is resourceful and more than capable, she also has no problem accepting help from those around her. Mirroring the colony concept of the bugs she studies, each member of Susan‘s Judas Breed Extermination Squad has a role and something of value to contribute. Her husband (also a scientist and personally invested in his wife’s safety) understands the situation and offers another valuable set of hands while keeping Susan‘s pregnancy results secret for the time being. Understanding it’s neither the place nor the time, this withholding of information builds audience suspense while speaking towards his own character.
Leonard (Charles S. Dutton), the metro worker, contributes intimate knowledge of the underground tunnel system and outdated subway cars. Even Chuy, an inquisitive and special young boy, has learned to mimic the mimics, communicating with the creatures in his own unique way. Despite none of them having to be there, they are all there regardless. Subtly separating the group from the insect colony around them, this choice, this determined resolve to work together and do what’s right, highlights the beautiful potential inherent in humanity.
Along with the fascinating portrayal of Susan, Mimic stands as a visually impressive film. Saturated in rich, deep colors and intensely tangible textures, del Toro’s stylistic sentiment seeps out of every frame. Though Mimic was still early in his career, del Toro’s artistic vision comes across crystal clear and beautifully executed. Even the creature designs themselves are complex, terrifying and deliberately utilized with expert precision to best serve the story and build-up of suspense. As light and shadow play off the insects and the massive, gothic like set pieces, it becomes easy to see the path that del Toro would soon embark upon.
Eternally driven by the dark mysteries that haunt the recesses of our minds, the stories that propel our imaginations and tug at our humanity, del Toro’s passion and ability to manifest such ideas remains unparalleled. Though not his most acclaimed work, or even one of his own favorites, Mimic embodies this spirit, saving it from the trappings of dismissal and garnering it more than worthy of a second look.
“Part creature feature, part sci-fi horror, Mimic explores the classic man-playing-god concept in del Toro’s own unique way.”
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