Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Guillermo Del Toro Roundtable #3: Mimic

Individual Reviews are useful, but criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of Screen Vistas, and we’ve got some things to say in the Guillermo Del Toro Roundtable.

Max’s Grade: 48/C+
Loren’s Grade: C (he doesn’t use the same idiotic 100-point scale I use)

Max O’Connell: After Cronos made a big splash in the independent film world, Del Toro worked a number of projects. Mostly it seems that he worked on The Devil's Backbone, but he also worked on stuff like a version of The Count of Monte Cristo for Francis Ford Coppola. Eventually he was approached by Miramax to contribute to a horror anthology film. For his section, Del Toro chose to adapt the short story "Mimic" by Donald A. Wollheim. Eventually it was decided that the short would be expanded into a feature film…perhaps Del Toro’s finest hour?

Loren Greenblatt: Mimic was Del Toro’s second feature film, and it has a lot of really interesting things that it completely undersells. It jumps around a lot. It starts off as a plague movie: there’s a plague that descends on New York City that’s spread by cockroaches…and then the cockroach plague is immediately cured by doctors who release genetically-engineered superbugs to kill the cockroaches. Then we jump forward three years and learn that the superbugs have evolved, grown huge, and can “mimic” human beings. It’s a bit like Jurassic Park in the “man interfering with nature” category.

MO: It’s really a lot like Jurassic Park.

LG: But with bugs!

MO: And it’s also a lot like Alien in terms of atmospheric horror and the second half of Aliens because they have to kill the bug hive.

LG: But not until the very end, which leads to the biggest problem: the idea of giant monster bugs that can imitate human beings is really cool, and the reveal of it is really cool, but it happens so late in the film that nothing can really happen with it. I kept waiting for one of the characters to turn out to be a bug person or something.

MO: There are a number of ideas that it flirts with but doesn’t really use or develop. Early on, they find a church full of people who have to be quarantined because they’ve been boxed up around this disgusting bug goo. I got the idea that they could have been infected with something, but that doesn’t really go anywhere.

LG: Yeah, nothing happens with them. They were just near the bugs, I guess.

MO: Then Mira Sorvino, who plays one of the main scientists, gets stung by one of the bugs, and you’d think that that’ll be something, but it doesn’t go anywhere.

LG: There’s a lot of busy work in this film to get padding to get to the underground bug lair. There’s a lot of characters who won’t show up again: there’s the street kids who deal exotic bugs to Mira Sorvino, and that’s neat, but nothing’s done with it. F. Murray Abraham shows up as Sorvino’s mentor but does nothing.

MO: He kind of feels like one of those slightly better known actors who was hired to give class to an old B-movie and all of their scenes are shot separate from everyone else.

LG: None of them really add very much. I’m going to say that almost every character in this film is completely superfluous.

MO: Del Toro usually has a talent of making minor characters memorable. Here, even the major characters feel underdeveloped. And these are good actors! Mira Sorvino- Oscar-winner (for a bad film, but she’s great). F. Murray Abraham, Oscar-winner. Josh Brolin is in this back when he was primarily known for The Goonies, but he would have that major comeback ten years later. He’s here essentially doing an impression of Brad Pitt’s character in Se7en, and he’s fine, but he’s not given a lot to do. Charles S. Dutton is a good actor, he’s not given a lot to do. Giancarlo Gianini’s a great actor, he’s given nothing to do. Almost everyone is wasted.

LG: I have no idea what the main character’s name was.

MO: I’ll do you one, better: who was the main character? Was it Sorvino or her husband, Jeremy Northam, the other scientist? Whose story was this?

LG: (stammering while answering this) That’s a good- uh- I have no clue! I guess Northam because he’s the one with the information that Sorvino is pregnant. That is actually kind of a nice idea that Del Toro will revisit in Hellboy 2 where they’re trying to get pregnant but can’t quite, and then one knows and the other doesn’t, but the roles reverse here. It’s kind of neat, since it ups his stakes, and it’s one of the better parts of the film.

MO: It is, though, I had seen the theatrical cut before this and that was completely discarded. There’s a scene where they have the pregnancy test, and it’s negative, and that’s it. A scene later in the Director’s Cut it turns positive, and Northam finds it. I felt that it was something wrong after she got stung.

LG: That would have been great, had it been something instead of nothing.

MO: Yeah, instead her being pregnant just adds to his urgency, I guess, since that was missing in the original cut, but it’s still not much.

LG: Now, you’ve seen the theatrical cut, and I decided to be the guy who’s only seen the Director’s Cut. Can you elaborate on the other differences in the cuts?

MO: Um…no. I can’t! There are so few differences that it hardly matters. Del Toro is famously not happy with this film because the Weinsteins took it away and forced him to shoot some things, didn’t let him shoot the bleak ending that he wanted. I’ve read the shooting script that he had prepared with a darker ending, and it’s still not very good, but it does have that. This cut, though, doesn’t have many differences from the theatrical other than a few added scenes that are completely arbitrary. There’s a scene where we meet Sorvino’s friend (who also doesn’t do anything). In the original, she tells a story about someone on a date trying to slip a roofie in her drink, and Sorvino exclaims “What a pervert!”. In this cut, she’s on a normal date, and she says the guy likes to wear ladies’ underwear, and Sorvino says, “What a pervert!”

LG: That’s perverted?

MO: That’s a downgrade, Del Toro, I don’t know why you changed that. But one of the more puzzling changes is a scene where Sorvino opens a box that has a superbug, and when she sees what’s in it, she says that they have to find those kids, with a panicked look on her face. Then it cuts back to a scene from the theatrical cut of her opening the box with a scalpel. Why did we include that? I was exasperated, because I was pretty sure that while he couldn’t take much from a shoot he wasn’t happy with, but there’s so little difference that I don’t even know why he bothered.

LG: To be fair, while he was writing this film his father was kidnapped in Mexico. Eventually he was released, but it caused Guillermo to move his family, and apparently he's never returned to Mexico because of it for the most part. That might have affected the writing. The film also got damaged by notes. For instance, Del Toro originally wanted the monsters to resemble beetles rather than roaches. The studio insisted on roaches, and yet after all the animatronics had been built they got angry that they looked like roaches. There were apparently some subplots that the studio cut out of the film. I know that one of the things Del Toro did do for this cut was replace as much of the second unit photography as he could with stuff he shot himself.

MO: Ah, well, that makes sense, I guess, if he could at least say he shot more of this version. It's still a film full of intriguing ideas that don't work, though. Here’s a couple of other ideas that don’t work: these bugs that mimic humans, how good are they at it?

LG: They’re terrible! There’s a wonderful shot where we see the two-part mask that’s part of their bodies that wraps around their face and looks…kind of like a human face. It works as a shot, but there’s no way this could pass. Maybe at night from a hundred feet away…

MO: …which, to be fair, there are a couple of scenes like that.

LG: But there’s no way these bugs could wander around in broad daylight or on the subway and pass as people. It’s just not happening. This already undercuts a huge amount of the dramatic possibilities of that idea. What’s the point of the bugs being able to mimic humans if they can't pass?

MO: They’re constantly evolving, so why not push it a little further?

LG: And again: it’s very late in the film when we learn this.

MO: I guess one of the bugs (played by Doug Jones, one of Del Toro’s main guys) walks around with a trench coat and a hat for a disguise, but I wonder how intelligent this bug is that he can do that, because we don’t really learn what makes these things tick.

LG: The idea is that because Mira Sorvino and Jeremy Northam messed with these bugs, their life cycle has progressed exponentially and they can evolve quickly because they have so many generations. That’s a great idea, but we don’t know if they’re super-intelligent.

MO: Also, Sorvino has a line about how they, like many bugs, learn to mimic their predators: US. But we weren’t even aware they were there! We didn’t do anything to them. The line makes no sense. And the thing is that the film plays with a lot of things Del Toro usually does well. This is the Frankenstein thing of scientists meddling in things they shouldn’t meddle with.

LG: But it explores it so similarly to Jurassic Park that we kept quoting that Jeff Goldblum line, “life will find a way”. Constantly.

MO: But Jurassic Park isn’t the only big 90s film that Mimic rips off, is it?

LG: This film looks different from a number of Del Toro films, as it wasn’t shot by Guillermo Navarro, and it has a slightly different feel. The film really, really wants to be Se7en. The credits are basically the same, but with butterflies and overblown, bombastic Marco Beltrami music.

MO: The most bombastic music in the world. We had to pause the movie and go out at one point, and we started mimicking the music for every minor action we did. turns on left-turn signal BWAAAAM. That’s how silly it is!

LG: And that’s ignoring the goofy soprano music singing to make it sound ominous. It’s turned way up to 11.

MO: It gets a little better in the second half, but for the first half the score will not shut the fuck up.

LG: Some of the griminess of it is also Se7en, though some of it is just natural Del Toro. Some of it is the way the film was lit. And I guess that’s fine, Se7en is a great film, but I don’t understand how that mood translates to the giant bug movie.

MO: I guess you can say that something else that’s more in the Del Toro vein is the use of religious iconography. How well does he use it here, and to what purpose?

LG: No real purpose. I’m not the Catholic here, but he doesn’t use it well. There are some images that are striking, like the angel statues wrapped in plastic, but that worked substantially better in Cronos. There’s a stigmata wound that Sorvino inflicts on herself with a crucifix, which is…cool, I guess. Bonus points for stigmata wounds?

MO: And the superbug is called the Judas Breed, obviously named after the Apostle who betrayed Christ…which, betraying your own kind, I guess? It’s not overplayed, but it’s not great, either. There’s also a priest who gets killed in the beginning while a neon “Jesus Saves” sign. That’s clever, but there’s really not much to it.

LG: Having a priest character could have been interesting, considering Del Toro’s status as a lapsed Catholic, but nothing comes of that either. Now, this is a film he’s not very satisfied with, but he likes bits of it, which he’s borrowed for later films to greater effect. In Blade II and Hellboy we’ll see underground societies and sewers, which he uses well. The pregnancy thing is in Hellboy 2.

MO: One thing that’s similar to Cronos and a few others is how he starts the film with a brief history of how we got to where we’ll be for the rest of the film, which is the plague-prologue. I don’t think it’s very well handled here. It’s rushing way too much.

LG: It works very little, and it makes us wonder why we couldn’t see that movie. I’d love to see a plague by the superbugs, or something, but here it just establishes the stakes and the backstory, but it doesn’t do much otherwise. Now, there are a lot of stylistic tropes that he uses well: the use of glowsticks as multi-colored lighting. It doesn’t have the fairytale elements that a lot of his films have, which, to be fair, not all of his films have fairytale elements, but this feels lacking for not having it.

MO: Right. I guess we could also mention that the film does look fantastic, and it’s very atmospheric at points. There’s one really great scene where Sorvino and her husband are investigating in this crevice in a subway station, and they drop a flashlight down a crack, and she has to stick her hand down to grab it. We see the bug under there, and it’s going to lash out, and it’s creepy.

LG: My favorite shot in the whole film happens after she’s been kidnapped by a giant superbug, and she’s trapped in the sewer. She looks up and calls for help, and out of the darkness you see the sun pouring in from the sewer grate, and they’re walking over it, unaware. It’s a gorgeous shot that really encapsulates how trapped she is in this world just beneath our feet. But it belongs to a better film.
MO: There’s a lot of set-pieces that belong to a better film. Josh Brolin’s death (a piece of second unit shot by Robert Rodriguez) is a fantastic set-piece, but it’s for a character we didn’t know very well.

LG: What was his name?

MO: Smartass. I actually think it was Josh, which I remember only because that’s his real name.

LG: Again, though, his character only exists for padding.

MO: But this goes even for the characters who stick it out until the end. Charles S. Dutton is given a memorable final moment. We learn that he sings blues songs when he’s scared, and he does that after he realizes that he’s going to die and he sacrifices himself to save everyone else. It’s an interesting moment, but we didn’t get to know much about him, so it’s all for naught.

LG: Yeah, I like that Del Toro wanted to create a living world full of people, but there's an art to making small characters feel like real people he hasn't mastered. If he cut out maybe half of these characters and focused on the ones that are around at the end, it’d be a much stronger script.

MO: Now, we need to talk about the kid. Del Toro is famous for using strange children in his movies. He has a strong sympathy for outsiders, since he kind of always felt like one. And he uses that in a really interesting way with a kid named Chuy, who’s the grandson of Giancarlo Gianini’s shoe-shine man on the subway. He’s autistic, and he’s got a Rain Man ability where he knows everything there is to know about shoes, and he has these spoons that he clicks together to mimic the sounds of different shoes walking. He also has a strange obsession with shiny wire that goes nowhere, but the spoons thing is interesting. When he first hears the clicking noises the bug makes, he refers to it as “Mr. Funny Shoes”, and he uses the spoons to try to mimic it. Because of that, when they kidnap him, they keep him alive because they recognize the sound.

LG: Is that why they have that?

MO: That’s what I gathered, though it’s not explained well. The thing I can say about how Del Toro uses the disabled child device is that it’s imaginative. But it’s still incredibly irritating as a device.

LG: Watching Cronos and Mimic, he hasn’t quite figured out how to make kids characters yet. When we get further on, he improves exponentially. Here, it feels like a missed opportunity, knowing just how far he’s going to come, because the kid really is just a device.

MO: I do like the wonderful gooeyness of the film, like in the scene they have to spread the bugs’ organs over themselves to mimic their scent. That’s a neat moment. 

LG: It’s kind of like the garlic-vampire thing.

MO: Or a “look like your predator” thing, in a way that’s way better than the way the film does it with the bugs. It’s a clever bit in a film that doesn’t have a lot going on. Can we talk about the cop-out ending?

LG: (loud groan) Earlier in the film, when the bug dealer kids visit Sorvino, she demonstrates how a bug colony works with a laser pointer and a giant model, and she shows just how the bug-queen relationship works. It’s a wonderful scene, and you expect that it’ll set-up the climax, but it doesn’t. It’s not a set-up for the bug colony or anything. The objective is the same, but the colony isn’t there. I don’t know if Del Toro didn’t have the budget or wasn’t allowed to shoot it, but whatever the situation was, what happens instead doesn’t work.

MO: And that’s only the first cop-out. The script had a bleaker ending that would have been at least more interesting, even though the rest of the script is still problematic (though, to be fair, I don’t know if it’s Del Toro’s original draft or a compromised one that was about to be compromised further).

LG: They went through many drafts. Apparently John Sayles did a draft that Del Toro loved but the studio hated, and Soderbergh wrote a very interesting version that just didn't work tonally with what Del Toro wanted the film to be.

MO: The ending I read was that after the bug colony is blown up, the kid and Sorvino are the only survivors. They come to the surface and most of the people around them are the bugs, but no one notices.

LG: So they actually use the mimic idea? That’s a fantastic ending!

MO: It’s undercut by how bad the bug disguises are, but whaddya gonna do? It’s a clever enough idea. Instead, we just see them blow up the bug nest and that’s that. It’s a conventional ending, a bit of a cop-out, but it’s not the worst one. We lamented that Jeremy Northam sacrifices his life in order to save Sorvino and the kid (not to mention his unborn child in the Director’s Cut) and kill the only male bug, which is what’s letting the bugs reproduce.

LG: Did we mention that this film rips off Jurassic Park?

MO: And he manages to kill all of the bugs except the male bug. Now you could say that this is a horror movie convention with the final scare, but it mostly just seems like he’s incompetent.

LG: You had one job, Jeremy Northam! ONE JOB!

MO: It’s basically just a final “eek!” moment so that Sorvino can kill the bug in a, quite frankly, not very interesting way.

LG: For a film that takes so much from James Cameron’s Aliens, maybe they should have taken the ending from Aliens, which would have worked well here.

MO: But the one thing I thought that I could say for this cop-out ending is that at least Del Toro’s central theme of self-sacrifice was present. We don’t enough about Northam for it to matter, but he sacrifices himself to keep his pregnant wife alive, so it’s theoretically a nice moment…though I don’t know why he doesn’t tell her she’s pregnant earlier, that might have kept her from doing some of these dangerous things.

LG: You’d think that might be important. He whispers it into her ear as the film ends, and that’s how she knows.

MO: Oh yeah, by the way, he really lives, so his sacrifice means nothing.

LG: It’s supposed to be a triumphant moment, but it feels like every bad Hollywood ending ever.

MO: But Del Toro usually does this so well! This is clearly a studio-imposed thing rather than Del Toro losing his nerve.

LG: I understand that Del Toro is only slightly happier with this version. He’ll at least put his name on it rather than disown it. It’s a well-made film, but even under the best circumstances, there’s not a great film in here. At best, it’d be a good B-movie.

MO: Doesn’t explore its ideas, the characters are thin, and while it’s atmospheric and well-directed, there’s plenty of moments where I was bored.

LG: I agree. This is the only time in this marathon where I’m going to give a film a negative rating. I’m giving this a C.

MO: I’m going C+, but it’s a low C+.

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  1. "Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link" - the link here is dead.

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  3. Good discussion. While I agree with most things said here, Mimic is still underrated compared to most 90-s sci-fi thrillers. It's way better than Event Horizon or The Faculty, and doesn't have an overal trashy feeling, rather a good movie where not everything went perfect. The visuals, design and photography are really good.