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Open your mouth and say "AH"

When the beautiful entomologist rips open the chest cavity of a huge, bloodthirsty insect in the sci-fi nightmare Mimic, it turns into Thoraxic 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 just survived, but grown at a terrifying rate. Naturally, being brilliant scientists, our two intrepid doctors go off on their own. With no one to help them apart from 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--except 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 (unlike OH) 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, she 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 idiot savant who can not only name a shoe's type and size on sight, but can also play spoons in a way that imitates the deadly insects' clicking sounds. He somehow bonds with the chief insect scout, dubbing him "Mister Funny Shoes." The film's most campy and thus most amiable moment comes when the kid's Gepetto-like father, a subway shoeshine man with a fresh-from-Italia accent played by Giancarlo Giannini, 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 Mister 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 spelling out the premise. Even at the climax, the filmmakers can't decide what they're trying to say: Is it Us vs. Them? Or Them "R" Us? 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'd 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 apt derisive air to the role of the transit cop. But Del Toro's handling of the cast is witless. Why push F. Murray Abraham into smarmy close-ups as Dr. Tyler's mentor if he's not going to become an insect in disguise?

Unlike the sci-fi-horror flicks of the '50s, movies like Mimic are overly self-conscious about their visual design and completely unconscious of the possibilities for entertainment. The radioactive ants in Them! look pretty silly today, but at least you could see Them. Del Toro is so devoted to Gothic shadows in Mimic that he never gives you a full, satisfying gawk at his amazing flying Judases. (Alert to Mayor Giuliani: One previewgoer remarked, "New York is really dark!") If there was a kick to having nasty bugs upset the status quo in '50s America, in the '90s they come off as a predictable outgrowth of our everyday chaos. They're not haunting Creatures of the Id; they're disposable Creatures of the "Ick!"

Mira Sorvino and Jeremy Northam. Written by Guillermo Del Toro and Matthew Robbins, from a story by Donald A. Wolheim. Directed by Del Toro. Opens Friday.

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Michael Sragow

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