Back in the silly '50s, when the monster movie ruled with a prosthetic iron claw, the catalyst for any given animal mutation was a hefty toxic burst from an atomic bomb test. Flash forward 40 years into a world that's temporarily holstered its nuclear warheads and the monster-making radiation has been replaced with the new scientific bogeyman - - genetic engineering. Otherwise it's business as usual in one of cinema's most enduring, easily most ridiculous genres - and Mimic expresses no intention of challenging such tried-and-tested familiarities.
Indeed, you could write the plot on a dwarf's napkin. Scientist inadvertently creates race of mutant cockroaches; 'roaches develop a taste for humans; scientist vows to destroy creation; scientist accidentally involves a group of strangers; strangers become monster fodder; scientist confronts creation; scientist survives for big splattery finale. But as any amateur food-heater knows, it's not the ingredients, it's how you lob them together that counts. So while the not entirely dissimilar Relic failed because it hiked gore above shocks, Mimic succeeds in creating the kind of unsettling atmosphere where mutants threaten to thrash out of the subterranean scenery at any time.
Having wowed indie audiences with his twisted vampire flick Cronos, Mexican auteur Guillermo Del Toro pulls off his American debut with considerable skill. His background in special effects ensures the swarm of monsters pack a punch, but more surprisingly he also displays a visual flair largely alien to such hokum: the textures of the tobacco-stained streets serve as a queasy contrast to the filthy indigo of the underground where objects hang in the shadows.
He also shows a talent for good ol' audience manipulation through a succession of arse-jumping shocks that are well telegraphed in advance but remain scarily effective, and even brushes brilliance during a seat-jerking set-piece in which the axe-pincered cockroaches assault a subway car.
Of course, it's still shamelessly derivative stuff: the central rogue-genetic theme is utterly Jurassic Park (at one point, F Murray Abraham even has the balls to croak: "Evolution has a way of making things survive!") and Mimic flashes more than its fair share of winks at the Alien series. The lair of bulging eggs, the evolving creature, the tell-tale sticky gloop and the claustrophobic tunnel chases are the stuff of Cameron and Scott. But in an age when cribbing is considered something of an art form, Del Toro's vision of a scary monster movie is way closer to the original jittery Alien ethic than the jokey, misguided mess of Alien: Resurrection. And Sorvino does a decent enough Ripley impersonation too.
But this is a stupid monster movie, right? Gore, shocks, slashing, screaming: all fitted as standard. So if you're willing to forgive plot holes you could steer Titanic through, then get ready to throw your brain out of the window, dig your fingernails into your arm-rest and prepare yourself for a satisfyingly nasty, but blissfully predictable, creature feature. After all, any movie that dubs the lead monster `Mr Funny Shoes' has got to have something going for it...