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“Death Becomes Her,” directed by Robert Zemeckis

death becomes her

By Ray Sawhill

Meryl Streep’s performance in Robert Zemeckis’ new movie “Death Becomes Her” doesn’t wipe out memories of the hours of classy boredom she’s inflicted — instead, it makes amusing use of them. As a dragon-lady star of stage and screen, Streep scrawls nasty things on “Meryl Streep,” the A-student. (In all fairness, it must be admitted that for several pictures — “She-Devil,” “Postcards from the Edge,” “Defending Your Life” — she has been trying to subvert her image.) An immaculate performer, she doesn’t have the messiness or the subterranean qualities that true popular stars have. Here, her performance is like a Mad magazine parody of a Streep performance, only she’s giving it herself — and she has edge and dirt. You can finally see what people who saw her on stage have always said they saw — a sense of fun. She may be constitutionally incapable of cutting loose; even her yowls and hisses are impeccably modulated. But her control is part of the joke, and she seems wise to it.

“Death Becomes Her” is a striking horror comedy about glamour and the desire for eternal youth — an enjoyably malicious Hollywood act of self-desecration. Streep is the aging star; Goldie Hawn is the dormouse best friend, whose fiancés Streep keeps stealing. They play female drag queens, scrapping to the death over a guy who isn’t worth it (and who knows he isn’t worth it) — a plastic surgeon played by Bruce Willis. Isabella Rossellini, in a low-slung sarong and Salomé necklaces, is a siren with an elixir that defies time and aging. Her presence, with its echoes of cosmetic ads and of her mother, kicks the movie into fantasyland.

The screenwriters, David Koepp and Martin Donovan, have described their script as “Night of the Living Dead as Noel Coward would have done it” — it’s pure camp ghoulishness and bitchiness. Robert Zemeckis’ direction is all boyish exuberance and technological hi-jinks. Zemeckis, who is known for his mock-heroic, Moebius-strip action comedies such as “Used Cars” and the “Back to the Future” series, goes for debonair comic poise. But the film still has its rambunctiousness — it’s like an Ealing comedy as the young Steven Spielberg might have directed it.

As a failure who’s out of his league, half-boozed and skidding around corners, Willis doesn’t just play against type. He creates a convincingly small man with ordinary failings and wholesome goals; he’d like to live out a Capra film but he’s caught up in a Puccini opera. Goldie’s a joy in her scenes with Meryl when they’ve made up after their feuds — they’re girls together again, finishing each other’s sentences. And when Goldie’s weight balloons in misery — itself a joke on the actress’s obvious fanaticism about her figure — she seems inspired. If she’s not as successful in her other scenes, this isn’t just because her own features have clearly gotten some surgical tune-ups but because she hasn’t figured out a Phyllis Diller-like way of acknowledging and enjoying the improvement. On some level she’s still hoping we won’t notice.

Zemeckis plays with elements straight out of horror films: turrets, mirrors, shadows, fireplaces, arches, thunder and lightning. It’s “Kane” and it’s “Frankenstein,” with the iconography used not for depth and resonance (however pseudo), but cartoonishly. (And the special effects are used for L.A.-gothic shivers.) Zemeckis, the misanthropic puppet-master — the filmmaker as mad-scientist/cartoonist — is too cold-hearted to achieve beauty, but he gives the film a spooky, layered, visual splendiferousness. He wraps the action in oversized marble staircases and columns that are a parody of Hollywood postmodern/baronial luxe. They’re meant to contrast with the characters’ pettiness and narcissism. This epic décor is a joke about how the glamour factory is also a horror factory where people try to turn themselves into monuments to themselves. The composer Alan Silvestri partners Zemeckis, heightening the already-overdone Hollywood thing and making it even more absurdly grand.

Zemeckis has the soul of a mid-American media-junkie kid. He’s frankly in love with speed and cheapness, over-the-top-ness, camera hysteria, genre clichés — with the vulgarity of film, and with the ways movies can overstimulate us. His style expresses the uncontrollable enthusiasm of a small boy turned on by the huge movie image and engulfing music.

But the film’s combination of wit and physicality unnerves some people, as though you ought to be allowed only one or the other. These people find Zemeckis’ perversity and excitement an assault; they want to be asked to care for the characters on screen. Zemeckis never asks you to believe in what he’s showing you; in his films, human values exist only to be mocked.

Zemeckis excites us, then needles our responsiveness to the movie image — not for an art effect, but strictly for our entertainment. He’s a companionable sadist. Like Joe Dante and Brian De Palma, Zemeckis can seem crude, dumb and childish to Europeans, and to people who cling to European-style notions about art and seriousness. He’s the opposite of an art movie-maker; the tradition he’s working in is of overbright commercial entertainment. Yet in “Used Cars” and “Death Becomes Her,” he provokes some of the same responses Buñuel sometimes did. (It’s another sign of how well-digested “revolutionary” as an aesthetic criterion has become that people who have learned to appreciate surrealism and to talk with approval of its revolutionary intent get riled by “Death Becomes Her.”)

Zemeckis gives viewers no moral vision to hang onto; putting over his cartoon effects is his only morality. Streep’s noggin gets bopped and her neck breaks and hinges over backwards, leaving her head hanging upside down between her shoulder blades. Goldie Hawn rises from being shot, angry as hell and with a hole a foot wide in her gut. It’s cheerfully gruesome and macabre — pop Buñuel.

“Death Becomes Her” is such a rowdy hunk of polished malevolence that it made American media people fret and freak when it was released this summer. It’s a kick watching the hypersensitivities erupt — adults grow touchy about the things they threw darts at as kids. Variety’s scorecard of critics’ reactions showed 14 negative and only five positive reviews. David Denby proclaimed from on high, or least in New York magazine, that it was all he could do to refrain from calling the film the worst big-budget movie he’d ever seen: “anxiety, loathing and self-hatred gush from its pores,” he thundered. (When evil needs crushing Denby’s your man.) Even the people who devised the publicity campaign felt it necessary for the ads to spell out that the film is a black comedy.

Perhaps just raising the topic of women and aging is enough to put some people in the mood not to laugh, and to make them find a film cruel to its women characters. It’s probably no use pointing out that the film is cruel to everyone, and that’s the fun — pleasure in amoral vindictiveness is not the kind of fun these people want from a movie. Of course Zemeckis sees his women as monsters. But he’s also tickled by their overblown crass vitality and their cut-throat determination to have things their way. The plastic surgeon, who wants to live out a normal lifespan and redeem himself with humane works, is cackled at. He’s a sucker, a softie who wants to do good — he’s like the people in the audience who are horrified by the film.

Zemeckis apparently lacks the desire to do anything elevated in tone. (He’s an anti-do-gooder.) But it may be that his mean-spiritedness is what gives him staying power and keeps his work enjoyable. He has made a few films some of us have regarded as duds (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”, “Back to the Future II”); he has asked us to care about his characters a few times (“Romancing the Stone,” “Back to the Future”); and this film has some glitches of logic. But throughout the whole of his career (it began in 1978 with “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”), he has never once romanticized his feelings, not even his feelings about movies.

Cheerfully lowbrow, Zemeckis’ pictures can be wonderfully complicated and suggestive. “Death Becomes Her” may get you thinking about how the overlapping themes of time-travel and of bringing the dead back to life are among the most potent themes of pop movies. And, like all his films, it’s full of screens, reflections, frames and projections. You could set a team of grad students to work on such topics as “Zemeckis’ use of blue-screen effects,” or “the foreground/background joke,” or “contraptions, toys and models as metaphors for the filmmaking process,” or “old movie cannibalization and the new movie image,” and keep them busy for years. But Zemeckis doesn’t get poetic; he gets the giggles. His hall of mirrors is located at the suburban multiplex.

©1992 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

“Misson to Mars,” directed by Brian De Palma

Space Rhapsody

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By Ray Sawhill

Last Saturday, after a week of media-free living in Mexico, my wife and I walked into a San Diego movie theater, where we watched a new science fiction picture in the company of a modest crowd. At first I was intrigued by its quiet tone. Some awkward moments made me worry that the film might lose its audience, but the crowd remained attentive. Then some passages of extraordinary beauty and daring took me another step in. By the film’s end I was quite moved. I spent the rest of the evening happily babbling about what the movie had made me feel and think.

The movie was Brian De Palma’s “Mission to Mars,” and only when we arrived in New York and I tuned back into the media did I learn what readers who follow the press’s coverage of movies already know — that “Mission to Mars” got the year’s worst reviews, a spanking almost as severe as that received by an earlier De Palma film, “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Friends told me of press screenings where viewers jeered the film, and after a first weekend of strong business, audiences for the film are growing sparse. The reviewers’ criticisms? The movie is slow, it’s unconvincing, it’s preposterous, it’s over-solemn. Rumor has it that De Palma was so humiliated by his notices that he canceled all his publicity dates after the reviews came out. “Mission to Mars,” the world seems to have concluded, just doesn’t work.

Beg to differ: it sure worked for me. I’d like to suggest that it might work for some other viewers too — at least if you don’t go to it expecting a big corporate space jam. Instead, it’s introverted and reflective, less a conventional clash-of-conflicting-desires drama than a mournful, sweet ballad on the themes of fate, adventure, and near misses. It’s narrative poetry in the guise of an outer-space adventure — not such a strange combination, if you think of something like “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

It has to be admitted that De Palma’s movies are a special case. He has never had much gift for conventional persuasiveness. The acting in his movies can look college-production awkward, and, although he has featured such actors as Robert De Niro and John Travolta early in their careers, he sometimes makes bumbling casting mistakes. (Here, Armin Muehler-Stahl is as heavy-spirited and hammy as ever.) De Palma has always struck me as a born avant-gardist, a Donald Barthelme or Godard type who has applied himself conscientiously to the making of conventional pop movies. Perhaps he appeals most to people for whom art is a game anyway, and who don’t need a lot of persuading in order to join in.

For those who do find his wavelength, “Mission to Mars” offers a jaunty and gallant Tim Robbins; Don Cheadle doing a good job of suggesting mental horsepower and technical expertise; and a real find in Connie Nielsen, a poised Swedish beauty who suggests Isabella Rossellini with a couple of advanced degrees. There are some beautifully done stretches where De Palma takes you inside the kinds of mental states you might experience during moments of panic, as well as unusual moments when you’re drawn into a character’s cerebrations. Gary Sinise, playing a hurtin’ astronaut who feels he has nothing to lose, may not be the ideal actor for this role — he’s gloomy where he needs to be warm — but he comes through at his best here. The movie also offers some silent-movie style visual poetry, corny, obvious images that are transcended by feeling and audacity.

It also offers genuine thought and reflection — and not the usual art-and-entertainment-world, gender/power/class/race crapola. De Palma is genuinely a science-idea-driven filmmaker. When I interviewed him some years ago, I found him guarded and perverse. Then I ventured the thought that I was convinced his thriller “The Fury” — like “Mission to Mars,” occasionally preposterous on the surface but brilliant underneath — was really all about cybernetics (a science that studies feedback and control, and that has been of intense interest to people in computers and neuroscience), and riffed on how the film’s themes, organization and staging suggested circuitry and feedback loops of both the electronic and organic type.

He brightened up and told me he’d written a thesis in college on cybernetics, and from then on the interview went swimmingly. (The Times the other day ran a story about some scientists who have proposed that a meteorite shower millions of years ago perhaps seeded the earth — an idea not far from one of the major ideas in the film.) “Mission to Mars” could be said to be about the human cost of our involvement in our ideas and adventures, and about how that cost makes us ask ourselves some of the big questions: Why, for instance, are we forever getting ourselves into these predicaments? And what are the sources of our drives?

Here are some tips about what to watch for in the film. Look for circles and spirals, the way circles are always morphing into spirals, and the ways De Palma associates these shapes with dance and rhythm: the pulsing double helixes, the twister that swallows the crew in the first act, the way blood and soda spiral around in weightlessness — images that made me, for one, gasp at their beauty. Even the film’s telescoping narrative suggests a spiral — it begins in great circling camera moves set to swirling Louisiana music, moves through several apparent protagonists, and ends with a blastoff through a column of luminous swirling debris.

Watch for the use of toys, models and rehearsals. An early emergency occurs when a micrometeorite breaks through a touch-screen the astronauts are using to prepare for dealing with emergencies. Suddenly they’re contending with an emergency they had no way of anticipating.

The film begins with a visual joke — a rocket blastoff that turns out to be a toy rocket. By the final blastoff, real lives are at stake. De Palma is talking about the way we seem to be moving from an industrial culture that demands certitude and explanation to an information culture, where everything is a matter of probability and we try to comprehend the world by making models of it. Kubrick, our only other truly intellectual feature-filmmaker, got the respect for his brains (even for “Eyes Wide Shut” !) that De Palma has never gotten — perhaps because the later Kubrick always maintained a magisterial, Euro-serious manner. De Palma is more American and boyish; he at least tries to deliver the pop goods.

You’ve never seen a movie where so much of it is upside down, circular, or rotating. De Palma swoops in, right through windows and other barriers, on his space-suited characters as they float about, or walk around in circles. He’s suggesting the fun and fact of weightlessness, of course, but also the giddiness of that domain we’re all getting to know called cyberspace, and perhaps the experience of thought itself. Watch also for the way the number three keeps recurring, and let yourself play with its resonances and suggestions: mother/father/child, the three acts of conventional drama, the three main parts of the human body, the three orders of classical architecture. The Christian Trinity, also: De Palma makes a point of always having someone say, when experiencing terror or surprise, “Jesus,” or “My God.”

There’s a real vision here — of life as a game that, whether we want it to or not, will always get serious on us; an almost Tantric vision of women (the circle) and men (the column) attaining occasional bliss (the spiral) together; of art and religion as the outs that our fate occasionally permits us. And it’s a vision of the place of ideas and belief in our lives. The film might be said to be a meditation on origins and destinies, couplehood and death, and the fate of pictorial storytelling in the age of the computer — motifs and themes that are braided through the film with a complexity that suggests two great late Chris Marker films, “Sans Soleil” and “The Last Bolshevik.”

Why did the press come down so heavily on “Mission to Mars”? On a surface level, the film certainly isn’t as convincing or dynamic as it perhaps ought to be. But there’s plenty of high-quality urgent realism to be had these days — “Law and Order,” for instance, is on TV nearly every night. Why insist on it from every work of dramatic entertainment? Some reviewers complained that when emergencies occurred, the astronauts remained too poker-faced. But many people enter a deliberate, calm state during emergencies. Do we really need the usual flashing red lights, and extras rushing about as though supplying background action for “E.R.”? The film is certainly unusual — internalized, yet played out as spectacle. But at least some reviewers are familiar with the likes of Tarkovsky’s legendary “Solaris,” the winner of no one’s awards for plausibility or peppy editing. And is the film’s much-ridiculed dialog really worse than the dialog in “2001” or “Aliens”? Really? The film was even mocked for its space creature — but she struck me as a witty fusion of the Roswell alien and a Cambodian Buddha, along with suggestions of E.T.; in a nice touch, her frog eyes echo Sinise’s.

Is it unfair of me to wonder aloud whether, at a time when ironic or edgy media gloating is the preferred tone, the film’s combination of intellectuality and emotional straightforwardness was hard for reviewers to process? But perhaps they really just didn’t enjoy the film. Too bad — there’s much there to love. Here’s my tip for those who know and respond to some of De Palma’s work: “Mission to Mars” is one of his tender, personal films, like “Blow Out” and “Casualties of War.” For those who have never tuned in to his movies, this isn’t the one that will win you over, though I don’t think even on a surface level it’s as bad as it’s been made out to be.

For everyone else: Why not try “Mission to Mars”? If you don’t mind forgiving some surface gaffes and letting the film’s deeper structures go to work on you, you might find yourself enjoying some unusual visions. Late in the film, Sinise is being prepared for a long journey. He steps into a lighted circle, is encased in a glass column (those circles! those columns!), and is submerged in a clear, roiling liquid. In a panic, he holds his breath until he can’t hold it anymore. The air finally bursts out of him — but then he finds he can get oxygen from the fluid. Is he a baby in a womb or a living exhibit? Is he dying or in ecstasy? In any case, this questing, melancholy searcher is finally going home. “Mission to Mars” is a nerd’s rhapsody.

©2000 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.

“Liquid Sky,” directed by Slava Tsukerman

liquid sky

By Ray Sawhill

As “Liquid Sky” begins, a pie-plate-size flying saucer lands on an apartment building. Soon after, the sex partners of a sullen model begin dying just as they reach climax. A low-budget art-house hit directed by a Soviet émigré named Slava Tsukerman, this film is a curiosity. Part science-fiction thriller, part Warhol-style spoof of Manhattan’s punk music and fashion scene, it takes a dry, faintly burlesque look at its wild material. The lighting is lurid, the new-wave décor and costumes are amusingly garish, and the oompah-music score is a pleasing reminder of the avant-garde of the 1920s.

Given all that, it’s too bad that “Liquid Sky” never really turns into much of anything. Too many scenes don’t play conventionally and don’t work as camp. And some of the performances are lousy enough even in fun-bad-acting terms to be downright painful. The cast does have one standout: Anne Carlisle, who plays a young male drug addict as well as the model. Big and strong-shouldered, yet with some of the debauched-thoroughbred look of an Edie Sedgwick, Carlisle is fascinating to watch. In one of the movie’s most effective scenes, she steps out onto a terrace and implores the aliens inside the tiny spaceship to accept her. The sky is black, the wind blows through her lacy dress, and her eyes are soft but demented. “You can feed on me if you want to,” she offers. The moment has a voluptuous, Gothic glamour.

©1983 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission

“The Cooler,” directed by Wayne Kramer

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By Ray Sawhill

I found “The Cooler” sweet and absorbing. Praise the lord: it isn’t a flashy electronic-media thing. And, although it was shot in six weeks for very little money, it’s full of real acting, real writing, and real filmmaking. It’s an experience to sink into, not to be wiped out by.

Whether or not you enjoy the film may depend on how well you tolerate several things: the neonoir form; and fairy tales about little people, Lady Luck, and Vegas. I fell for the whole package. William Macy gives his most William Macy performance ever as an über-loser who’s such a sadsack that he’s employed by a casino to ruin people’s luck. He’s The Cooler: all it takes to cool someone’s good run is for Macy to walk on by. Maria Bello plays a gorgeous ragamuffin whose hopes have come to naught but whose emotions aren’t yet extinct. Alec Baldwin is the scummy oldstyle casino owner whose schemes throw Macy and Bello together.

As far as I was concerned, the film isn’t in the same class as the best of the semi-recent neonoirs, “The Grifters” and “Croupier.” Main reason: an overlong third act, during which the filmmakers run their characters through every possible narrative variation, a few of which struck me as skippable. But I was very happy spending a couple of hours in the film’s world. The actors, who let it all hang out in many lovely ways, show a lot of talent, skill, and gusto; the smallscale, bluesy atmosphere is enchanting; and the tough/tender, make-believe tone is pitch perfect.

©2006 by Ray Sawhill

“Bull Durham,” directed by Ron Shelton

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By Ray Sawhill

Set in baseball’s minor leagues and written and directed by Ron Shelton, who spent five years in the minors himself, “Bull Durham” is a comic, engaging mix of burliness and delicacy. It gives, in movie terms, a version of the so-stirring-they’re-funny emotions that sports events sometimes deliver, and it’s full of scenes that are instant classics.

As it begins, a soul-gospel voice soars over sepia photos of baseball heroes, and Susan Sarandon, in a voice-over, explains that to her baseball is a religion. She plays a baseball groupie in perhaps her mid-30s. Kevin Costner is a seasoned catcher nearing the end of his playing career who’s sent to the Durham, N.C., Bulls by their parent organization to break in a gifted but loutish young pitcher, played by Tim Robbins. Every year, Sarandon tells us, she takes one of the Bulls as her lover, and every year that lucky man has his best baseball year ever. This year she picks the kid, even as she and Costner size each other up over the kid’s head.

The film is about how to make the magic happen, or at least how to nudge it along — about how the ability to “throw smoke,” while exciting, doesn’t last long and isn’t everything. The kid has a hot arm and a hot dick, and he can’t figure out why Costner and Sarandon don’t think that’s enough. On the field, Costner faces him down, forcing him to mix his pitches up and obey the catcher’s signals; in the bedroom, Sarandon lures him into taking his time, and into letting her enjoyment become part of his pleasure.

The film has a goofy, sweet side that takes off from the fact that everyone in it is a baseball fan, even the ball players. When Costner tells his teammates about a few weeks he spent in the majors, there’s the kind of hush there might be if an Elvis nut were telling others about the day he shook hands with the King. When the kid is having a bad streak, Sarandon, who is taken with pop forms of mysticism, urges him to pay attention to his chakras, to be sure to breathe through his eyelids, and to wear one of her black garterbelts under his uniform. Costner laughs when he finds out, but respects her suggestions; after all, they might work.

Ron Shelton brings his own kind of seasoning to the picture. In addition to having spent time in the minors, he’s an experienced yarn spinner; he worked on the script of “Under Fire” and wrote “The Best of Times.” As a director, he’s warm and rowdy with actors, and he’s sly and deceptively lackadaisical; his story points always arrive with a lot more stuff on them that he’s led you to expect. The minor-league setting helps keep things colorful and in perspective — the spotlights are pointed elsewhere, so the people here can wear their idiosyncrasies more openly. Robbins makes a wonderful musclehead, and Costner and Sarandon seem ideally cast; they’re skillful, spirited actors — team players. And the film has a kind of daring in its suggestion that the Costner character — someone who never made it big, who’s on his way out and to whom almost no one has ever paid much attention — has his own accomplishments and points of legitimate pride. Yet it doesn’t sentimentalize, mythologize or romanticize him. We see that he gets by on tenacity, concentration and brains, and that he has managed to learn that there are concerns more important than making it in “the show,” which is minor-league slang for the majors.

©1988 by Ray Sawhill

“Blind Beast,” directed by Yasuzo Masumura

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By Ray Sawhill

Yasuzo Masumura had studied law and philosophy in college and filmmaking in Rome and he had apprenticed with Ichikawa and Mizoguchi before he began to make his own movies in the mid-1950s.

His 1969 “Blind Beast” is a psychodrama that suggests early Bertolucci (“Partner,” say) crossed with Butoh. It’s a kinky study of a blind sculptor who, with the help of his possessive mom, kidnaps a vampy model; he’s a virgin and an artist, and he wants to put his heightened sense of touch to use creating a masterpiece of sculpture. When the sexy model starts to mess with her naive captor’s mind, mama-san ain’t pleased and the film’s kink-factor goes into overdrive.

Most of “Blind Beast” takes place in a large, stark set whose decoration consists of casts of oversize body parts, as well as two enormous soft-sculptured women’s torsos. The anguished, hysterical characters — who spend a lot of time groping each other — dart and crawl around a stagey space that’s like what Noguchi designed for Martha Graham. It don’t get more primal than that.

My verdict is that the film is divided about 50/50 between the boringly pretentious and the entertainingly perverse. I loved an outlandish early scene, for instance, when the model spies on the sculptor, who is fondling a sculpture another artist made of the model. As the blind sculptor caresses the scupture’s private spots, the model gasps and convulses as though he’s touching her. Whew. It’s all very ’60s, but it’s short, it’s well-lit, and it has a dozen memorable far-out moments. And Mako Midori — who plays the self-centered, amoral model — has a crisp, Carnaby-Street-style beauty, as well as a lot of talent.

©2007 by Ray Sawhill

“Mimic,” directed by Guillermo del Toro

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By Ray Sawhill

“Mimic” is undoubtedly the best mutant-cockroach horror thriller ever made. Even granting that there hasn’t been much competition, this is intended as a high compliment. The director Guillermo (“Cronos”) del Toro’s giddy, elegant scare picture is also a mutant among current movies: it never sacrifices its story or characters to its special effects, and its thrills aren’t extensions of theme parks or videogames. It works on your emotions rather than your nerves.

The script, from a short story by Donald Wolheim, tells a classic nature-takes-revenge-on-us-for-messing-with-her story. Mira Sorvino and Jeremy Northam are scientists who have stopped a cockroach-borne epidemic in New York City by releasing genetically engineered roaches programmed to breed and then die. A few years later signs of a different problem appear: some of the designer bugs may have outwitted their DNA, mutating into scary new forms. The two scientists set out to solve the problem they have created.

A virtuoso at tension and atmosphere, Del Toro orchestrates sounds, shadows and textures with expressionist malice, and sets the action amid damp, vaulted spaces and in tunnels full of forgotten industrial debris — the city as a roach nest. Sorvino, with her air of Yuppie expertise and her face puffy with guilt and fear, is touching as the top bug-fighter. Playing her mentor, F. Murray Abraham hits eerie bass notes. Charles S. Dutton, warm and humorous, is the cop who leads the team underground.

As a yuck!-and-eek! extravaganza, the film is an effective successor to “Scream” — audiences at New York previews have been shrieking, giggling and talking back to the screen. Yet “Mimic” is also a feast for film buffs, recalling such cult favorites as 1985’s “Re-Animator” and the Italian vampire and horror movies of the ’60s. In one long sequence, the investigators take shelter in an abandoned subway car deep under the city. All around are scaffolding and crud; above, far out of reach, beckons an enormous, befogged skylight. The image has the flamboyant poetry that silent movies are still treasured for. Then the giant cockroaches attack. “Mimic” is just an exploitation movie with artistic touches, but it gives us the creeps about all the creatures we share our cities with.

©1997 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.