The cronos device looks like a golden cockroach like that of Mexican mythology.
The golden cockroach cronos device does provide eternal life.
Jesus becomes addicted to the immortality offered by the device.
The transformation turns Jesus into a creature of the night.
Jesus now craves blood. Immortality has monstrous repercussions.
De la Guardia seeks the immortality Jesus has found in the device.
Angel represents the Angel of death in the film.
Angel and Jesus battle for the cronos device.
The mechanism reveals that a cockroach runs the internal workings of the device.
We see the cockroach only briefly inside the device.
Jesus begins to lose his humanity as the device changes him.
Aurora revives Jesus after a final battle with Angel.
The film introduces the negative associations with cockroaches and eternal life when Angel learns of the archangel statue and seeks to retrieve it for his dying uncle and benefactor, de la Guardia. Angel also initiates the change from the warmth of the Gris home and antique shop to the cold lifelessness of the de La Guardia factory and residence. There his uncle lives in a germ-free environment lit like a horror setting. Such a change of setting deliberately draws on the chiaroscuro of gothic film, according to del Toro’s production notes.
Jesus’s first encounter with the Cronos device then begins to disrupt the warmth of his home and shop as it begins to transform him from human to immortal insect vampire. Although it looks like a wind-up toy with a playful display, the device pierces Jesus’s palm, leaving a pool of blood. Jesus seems to react with thirst to the sting, drinking nearly a pitcher of water directly out of the refrigerator. A plate of meat seems to arouse him and it begins to glow and turn even more blood red. When the hunger grows more powerful, he uses the device again, exposing the cockroach mechanism that controls it. Aurora watches from the head of the stairs as the device begins to work and Jesus recites the Lord’s Prayer. We then see the inner workings of the device as it penetrates him. Clock gears turn and fill a cockroach with fluid. When it finishes, the device disconnects. The next morning Jesus awakens feeling and looking younger, even shaving off his moustache. When he enters the kitchen, though, Jesus lowers the blinds because the light bothers him, an act that begins to expose the repercussions associated with this kind of eternal life.
Jesus’s renewed life force also triggers a counterattack from de la Guardia. When a revived grandpa Jesus goes to his shop, the lock has been broken, and the shop is in shambles. A card has been left there with Angel’s name on it and a note, “We are open all night.” When Jesus enters the de la Guardia factory, he leaves the warmth of his antique shop and home behind. It is almost as dark and gray in de la Guardia’s enormous room. Because he is dying, de la Guardia will do anything to get the device and prolong his life, even with his own cancerous body parts in jars around him. Now that he has tasted its results, however, Jesus will not relinquish it. Instead, he again applies the device, broaching cockroach mythology as he anthropomorphizes its contents, asking it as it completes its work, “Who are you, little one?” he asks. “A god?” He has not yet acknowledged his own transformation into something close to the insect from which he draws eternal life.
At a New Year’s party, however, the disastrous repercussions of Jesus’s transformation become clearer. Jesus and his wife Mercedes (Margarita Isabel) act like young lovers until another guest gets a nosebleed and rushes to the restroom. Jesus follows and focuses intently on the man’s blood, nearly licking it off the sink before another guest cleans it. More blood is on the floor, so Jesus kneels down and begins to lick it slowly. Insect noises seem to accompany his thirst, suggesting he is turning into a man-sized cockroach like the one inside the device. Angel disturbs his feeding when he knocks him unconscious. When Jesus awakens, he is at the wheel of a car, and Angel pushes it over a cliff. At the bottom, Jesus exclaims, “I don’t want to die today” and thinks of Aurora, even after his body is carted off to a funeral home where he escapes before being cremated.
The final battle between warm and cold, good and evil, and the cockroach’s life-giving and treacherous qualities occurs because Jesus wants to escape the horror he has become. To better use the device or to stop his pain, Jesus must find the alchemist’s book in the de la Guardia factory. Aurora follows and finds the book, but the relevant pages are missing. De la Guardia has eaten them and declares that Jesus has been reborn. To illustrate this rebirth, de la Guardia peels off Jesus’s old useless skin, revealing the white new skin beneath it. Jesus needs human blood, de la Guardia explains, and now can survive like any bloodsucking insect. When Jesus gives de la Guardia the Cronos device to be free of the curse it contains, de la Guardia attacks him with the sharp end of his cane. “You don’t even bleed right,” he says, but before he can pierce Jesus’s heart, Aurora smashes the old man’s head, killing him.
The battle between the two opposing forces connected with the device and its insect center are resolved when Jesus defeats Angel during the fight’s climax. To save himself and his family, Jesus falls with Angel off the factory’s neon sign, suggesting a merging of the warmth of the neon and the cold of the factory. Angel is dead, but Aurora revives Jesus with the device. When Aurora seems ready to sacrifice herself for him, giving him her blood with one word, “Grandpa,” Jesus draws on the humane qualities deep within him and smashes the device, freeing himself and his family from his curse. The last shot of the film shows him in his new skin, lying in bed with Aurora beside him. Mercedes enters the room, and they share a loving family moment before his death.
In these last scenes, immortality and the cockroach device that produces it are constructed as immoral and, as de la Guardia presents it, evil. Jesus may have become a literal Christ figure with his ultimate sacrifice for the common good. But he has also merged with the cockroach from which he draws his longevity and sought an “unnatural” eternal life. As Roger Ebert suggests, “There is always something shameful … about being unwilling to die when your time has come. Cronos adds a religious edge to this moral claim, demonstrating perhaps that an Earthly immortality is a “greater punishment” than death, since our role in this world is “to prepare for the next” (Ebert). Because this immortality is associated explicitly with the cockroach—both the golden cockroach exterior of the device and its inner insect workings—it too must be destroyed.
Ultimately, Cronos and the other cockroach horror films discussed here also make a larger statement about people’s exploitation of the natural world. In these films, such exploitation turns insects into monsters, creating a monstrous nature that must be eradicated. Although the level of anthropomorphizing in these films coincides to a certain extent with the quality of treatment the insects receive, whether the films in question highlight the positive or negative qualities of cockroaches has no effect on this lethal conclusion.
Unlike insect horror films highlighting less repulsive bugs like butterflies and moths, cockroach horror films anthropomorphize roaches to reveal their monstrous human-related qualities even though the cockroach is, in fact, seen in a more positive light in many cultures. In China, Thailand, Australia, South America, and French Guiana, cockroaches serve as food, traditional medicine, and folktale source. Copeland suggests that studies by anthropologists and explorers reveal that “rather than racking their brains for effective ways to destroy cockroaches, these cultures found the cockroach a useful neighbor, rich in protein and effective for many human diseases. They also seem to have recognized how useful they were to the environment” (81-2). Copeland also notes that cockroaches contribute to cancer research (131), a point that connects explicitly with the entomologist work in Mimic.
Because of these strengths, Copeland believes we can learn from cockroaches. She suggests in “Voices of the Least Loved,” for example, “the necessity of humans drastically altering our current cultural and personal assumptions about ourselves and the rest of the living world (and, of course, of altering the behavior such assumptions foster) is critical if we hope Homo sapiens is to enjoy anything approaching the long, successful life story of the cockroach” (170). In Cockroach, Copeland goes even further, arguing, “our survival as a species may depend on discovering a saviour who looks at us from many-faceted eyes that replace our own myopic human view with the cockroach’s ‘very long view indeed’” (168).
In contrast to Copeland positive view, the horror films we explored anthropomorphize cockroaches in order to vilify them, not learn from their strengths. The anthropomorphism utilized in the cockroach films explored here does not, as Mertins suggests, lead to positive representations. Although Damnation Alley, The Nest, and Mimic blame humanity for transforming the lowly cockroach into a flesh-eating monster, none of these films suggest that humanity should be destroyed, no matter how adroitly the insects are anthropomorphized. Damnation Alley includes little or no anthropomorphizing but both The Nest and Mimic anthropomorphize on several levels. In Mimic, the Judas Breed’s protective stance toward their offspring might even indicate a social level of anthropomorphism. These three films all illustrate the monstrous qualities of cockroaches so their destruction becomes not only feasible but also desirable.
Bug and Cronos take a more individual approach to cockroach monsters, illustrating perhaps what happens when humanity embraces the cockroach and its strengths so vehemently that both cockroach and human are transformed. The levels of anthropomorphizing are amplified in both these films because of the integral connection between the roaches and their human counterparts. One might argue that Jesus, for example, becomes a humanized version of the cockroach. In Bug, on the other hand, the roaches gain such a high degree of human intelligence that they not only become literate, but also responsibly rid the world of its dangerous mad scientist.
Horror films from Damnation Alley to Mimic reinforce stereotypes as they highlight humanity’s ambivalence toward cockroaches. Damnation Alley and The Nest clearly construct cockroaches as monsters with no redeeming qualities. Mimic, Bug, and Cronos, however, draw on positive qualities associated with cockroaches, including their contributions to human health, their intelligence, and their longevity. Yet these films also turn these strengths into detriments and consequently, turn cockroaches into horrific monsters. They are “Others” whose humanlike qualites grow into a monstrous nature not only because this is a convention of the horror genre, but also because their transformation is either a product of a genetic, chemical, or nuclear eco-disaster or a violation of human and nonhuman nature alike. In these films, both the human “scientist” or “victim” and the cockroach must be annihilated to eliminate their “evil” influence, a destruction that signifies perhaps a desire to eliminate the most monstrous elements of human and nonhuman nature. When monstrous nature becomes anthropomorphized, it may become too human, making it too easy to see us in them.