Movie review: 'The Shape of Water'
The Shape of Water (trailer) is a 2017 fantasy-drama film from director Guillermo del Toro, based on an idea he'd had since childhood. Essentially he wanted to make a happier version of the 1954 horror film Creature from the Black Lagoon, with the humanoid fish monster and the female lead falling in love.
And that's exactly what happens in The Shape of Water! It takes place in 1962, starring a mute woman named Elisa who's part of the cleaning staff at an American government research facility. In one of the labs, she learns of "the asset", an intelligent humanoid amphibian creature who's being tortured. Falling in love with him, she wants to set him free with the help of a small group of collaborators.
The film relies on tension from trying to deal with a dangerous situation. In that respect it's similar to Del Toro's 2006 film, Pan's Labyrinth. In both films you have a female protagonist who's trying to accomplish something difficult, has a sympathetic friend or two, and they're plagued by a military guy in charge who's a complete asshole. In Pan's Labyrinth, it's Captain Vidal. In The Shape of Water, it's Colonel Strickland. In both cases, you hate the guy right from the start. Then you hate him more. And when you think you couldn't possibly hate him even more, he gets worse.
There's only a handful of main characters in this movie. Aside from Elisa and Strickland, there's Elisa's co-worker (Zelda), Elisa's neighbor (Giles), and finally there's a lab scientist. Together with the amphibian man, and ignoring the secondary characters, that's it. Just six people around which the story turns.
I don't mean this in a bad way - bear with me here - None of these characters have depth. Sure, you learn more details about them over the course of the film, but ultimately their purpose is to tell a larger story. You're not meant to delve into them on a deep, personal level. Del Toro isn't bothering with long explanations, back-stories, or nuanced motivations. His setup is: Here are some people. These are the good ones, these are the bad ones, don't worry about the details, and here's their situation. They're like people in fairy tales; you're given a few facts and then you just run with it. It's about the basics. Love, hate, fear, fish-men... you know, storytelling universals.
Why is Strickland such an asshole? Is there some sort of commentary about The Cold War being made? Not really, and you never learn why Strickland is the kind of guy he is. As for the amphibian man, who (or what) is he? Everything you learn about him during the film could be written down in less space than this paragraph. Personally I was rather disappointed by that; I wanted more information. But it goes to show that what the director really wanted to focus on was the tension of the situation. And boy, does he do that well.
Plus a little bit of squick, because it wouldn't be a Del Toro film without wanting to make you squirm in your seat occasionally. Del Toro gets good actors, too. If you have a feeling of déjà vu with Zelda, it's because this is the second time in two years that Octavia Spencer's been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, for playing a strong-willed black woman who's looked down upon at her job at a government research facility during the 1960s. Sally Hawkins, who plays Elisa, uses sign language. Surprisingly, not often. Sometimes it's explained with subtitles, or Zelda and Giles act as interpreters. But mainly she performs her role silently, communicating through context and body language. She does a fantastic job.
The amphibian man is played by Del Toro's go-to monster actor, Doug Jones. His costume was really well-done, enhanced by special effects that added bioluminescence. To be honest, personally I was bit put off by his lips for some reason, and because his feet were plantigrade. At one point he made a very simian-like motion, and afterwards I stopped thinking "That's a fish-man", and instead kept thinking, "That's an actor named Doug Jones in a high quality costume". And it is! It's a great costume. I had wondered if his sentience level was going to be deliberately vague. It's not; he's definitely intelligent. He picks up a few individual words of sign language, and later mimics a longer phrase, although it's not clear if he knows what it means yet.
Before seeing the film, I tried to avoid reading any online articles about it. I didn't quite make it - I read this article that said that Del Toro had consulted the women in his family to make sure the amphibian man had a sexy butt. Speaking personally, I'm no expert on sexy butts, but I went into this film thinking, "Sexy fish monster butt, hunh? Ok, show me this butt." Del Toro claimed, "The butt we show abundantly in the movie", however I don't remember any scene where I really noticed it, any more than being offered an indistinct, fleeting glimpse. Lies! I am disappoint. Don't be like Steven Moffat.
Before the film came out, the big buzz around The Shape of Water was that Elisa and the amphibian man were going to have sex. Speaking as a furry fan, I've already been exposed to the concept of humanoid fantasy creatures having the hots for each other. So... for non-furries, is it risqué? I mean, when a romance isn't primarily for comedic effect, like in Disney's 1991 Beauty and the Beast, or the 2009 blue alien cat fiber-optic thing in Avatar, or... I don't know, Shepard and Garrus in Mass Effect 2? Is this a shocking thing? Are geeks in general more used to it than mainstream audiences?
I will spoil one thing: You never see Elisa and the amphibian man doing it, but you know it's going on. You see the lead-up to it. In one case, the arrangements felt... well, cartoonish. There's an early scene in the film that establishes Elisa's active libido, and later, while she's hanging out with Zelda at work, she makes a little hand motion to explain something. And that's it. What I'm saying is, if the sex angle is what's drawing you to this film, prepare to be disappointed unless you've got a really good imagination.
Overall I really enjoyed this film. I wish I'd gotten to see it in a crowded theater to get a feeling for how the audience reacted. (I went to a poorly-attended matinee a few days after Christmas.) Del Toro has a marvelous eye for setting up visuals that really suit the moods and scenes that he wants to convey. Throughout this film, there's a... calculated deliberateness. The kind of thing that a college teacher in a Film Studies class would make their students dissect from start to finish. I found myself attracted to little details, like the 60s decor. And I was so happy the director acknowledged how old magazine ads sometimes had facial expressions that were way over-the-top. (Like this one, not used in the movie.)
Basically, it's a good film! Much happier in tone than Pan's Labyrinth. I can definitely recommend it.