Movie Review: THE SHAPE OF WATER – Del Toro’s romantic fantasy does nothing to blow the dust off a tired, old story.

The name Guillermo Del Toro on a movie fills me with dread.  Unfortunately, not in the way I’d like it to.  Everything about the guy I love – his devotion to horror and sci fi, his adoration of HP Lovecraft matches my own, and he has a collection of props I would kill for.  His traveling exhibit At Home With Monsters was pretty amazing – I took some pics when I went to see it earlier this year, and posted them here.   So yeah, I love Del Toro – unfortunately I think most of his movies stink.

I’ve only seen two of his movies that I can honestly say I loved: Pan’s Labyrinth is great, and The Devil’s Backbone is even better, but when he isn’t making mediocre fare like the Hellboy movies and Crimson Peak, he’s plumbing the depths with mindless garbage like Pacific Rim. which was the worst movie I’d seen in 2013 by a country mile.  Today I went to see The Shape Of Water, on its first day of wide release.  It’s better than Pacific Rim.

The trailer earlier this year was promising.  I loved the look of what I was seeing, very film noir, and it reminded me visually of Bioshock, a game I loved playing partially because of the visuals.  Maybe, I thought, Del Toro would make an English-language movie that I’d actually enjoy.  And it had Michael Shannon, who is great in movies not named Premium Rush.  Check out 99 Homes and Midnight Special, if you don’t believe me.  But it also had the amphibious humanoid in it, and it kind of bugged me.  I didn’t think the movie was going to be connected in any way to either the Gill-Man from The Creature From The Black Lagoon, or to Abe Sapien from the Hellboy movies … but, in a couple of non-official ways, it seems to be.

So the story goes like this – Elisa, a mute woman, played well by Sally Hawkins, works in some kind of secure government facility that is either doing shadowy, secret things, or isn’t.  She and Octavia Spencer’s character are part of the large janitorial staff.  In her private life, Elisa is lonely and lives next to a closeted gay commerical artist, played by Richard Jenkins.  While cleaning one of the rooms, a large water-filled tank is rushed in, led by sinister government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon).  The tank contains a captured amphibious humanoid which immediately piques Elisa’s interest.  Over the course of a short (though not really defined) period of time, Elisa’s attraction to the creature blossoms into the kind of romantic attachment only a lonely girl could have, and she becomes determined to free the amphibian, even if it means they will never be together – but the military has other plans for the creature: vivisection.

I had a LOT of problems with this movie.  First and foremost, Del Toro’s movie is a fantasy love story, a kind of Beauty and the Beast.  It contains a number of fantasy elements in order to cement that in the mind of the audience.  Some of the audience will think – “ok, this is a charming fantasy, I can buy into it.”  some others, like me, just won’t be able to do it.  The story itself is mostly of the basic variety, and it actually plays more like What If The Gill Man Was In ET?  I felt the story was a little too tired.  Government bad guys capture an innocent, and (basically) childlike creature, are going to kill it, but someone sees its true self, and must save it.  It’s been done, and Del Toro did nothing to turn convention on its head.  Everyone is exactly who they are from beginning to end.

I should say he did nothing, but he did add some stuff to get a completely unecessary R rating – mostly involving Hawkins getting fully naked a couple of times and masturbating in the bath.  I have a MAJOR problem with these scenes, and anyone who reads my reviews regularly will notice I had a similar complaint with Blade Runner 2049.  It’s exploitation, pure and simple – and these days it’s indefensible, a throwback to the days when tits and ass were a regular addition for the sake of window dressing.  I genuinely felt embarrassed to be watching these scenes – not because I’m some kind of Puritan, but because there’s simply no place in my world for the exploitation of women just for the sake of it.  Elisa’s nudity adds zero value to the story or the plot.  Is it important to her character that she masturbates in the bath?  Here I’ll say yes – it’s a character-defining trait.  But as filmed, how important is it for us to see her naked?  There are plenty of ways to film a masturbation scene that doesn’t force the audience to be the one spying with the viewpoint of a voyeur, but that’s how I felt watching those scenes.

That aside, some of the actual plot points are clumsily done, and just pure lazy.  When you see Elisa’s scars near the beginning of you movie, you’ll guess correctly how the movie ends.  That’s no spoiler, because it’s really that obvious.  The facility itself is staffed by caricatures mostly, and security at the place is lax because Del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor need their story to run smooth and mostly free of complexity.  We don’t have any idea what the facility is, or what it’s for, but there are plenty of armed MPs around the place, and in the paranoid times in which the movie is set (1961 Baltimore), one would think security is a thing, yet Elisa comes and goes as she pleases in the room that contains the amphibian.  Despite its capture being a big deal, there’s no round the clock guards or camera surveillance.  I absolutely HATE this kind of writing.  It’s garbage, and I expect better from people who work in the industry.  Likewise, when Elisa’s plan to spring the amphibian gets set in motion, she has no keys with which to release it from the heavy locked collar around its neck.  Her plan would have stopped dead in its tracks right there … if not for the appearance of someone who conveniently hands her the keys she needs.  The movie being a fantasy  does not change the fact that we’re watching a movie that has taken great pains to imbue the proceedings with realism.

Speaking of that realism, the movie doesn’t ignore the racism and homophobia of the times, and I liked how the script shows the intentionally ugly side (as represented by a pie shop worker), and the casual I-grew-up-with-it racism of Strickler.  These moments worked for me, yet at the same time, if it was trying to say anything about those times, Octavia Spencer’s character is written as a sassy black stereotype.  Why not have Elisa’s character be black and show the world through her eyes, and how she’s affected by the times, and not just the story?  Spencer’s character is an embarrassment also, and makes the other scenes that highlight the bad parts of the good old days look weak in comparison.

I had a genuine facepalm moment, something that rarely happens to me, but neither my face nor palm could control themselves.  I won’t mention which scene, but if you’ve seen it you’ll guess right.  Again, I get that this is a fantasy, but the scene comes out of left field.  There are no scenes like it anywhere else in the movie, nor has Elisa been set up to be prone to flights of fancy.  It absolutely does not work on any level – though I concede that some audience members will have the pants charmed off them by the whimsy.

My daughter saw the movie at this year’s Venice Film Festival, and had very few good things to say about it, but I’m generally very good at not letting the opinions of others influence me.  Here, she was right on the money.  Despite The Shape Of Water turning into a darling of the critics, and garnering a great many accolades, I can’t say this a good movie.  It looks fantastic, I can’t deny that.  The set design, photography, acting, direction – it’s all really good.  Unfortunately, the story is weak, and the screenplay doesn’t even attempt to improve its shortcomings.  I wanted to like it going in, but from the get-go, I knew it wasn’t going to happen.


© Andrew Hope, 2017

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