Sleeping with the fishes.
There is an audience out there that The Shape of Water was made for. I am emphatically not a part of it. It’s one of those arthouse films that spreads itself thin with period drama, satire, science-fiction, horror, romance, and fantasy, diluting all of those aesthetics down to the point of meaninglessness, losing whatever impact they might have originally had. There’s a good movie swimming around somewhere in The Shape of Water. Unfortunately, it’s so watered down that the previews before the movie seem more interesting than this.
Taking place in Baltimore, 1962 during the Cold War, The Shape of Water follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor who communicates using sign language with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Elisa and Zelda work at an obscure government laboratory tucked away from the public eye, and the labs they clean hide some very peculiar secrets in them. One of these is an amphibious humanoid creature brought in by colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who captured the creature so that he could be studied and possibly dissected by the lab team.
The ladies are told that the creature is a deadly and vicious animal and are warned to stay away from it. However, Elisa’s interactions with the creature prove otherwise. The little guy is curious, shy, and friendly, interacting with Elisa like how a whipped dog would interact with a child. As the two become closer and more fond of each other, Elisa resolves to break the creature out of the laboratory and set him free.
You go into movies like The Shape of Water with a few expectations in mind. 1) That it’s going to be strange and unpredictable. 2) There’s some deep messages tied into this seemingly simple narrative. 3) There are going to be sex scenes, many of which you have no desire to see whatsoever. The first two expectations are not surprising for writer-director Guillermo Del Toro, whose career is filled with both visually spectacular blockbusters and intimate fables filled with double meanings. Hellboy, for instance, was an action-adventure thrill ride about a reluctant hero overcoming his literal demonic nature, while Pacific Rim was a science-fiction robot/monster romp of epic proportions. My favorite of his movies, Pan’s Labyrinth, is a childhood fairy tale trapped inside a nightmare, paralleling a little girl’s infatuation of a fantasy world with her loss of innocence in the adult world. Del Toro is no doubt an ambitious and creative storyteller, and his filmmaking trademarks are just as consistent in The Shape of Water as they are in his other pictures.
But there are creative decisions being made here that make very little sense, and even when they do, the general response to them is nausea, disgust, or both. Take for instance, the previously mentioned sex scenes. They are constant and jarring, as if a nymphomaniac watched the theatrical cut and told Del Toro he wouldn’t release it until he edited more nudity into it. Elisa, for instance, has multiple scenes where she is seen naked masturbating in her bathtub. Strickland has one graphic sex scene with his wife where he is disturbingly obsessed with her remaining silent while he finishes ejaculating. And the creature. Good God, the creature. His sex scenes with Elisa are just weird, disorienting, and disturbing, like a fish dry-humping a child on the beach.
I know, I know, this isn’t the first time an inter-species romance is prominently featured in a movie. From Avatar to Blade Runner 2049, humans have had sex with aliens, monsters, computers, holograms, and robots in the movies. Why not throw sea creatures into the mix? It’s certainly not the most awkward sexual encounter we’ve ever watched on-screen (see Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johannsen’s sorta-sex scene in Her).
But even by cinema’s already creepy standards, The Shape of Water still manages to outdo its predecessors, mainly by the sheer brainlessness of its characters. For instance, in one scene the creature eats a cat’s head off, then flees the apartment when startled by one of the neighbors. Now I’m not a 1960’s American socialite, but if a monster just ate one of my neighbor’s cats and ran away, I would say good riddance and shut the door behind him. Yet Elisa is instead worried for the creature, and becomes further infatuated with him when she finds him later on with blood and cat fur all over his chin. I’m an animal lover, folks. Let me tell you, I’ve never had a stronger instinct to shoot at something on the movie screen in my entire life.
Other scenes make just as little sense as that one. After Elisa has sex with the creature, she gossips about it with Zelda in the laboratory, and instead of running away screaming in horror and insanity, Zelda just nods and mildly approves of this science-fiction bestiality. In another scene, Elisa floods her bathroom just to have underwater sex with the creature. Isn’t she concerned about the water bill? The weak wood foundation? The movie theater underneath her apartment that she can potentially flood? What if her landlord decided to evict her from all the property damage she caused? What if the floor caved in and she killed herself from the fall down? And since when did Del Toro think it was a good idea to randomly insert a musical number halfway through the picture?
I won’t say that the film is technically incompetent, because that couldn’t be further from the truth. The scenery and the building designs expertly convey the feel and grandeur of the 1960’s, while the bleak, grey hues of Elisa’s laboratory evoke the tensions and paranoia of international espionage during the Cold War. The music by Alexandre Desplat is elegant and simplistic, beautifully romanticizing the creature’s relationship with Elise while at other times evoking the unease and hostility of the era. The makeup and costume work, as it is in all of Del Toro’s productions, is spot-on and mesmerizing. Actor Doug Jones is essentially erased into this role as a humanoid sea creature who’s just discovering the world around him, and the way he moves and acts gives no indication that it’s just a man acting inside of a costume.
The greatest of these elements, however, is Sally Hawkins. It’s not often that a film features a mute character. In fact, the last time I can recall any character even resembling Elise was Patty Duke’s portrayal of Helen Keller in 1962’s The Miracle Worker. And yet, Hawkins completely mesmerizes in the role, physically mimicking the characteristics of a mute while remaining emotionally sensitive to her plights. Most actors have the advantage of dialogue to demonstrate their skills in a performance, yet without her voice, Hawkins’ performance is handicapped right from the outset. The fact that she’s just as compelling in her silent role regardless makes her acting all the more impressive, as she does with her wrists and hands what her lips would normally do.
The Shape of Water is a film filled with great intentions, but intentions do not equal quality. And as far as its themes of prejudice, xenophobia, and miscegenation goes, there are far superior films from the year that elaborated on these same themes, yet illustrated them so much better. Get Out. Detroit. War for the Planet of the Apes. These films illustrate the same ideas, but finds a better way to integrate them into their narrative. The Shape of Water drowns in its own preachiness. And sex scenes.