The Shape Of Water
Department of unpopular opinions.
It’s not easy to hate movies that everyone else loves. I wish I could join in the adoration of this movie, but I can’t. Like many sentimental movies, The Shape Of Water gets a pass from people. It’s a movie that signals goodness and people love it because it has noble feelings, but this doesn’t mean that it is a good movie.
I will be blunt: sitting through this movie felt like listening to a preteen boy spin a puerile, not particularly interesting tale off the top of his head, without yet figuring out the details. The writing is superficial and cliched, and it doesn’t make any sense.
Every movie asks the audience to believe in the world it creates inside the frame. It can be zombies battling vixens in a distant planet, and if the world is well established, the audience will immerse itself in the world. Establishing basic information about character is essential for the audience to believe in the world created by a movie. If you set up the world correctly, no one should give any pause to the most farfetched scenarios. If you don’t, believability crumbles, as creative choices feel arbitrary. For instance, in the wonderful Korean movie The Host, also about a strange fish creature, the first scene establishes that an American company has dumped toxic waste in Seoul’s river. That is why we can buy a giant, pissed-off fish that terrorizes Seoul. That is not the case in this movie. I was trying to answer basic logical questions instead of immersing myself in this fantasy world.
American scientists have found a strange creature, a merman, somewhere in Florida or thereabouts. They keep it in a scummy pond, chained and miserable, for no discernible reason. They could be nice to it, but they are mean. It is already cruel to confine it and conduct experiments on it, but writer-director Guillermo Del Toro stacks the deck towards ham-handed exaggeration. Our poor fishman (Doug Jones) seems perfectly sweet, and acquiesces without volition, opinion, or complaint, but a super evil guy (played with way too much relish by Michael Shannon), likes to torture it anyway. For unexplained reasons, the existence of this creature is top secret. This is set at the height of the cold war, which explains that the Russians are after it. The Americans are meanies and the Russians (mostly Michael Stuhlbarg, speaking what sounds like pristine Russian) are actually nice. The movie never sets up reasons for any of this. What did the merman do? Why is he so important? One line of dialog, such as “he shits radioactive kelp” would establish that there is something to him. Apparently, this doesn’t matter.
Elisa, a very nice cleaning lady who works at the lab (the fantastic Sally Hawkins) takes a shine to the fish. She lives alone and likes to pleasure herself in the bathtub. This is supposed to be some kind of clue. She has a neighbor, Giles, a repressed gay man played by Richard Jenkins. They are best friends, two lonely hearts. The stereotype of the maladroit gay artist bothered me. Giles is a talented commercial illustrator, a la Norman Rockwell, but he can’t sell his art. He is either too nice, or an idiot. In a ridiculous scene, he goes to an advertising agency to try to sell an illustration. He is rejected. People are going to think that you can waltz into any ad agency and shill work that no one seems to have commissioned. Poor Del Toro doesn’t know that agencies don’t ever reject work; they make changes until they drive people insane. Jenkins is a great character actor, but he is given a pathetic character to play, a gay man who doesn’t know better than to come on to a guy at a soda fountain, a gay man who hasn’t noticed that his rug looks ridiculous. Jenkins marshalls the enormous dignity he gives to every role he plays, but he can barely fight against the treacle.
Elisa works with her friend Zelda, another very nice cleaning lady played by Octavia Spencer. Recently, I saw Spencer in Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station. She made such a strong impression as a no nonsense black woman with none of the Black mammy tics that white Hollywood is so fond of (which she has done to perfection in movies like The Help, and sadly, here). In Fruitvale Station she was a person, not a symbol or a caricature. Well, by the looks of her performance on this movie, it seems like we have turned the clock back fifty years. This kind of writing and direction, light on verisimilitude and insight, and heavy on stale clichés about gays and black people, don’t help the experience. As it is to be expected, both Jenkins and Octavia Spencer get nominated for an Academy Award for their work here, which is not their best, because Hollywood loves schmaltz. The Sally Hawkins nomination is very well deserved. She is touching and lovely as a mute who can hear.
If it weren’t for the talented cast of A-list actors who elevate this asinine material to heroic heights, this very same movie would be what once was known as a B movie: a cheesy, half-baked movie with Z-list actors, good for cheap thrills and involuntary humor. It is well known that Del Toro is inordinately fond of this kind of pulpy science fiction, monsters and such. He grew up in Mexico, where we had a smorgasbord of local movies with wrestlers fighting zombies and aliens on cardboard sets every afternoon on TV. Those movies were so bad, that they were good. The problem is that Del Toro takes his fantasy with the seriousness of a besotted teenager. And in the end, the premise of The Shape of Water doesn’t even hold water. The moral of the story is that there can be love among the different. But it turns out that somehow Elisa was in love with the fish because she was something of a fish herself. This contradicts what I thought the story was about.