Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Shape of Water (2017): A Review (Review #1009)


The Creature From The Blue Lagoon...

There has been talk of making a Splash remake, but in our gender equality times, the new Splash will feature a merman and a female human.  My question is, 'why bother with a remake when we have The Shape of Water'?

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute cleaning lady at a secret government lab in early 1960's Baltimore (about 1962 given a mention of the Cuban Missile Crisis).  She spends her off-hours visiting her neighbor, the closeted gay illustrator Giles (Richard Jenkins), eating eggs, and masturbating.  Elisa's only other friend is her fellow cleaning lady, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who is black.

At this point, it does sound almost like a joke: a mute, a gay man, and a black woman walk into a bar.  I would have been fascinated if they'd gone all the way and had the main character be a mute, gay, black woman, but we can't always get what we want, I suppose.

One day, Zelda and Elisa are cleaning part of the facility when a new 'asset' arrives.  Along with this mysterious asset is a new Security Chief, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).  Soon, we find that this asset is an amphibious man found in darkest Peru (OK, the Amazonian forest, but why quibble).  Strickland is all for torturing and even killing the Aquaman to see how it works, for he believes studying its cadaver will give the Americans an edge in the Space Race.

Firmly opposed is Dr. Robert 'Bob' Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who wants the creature alive.  He is more sympathetic towards the Creature From Another Black Lagoon, but his reasons, as we find out, are not as altruistic at they first appear.

As these two fight it out, only Elisa finds the creature remotely appealing, even tragic.  Upon hearing that he is to be liquidated, she hatches a plan to spring him out involving Giles as a getaway driver and Zelda as accidental accomplice.  Strickland and his team is convinced that this great escape was the work of a Soviet elite squad, but aren't they in for a shock.

Elisa communicates with The Creature via sign language, and he finds a fondness for eggs and cats. Giles fails to get the luscious Pie Man (Morgan Kelly) to reciprocate Giles' love that dare not speak its name, and Elisa and Zelda get help from Hoffstetler about how to send the Creature back to the waters.  Hoffstetler has his own agenda, one that is all Red (and that's the only hint I'll give you).

Eventually, our sadistic Strickland, his body as corrupt as his soul with the two fingers The Creature bit off him slowly decaying, makes the connections with regards Hoffstetler's Moscow connections and those to Zelda and Elisa.  Elisa for her part is more consumed with erotic exercises with our slippery friend, even flooding her apartment and causing water to spill out into the theater underneath her for some pleasures of the gills.  It's now a race to save The Creature, one that will cost lives and bring misery and tragedy to others.

It's clear that writer/director Guillermo Del Toro drew inspiration from The Creature From the Black Lagoon in this 'modern fairy tale for these troubled times', or whatever the tag line for The Shape of Water is.  I genuinely don't know if he did draw inspiration from Splash, but the final scene did remind me of that film's final scene.  In fact, the 'daring rescue' might have played better if they had tried to fool the guards with impersonators.

He also managed to throw in some homages to Astaire/Rogers musicals too, where Elisa in the only scene where she 'speaks' does a dance number straight out of my guess Follow the Fleet (Let's Face the Music and Dance).  Only if memory serves correct, they danced to You'll Never Know from Hello, Frisco, Hello, which serves as The Shape of Water's unofficial theme. 

I did wonder why Strickland, knowing how emotionally attached Elisa was to the Creature, did not at least investigate whether she could have been the mole that let this nonexistent strike force in.  If he had broken into the apartment, the film would have been over, but there I go, thinking differently from others.

Mercifully, I did not read the great messages about racism/sexism/xenophobia/homophobia that Del Toro and his writing partner Vanessa Taylor put in it.  That's a plus, I guess.

I do think that a lot of The Shape of Water was a bit overdone.  Giles' whole aspect of being closeted came up only once, when he was less subtle at hitting on the Pie Guy than perhaps the times would have allowed.  Why he took this one chance when there were semi-secret gay bars he could have gone to, even in Baltimore, I don't know, but why ask.  Our villain's name of 'Strickland' may also be a bit too on-the-nose (Strict-Land?).

In terms of production, The Shape of Water is quite good.  The sets all look as if they were lifted from a 1950's/1960's film, with a lot of green to dominate the scenes.  The make-up work on The Creature was equally impressive.  Alexandre Desplat's score also fit the ethereal nature of this story.

Still, as much as everyone else is impressed with The Shape of Water, I cannot join in.  The performances were fine, though I could do without seeing Hawkins either naked or jacking off.  To her credit, she has to communicate much without speaking, as she does it extremely well.  I do wish that Spencer could be given something other than 'sassy best friend to protagonist' (see The Help, up to a point Hidden Figures).  Jenkins too might have made an interesting film on his own, though his homosexuality could have been removed without it affecting the story.   Stuhlbarg played his role with quiet restraint, though I wonder if the 'revelation' about his character could not have come later.

Shannon played his 'evil' character with his usual excellence.  Am I the only one that would like to see him in a straight-up comedy?

I look at The Shape of Water and I see a film that has been overpraised.  It is not terrible, but what about it makes it so unimpeachably brilliant I do not know.  Excellent production and strong performances get it to a good place, but this fish story did not excite me the same way it excited Elisa.


2018 Best Picture Winner: Green Book

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