Release: December 1, 2017
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
Running Time: 123 minutes
Review contains snide spoilers.
Starring: Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito, Michael Shannon as Colonel Richard Strickland, Richard Jenkins as Giles, Octavia Spencer as Zelda Fuller, Michael Stuhlbarg as Dimitri Mosenkov, Doug Jones as the fish man.
During the peak years of the “Cold War,” Elisa Esposito is a mute compulsive masturbator living in a shabby corner apartment above a movie theater. When she is not hanging around with her advertising artist neighbor, Giles, and his army of cats, she works as a cleaning lady at a secret government lab. One day Dr. Dimitri Mosenkov (under the name Dr. Robert Hoffstelter) and Richard Strickland arrive with a large metal water tank in tow. The tank contains a creature that Strickland captured in South America. When Elisa discovers that it is a fish man, she becomes intrigued. She starts visiting it in secret, giving it food and teaching it sign language. Over time, Elisa begins to develop romantic feelings for the fish man. When the government decides to vivisect the creature, woke communist Mosenkov pleads with them not to. Then he resolves to break the creature out of the lab for the glory of the workers’ revolution. That is until he discovers that the woke voices of the dictatorship of the proletariat aren’t so woke and would rather him kill the creature so that the Americans can’t research it. Elisa, after witnessing Strickland torturing the creature with a cattle prod, plots with Giles to break the creature out of the lab. On the night she and Giles are to execute their plan to spring the fish man, happenstance manages to pull her friend and co-worker Zelda into the act. Mosenkov also catches wind of the plan and offers his help. Just as it looks like the plan is about to go sour, Mosenkov sets off a small explosive device by a fusebox that knocks out the power in the facility long enough for Elisa, Zelda, and Giles to escape with the fish man. Elisa brings the fish man back to her apartment until she can take him to the docks in several days time to release him into the ocean. Strickland suspects Mosenkov (whom he still knows as Dr. Hoffstelter) has something to do with the creature’s disappearance, so he tails him. Woke Mosenkov is shot by his woker handlers, but before they can kill him, Strickland dispatches them. He tortures Mosenkov for the name of his accomplices and he sings like a canary, implicating the cleaning ladies. Strickland goes to Zelda’s house and shakes her down for additional information, which Zelda’s husband gives him in a panic of self preservation. When Stickland leaves, Zelda calls Elisa to warn her. Elisa then makes off for the waterfront with Giles and the fish creature. Whilst they say their tearful goodbyes, lo and behold, Strickland appears. He knocks out Giles and shoots Elisa and the creature. When flipper comes to, he approaches Strickland and slices his throat with his claws. As the police arrive with Zelda in tow, Cecil the Sea Serpent jumps into the water with Elisa’s corpse. He revives her and everyone lives happily ever after, cue music, cut to credits.
If the story of a person falling in love with a sea creature and helping to break it out of a government research facility to smuggle it back to the ocean sounds familiar, then you’ve probably seen 1984’s Splash. While that film succeeds because it’s mostly a light romantic comedy that doesn’t take itself too seriously, The Shape of Water fails because it takes the opposite route. This is a moody, serious drama about a woman who falls in love with a very inhuman fish creature. It brushes dangerously close to bestiality, and frankly I found myself rolling my eyes at this movie more than once when Sally Hawkins and Abe are feeling all over each other and that saccharine music fades up in the background. On top of this, it’s long. I have no problems with a movie running two hours. I may be a millennial, but I certainly don’t have the attention span of one. The problem with the two hour running time is that a lot of it feels like padding. Exactly how long do we need to see Elisa staring at the tank before the fish creature appears? This isn’t a horror film, you’re not exactly trying to create a jump scare. How long is it necessary for the creature to stare at and fondle that boiled egg before he takes that first trepidatious bite? There is nothing that was done in the two hour run time that couldn’t have been done just as, or more, effectively in 90 minutes.
The acting was decent. I can understand some of the praise Sally Hawkins has received. She’s carrying the flick without saying anything, and yet she still manages to convey some measure of emotion very well. Richard Jenkins is good as Elisa’s next door neighbor, the neurotic, deep in the closet, struggling middle aged ad artist, Giles. Michael Stuhlbarg was good as the Soviet spy Dimitri Mosenkov. The problem is that, to me at least, the scenes involving he and his fellow Soviet conspirators often seemed out of place in the overall film. Michael Shannon’s Richard Strickland was less impressive, mostly because the character (a god fearing, crooked, possibly crazy government agent) seemed like a straight up retread of his role from Boardwalk Empire. That being said, I wouldn’t call any of the performances in this flick “stellar.” I think that’s a bit excessive.
Aesthetically speaking, this is an ugly movie. There’s a lot of that going around in Hollywood these days. Movies are either washed out and fuzzy with a layer of sepia or gray on top of them, or they’re drab and blacked out. The Shape of Water is the latter. It looks like the bastard love child of Edward Scissorhands and Crimson Peak. Everything is dreary, pale, and dark. It is a wholly unappealing if not outright visually oppressive film to behold.
This movie won the award for best picture at the Oscars this year, and Guillermo del Toro the award for best director. How? There is nothing particularly special about this flick. If Hollywood hadn’t spent the last several years rebooting, remaking, virtue signaling, and #metooing itself into the depths of creative oblivion, would everyone still be running around praising this flick or would we be mocking it for its attempts to squeeze sentimentality and serious drama from such a frankly stupid premise?