The Shape of Water
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
One way to look at this film is as a twist on The Creature From the Black Lagoon from the perspective of the creature, although the focus is actually on a woman who falls in love with it. In that sense, it could also be considered an alternate Little Mermaid story. Sally Hawkins plays a mute (but not deaf) woman who works on the janitorial staff at a government facility in Baltimore. The time period is early 1960s, but there are some conflicting statements as to the exact year. It's after Yuri Gagarin's space flight, but before Alan Shepard's Freedom 7 mission, placing it between April 12 and May 5, 1961. Yet later, a general talks about having known the man in charge of the project for 13 years, since the Battle of Pusan. That having occurred in 1950, it would place these events in '63. Either a mistake by the writers, or the general's memory and/or sense of time is off, or we have to view this as an alternate history. After all, we never did find a humanoid amphibian in a South American river and study it for possible ways to adapt our astronauts for unknown conditions in space or on other planetary bodies. Or did we?
I love the look and feel of the movie, from the set design to camera movement, the attention to detail on props, vehicles, pop culture, and social conventions, while still leaving it a bit vague as to the exact time. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen, working with del Toro for the third time, is able to retain a vivid color palette and lush look in spite of many scenes at night and in dark spaces, or under water, where contrasts of light and shadow shape the mood of characters. Of course, water is used metaphorically in many instances, whether as rain, in bathtubs, for cooking, or cleaning, or in the creature's holding tank. Sound is also important, which might seem paradoxical in a film with a woman who can't speak. Sally Hawkins, as Elisa Esposito, conveys so much with just the right facial expression or body movement, but she can hear, and realizes how much sound means to everyone else, including the creature. Richard Jenkins is also a highlight as Elisa's neighbor, a free-lance graphic designer, a sensitive, gay man, obsessed with classic Hollywood musicals. Their apartments are above an old movie theater, he's always watching old moves on TV, she listens to show tunes and big band records, all of which combine to give their lives a fairy-tale like quality.
There are a few things I could criticize; the predictability of certain events, and overly-stereotypical characters, primarily Michael Shannon as the sadistic government agent tasked with extracting information from the creature, David Hewlett as the uptight engineer, and Nick Searcy as the general intent on results regardless of consequences. I have seen other comments on the implausibility of a human woman having romantic and sexual feelings for an otherworldly creature. Obviously, they missed a few clues along the way.
[Spoiler Warning: If you are averse to spoilers, ignore the next few sentences and skip to the final paragraph.] Elisa is human, or at least human in current appearance, but has she always been that way? Little is known of her past. She's an orphan found near a river, and she has mysterious scars on her throat, which might point to an accident, or abuse, which caused her muteness. She's kinda obsessed with water herself, such as always masturbating in a full tub, while eggs boil on the stove. Yes, amphibians do lay eggs, and if anyone missed the focus on eggs they just weren't paying attention. And what happened to Elisa's throat scars when the creature embraced her and jumped into the ocean? Add up those clues, and it is not surprising she would be drawn to the creature, and be able to communicate with it so easily. [/End Spoilers]
Bottom line: Even though I can't say I loved it all, I did like the majority of the film. It's not del Toro's best; that would still be Pan's Labyrinth, and I think I'd rate the first Hellboy above it too. But still, for anyone who likes things a bit out of the mainstream, it's recommended.
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