Update, 3/5/18: I bumped this up to today, given the extra interest in the review after the Oscars. The original publication date was January 8, 2018.
Normally I’d pass on writing a review for a film that has been out for several weeks, but The Shape of Water merits an exception — and not in a good way. This Guillermo del Toro film has gotten rave reviews from critics, with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 93%, and lots of awards-season buzz. And while some elements of the film are praiseworthy, such as its visual presentations and an excellent lead performance by Sally Hawkins as the film’s mute protagonist, the film turns out to be little more than a collection of manipulative and ludicrous set-ups for social-justice lectures lacking any nuance or wit. The Shape of Water assumes its audience to be idiots, which makes this the kind of painful and unoriginal exercise that is all but certain to win awards throughout this winter in Hollywood.
Warning: Major spoilers included.
The derivative plot centers on mute custodial worker Elisa Esposito (Hawkins), who discovers that the US space program facility in which she works has captured a sea creature in South America, for some unexplained reason. Security chief Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) treats it cruelly, also for unexplained reasons, but the lonely Elisa strikes up a relationship with Amphibian Man. Her gay neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) help her break out Amphibian Man, allowing Elisa to find true love with the creature. Meanwhile, Strickland goes on the warpath to get him back and kill him before a sympathetic scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg) can help Elisa free him.
In other words, it’s the plot of Splash, only not played for laughs, as well as being similar to Starman, ET, and for that matter, My Stepmother is an Alien. It could have succeeded despite its derivative nature; a good story structure can be reimagined in many ways. Unfortunately, this reimagining entirely sells out for an opportunity to lecture its audience on the social injustices of … the pre-Beatles era. Why, it had been almost six whole weeks since Hollywood last told that story! (An aside: why not tell stories about the social injustices of Harvey Weinstein’s Hollywood?)
Worst of all, The Shape of Water never allows the audience to get the message of tolerance from the central allegory of the love between Elisa and the creature. Instead, del Toro and the writers fill up every square inch with contrivances and lectures.
And those lectures come with all of the subtlety of a jackhammer. Giles lost his job in the advertising business for unexplained reasons, but which seem to be connected to his sexual orientation. He tries to reach out to a waiter at his favorite diner, who rejects him just as the waiter also gets a chance to demonstrate his racism by refusing service to a black couple, both of which are completely gratuitous to the film or to Amphibian Man’s fate. Shannon’s Strickland spouts religious nonsense to justify cruelty, and sexually oppresses his wife in another gratuitous scene, sticking his gangrenous fingers over her mouth to keep her from expressing pleasure. Instead, the only sexual pleasure we see on screen is Elisa’s fling with Amphibian Man and her morning routine of masturbation set to an egg timer. The bad guys are the US space program (!) and the military, while the most sympathetic character apart from the four main protagonists is a Soviet spy. Strickland dismisses Elisa and Zelda as suspects, angrily lamenting his decision to “question the help,” just in case the class-warfare argument escaped the audience to that point. Oh, he’s also a major-league sexual harasser in the workplace. And so on.
Even the most magical element in the film is a letdown. Del Toro reportedly claimed that it took nine months for his team to decide on Amphibian Man’s look, and it turns out to be … Abe Sapien from the Hellboy franchise. It’s even played by Doug Jones, the same actor who played Abe Sapien in both films, although David Hyde-Pierce dubbed him in the first. Del Toro directed both Hellboy films, which has to present some questions as to what he and his team did with the other eight months and twenty-nine days. The only upgrade to the Abe Sapien look is fluorescence in his skin that comes on when the creature uses his powers of healing, which seems to come straight out of Avatar.
The plot holes resulting from this gratuitous social-justice lecturing are gigantic. No one explains why the US space program needed to capture Amphibian Man at all, other than the Soviets’ decision to send up a dog in orbit. (We used a primate but not Bigfoot, by the way.) We never — and I mean never — get any explanation as to why Strickland tortures the creature or why anyone finds either the creature or Strickland at all valuable. It’s all as gratuitous as Elisa’s morning rub-outs, her inexplicable singing/dancing routine near the end, and the diner/pie subplot’s entire existence. Equally unclear is why anyone wants Amphibian Man dead except for the eeeeevil government plot that goes unexplained, too. Everything in this film is dully predictable, right down to the oddly gill-like scars on either side of Elisa’s neck. If you have to guess what happens with those, you must have missed Splash.
It’s a shame in several different ways, but especially in wasting an excellent cast. The film actually features some fine performances, especially from Hawkins and even Jones, who has to express himself non-verbally as Proto-Abe. Jenkins and Stuhlbarg deliver better performances than this picture deserves, but the normally excellent Shannon gets forced into portraying a less witty and nuanced Snidely Whiplash. His Zod had more connection to humanity than his Strickland.
The performances might explain some of the stellar reviews this film has received, but it’s more likely that it’s an American Beauty phenomenon all over again. Critics love the lectures for now, but this film will almost certainly get downgraded over time for the hacktastic and derivative mess that it is. On the Hot Air scale, The Shape of Water gets a 2 for those interested in the performances, but a 1 for all other purposes:
- 5 – Full price ticket
- 4 – Matinee only
- 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
- 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
- 1 – Avoid at all costs
The Shape of Water gets a well-deserved R for sexual content and graphic violence. Not only should you not take teenagers to see it, you should avoid it if possible yourselves.
Update: I don’t often add rebuttals to film reviews (what’s the point?), but this also merits an exception:
But the reason everyone should see it anyway is because I AM IN IT. You left that out of your review. I give your review 2 stars. ;)
— Nick Searcy, INTERNATIONAL FILM & TELEVISION STAR (@yesnicksearcy) January 8, 2018
It’s a fair cop.
Update, 3/5 midnight: As I quasi-predicted, The Shape of Water won an Oscar for Best Picture. In ten years, though, it will be another American Beauty — a film which few in retrospect think deserves anywhere near the praise it received at the time, and a film that was only slightly more subtle in its lecturing on social justice.
Update, 3/5: I never noticed that I referred to Richard Jenkins as “Michael Jenkins” in the original post, but I have corrected that now. Thanks to Twitter reader John D for pointing it out.