The Shape of Water Review
By David Kempler
A Bit Out of Shape
Guillermo Del Toro loves fairy tales and monsters and loves setting them against gorgeous backgrounds. His latest, "The Shape of Water," is a fairy tale, has a monster, and is exquisite to look at. It also features good actors doing excellent work and it has a fundamental sweetness. On paper it's a winner, yet as an experience it's not - at least not as much of one as it should be.
While watching it, two other films kept flashing through my mind: "E.T." and "The Creature of the Black Lagoon". Both are very famous, with the former being considered a classic, while the latter is considered a classic in film shlock history. "The Shape of Water" isn't a classic in either way. It's a well-intentioned and beautiful movie that unfortunately can't stay focused on any one genre. It bounces between science fiction, horror, fantasy, love story, drama, comedy, musical, soft-core porn, and some others that I'm probably forgetting.
It's 1962, in Baltimore, and the Cold War between the United States and the U.S.S.R. is at a fever pitch. Both sides are trying to get the edge in any way possible. More specifically, we are inside a top-secret underground facility, where the U.S. is holding what they consider to be an important piece that might help them in their attempt to attain world domination and render the U.S.S.R. a second-rate power.
Eliza (Sally Hawkins) is a cleaning woman on the overnight shift at the facility. She is mute, though she can hear, and her life is painfully mundane and repetitive. The alarm clock rings, she takes a bath and masturbates, interacts with her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), a graphic artist, and goes to work. Every day at work, she spends most of her day cleaning alongside Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who serves as an interpreter for her, using sign language.
Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) is in charge of the facility and he is the personification of evil ambition. He is the one who has captured and brought a previously undiscovered creature to the facility from a river in the Amazon. The creature is called "The Asset" because of his perceived value in the Cold War. Strickland routinely tortures the creature with what appears to be an electric cattle prod.
One evening, Eliza is alone in the room where "The Asset" is stored in a tank of water. From that moment on, I had a major problem. How is a cleaning woman allowed to be alone in this top-secret room with what may be the most important tool in the Cold War? I never could get past this impossibility.
A romance develops between Eliza and "The Asset" and the wheels are set in motion for the battle to free the creature, which is the plot of the rest of "The Shape of Water." Eliza's unlimited access to top-secret government possessions prevented me from buying into everything. Throw in the incessant genre-jumping and schmaltziness and I was left to ponder what could have been. There are so many good things here, but not enough to round it all into good shape.