The Shape of Water was in fact the first film I’ve watched by Guillermo Del Toro. Based on my own reception, it will likely be my last. As is customary in the film world, and as a general rule of thumb for the business the industry is based on, your previous work is the best indication of your next one. For once however, my ignorance stood to
me and allowed me to watch (or better yet, endure) the Shape of Water without the revered nature of Del Toro’s brand hanging over me.
There was however a niggling feeling that emerged in our conversations prior to the film that demonstrated our eagerness to watch it. We truly believed that the reviews had been right; we were about to witness a masterpiece, bridging the cusp of a new era of cinema. ‘It’s supposed to be this incredible, modern fable.’ This and its multiple paraphrased versions were reiterated prior to entering the cinema and how could we argue with that prelude? Del Toro opened his film with a glorious underwater sequence and throughout those early moments, it was difficult to be anything but spellbound. Richard Jenkins’ prickly and endearing narration appeared to be the perfect accompaniment to the initial staging of this fairytale. His monologue came to a near-end and Jenkins uttered the words, ‘..and the monster that threatened to destroy it all.’ Having decided to leave my cynicism at the door that morning, it felt unusual for my senses to pick up on this line. For the life of me, I couldn’t help but shake the image of Michael Shannon’s character from the trailer. In that moment, I had subconsciously panned out the storyboard. It was like an episode of Criminal Minds – the murderer is always the newest peripheral actor in the cast. I put this behind me however and sunk back into the film.
The film follows the arc of Elisa, a mute, (Sally Hawkins) and her talkative and boisterous friend (Octavia Spencer) as cleaners in an undisclosed, industrial sized laboratory facility. Richard Jenkins is Elisa’s homosexual, artistic neighbour. He’s also one of the few people that can communicate with her. One day a creature arrives into the facility in a very hushed and sombre, creature-from-the-black-lagoon type of manner. Elisa is a curious soul and thus this affliction leads her into the lair of where the creature is being held in an underwater tank. She feeds him boiled eggs and he eats the boiled eggs. It’s all very touching and at this point it’s worth noting, that everything is purely platonic.
Meanwhile, the exceptional character actor, Michael Shannon is introduced as the enemy from the get-go. He’s the cruel, full-blooded male of the film and craves control. To be introduced as an enemy is one thing, but to remain painted as the enemy until the end lacks nuance and class, particularly in a film heralded as a modern fable. When will we finally reach a stage of comprehension that humans are complex, unpredictable creatures?
To do this to Michael Shannon of all actors was particularly disappointing, given his repertoire of outstanding supporting roles in films like Revolutionary Road and Nocturnal Animals. His character suffered from a lack of development and he slipped further, unable to be rescued, until he was simply a hollow shell of a character. To add to my dismay of this film, somehow the Russians got word of the creature that was holing up in Shannon’s facility, adding an entirely unnecessary political dimension. Introducing the Russian stigma is an outdated concept and in my opinion, ruins films – just look at what it did to the Rocky franchise.
If my palms weren’t already sweating enough from the sheer volume of qualms I tensely held for the duration of the film, the most pertinent of all was yet to come. Elisa gazes at the creature in wonder and she begins to spend more time with him. Boiled eggs and gazes galore. She hatches an elaborate plan to help the creature escape from the facility so that they can live in peace together. She goes to great lengths to ensure this and the creature is subsequently placed in her bathtub. The tension between Elisa and the fishman is clearly too much to bear, because they quickly get together. Del Toro really knows how to put the icing on the cake. Romance ensues and their muted love is so great that they become inseparable. If I could emphasise the amount of eye rolls that took place towards this third act of the film, you may not believe it.
The romantic dimension was too much – it was a step too far. Spielberg’s mantra of leaving the magic in the unknown applies to this film as much as any other. It was foolish to spell out this coupling in such a visual way – how much more romantic would this relationship have been if it had been left in a more ambiguous way? I’m inclined to think that it would have softened the blow, given the numerous other problems this film harboured.
A myriad of themes and homages came flying onto the screen like closing credits of a blockbuster. Del Toro was trying too hard to interlink them all and his work suffered because of this large, tangled mess. Of all my reservations that I have about this film, the lack of uniqueness is the most poignant absence. It truly is nothing that we have not seen before. It’s a pity that 2018’s Best Picture Oscar is nothing more than a mashup of various genres and only perpetuates the problem of underdeveloped characters. That desire for the unknown and the unexplored is what we are still missing in film.