The Shape of Water
Grading the Movie by Arthur Cola
When I was a young boy, I was fascinated by two movies. One was “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and the other was “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and its sequel.
I choose to think that the Director and co-writer of The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro) must have seen the latter film and pays it homage in its opening segment when an Amphibian Man Creature (played by Doug Jones) is found in the Amazon and brought to a secret location in America similar to what happened in the Creature from the Black Lagoon films. That bow to a classic sci-fi flick being made, the similarity between the films ends, save for the developing relationship between the Amphibian Man and Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins), who is a cleaning crew member in the secret installation where the creature had been brought to be studied but more like to be experimented upon.
Guillermo sets his story in the early 1960’s. He places within its tale of star crossed lovers from literally different worlds and species all the most relevant hot topics of our 21st Century time. Elisa is a woman of little education due to her disabilities which is that she cannot speak. Beautifully and tenderly portrayed by Sally Hawkins, Elisa comes to care for the creature. He is chained in a water tank in the lab which she cleans each night. Her co-worker friend, Zelda, played by Octavia Spencer with such nuance and mastery that one believes you have been transported back to 1962. But then what can’t Octavia do when it comes to acting.
Now Elisa may be color blind and species blind but society in Maryland, where the story takes place is not. We are talking about a sad time in American history in which minorities due to color, sexual preference and disabilities are not woven into the fabric of southern culture of the day in particular. And Guillermo makes sure you are reminded of what’s going on in the time period in which this tale is set in a unique way. In various scenes, a TV show or news program is being shown in the background. Thus we see Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement, while in the story line we are introduced to Elisa’s non-workplace friend who is an older gay man fired from his job because he is gay. Giles played with touching sadness yet courage by Richard Jenkins is rejected as a person but also as an advertising artist and there’s no question as to why he is. So he escapes into the world of his art and old musical films (also seen as background TV programming). You will enjoy the selections Guillermo makes for those films for they counter the dark sinister life the main characters are leading as they struggle for acceptance and respect in the workplace as a woman or gay man, or a black woman standing up for her convictions. In my case it was the clip of Carmen Miranda with her fruit bowl hat singing a Latin tune. Now that is probably not politically correct by just stating that, but it’s so cool to see this little dynamo of a woman perform.
Enter into this developing tale of a lack luster life led by Elisa, Zelda and Giles the creature and the security man Richard Strickland played so evilly by Michael Shannon that you just want to jump out of your seat and smack him in the lower regions of his body of which he is so proud. Strickland terrorizes the creature to Elisa’s horror. She befriends the creature by feeding him eggs and is noticed by a sympathetic scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetter who is convincingly played by Michael Sthulbarg (who also appears in another Oscar nominated movie: “Call me by your name” this year). This time he is a secret Russian agent who is a scientist in charge of studying the creature. Ah, you got it; our military is chasing down Russian spies who put a man in space before us and who are seeking to capture and destroy the creature before the Americans can benefit from whatever his unique power may or may not be. This time, a Russian connection is found.
So there you have it. Every possible hot topic from the Military Industrial Complex, to Russian spies, to people of color seeking equal footing, to people who are gay seeking acceptance, to people who are disabled seeking respect has been brought into play in this movie. And guess what, in about ten minutes you forget all about the obvious references being made and thrust into your face and are absorbed into a love story and of friendship. You are thrilled by the hunt for the spies and the rescue of the creature by Elisa, Zelda and Giles, who hide him in Elisa’s apartment in her bathtub with Hoffstetter’s help. You are rooting for them as they defy Strickland the Security Guy who will stop at nothing to gain his reputation back after failing to stop the rescue. You are touched by the friendship which Giles finally finds in the creature after being rejected so often, even by the Pie guy in the restaurant because of who he is. Your heart melts as the Creature and Elisa form a bond so strong that it becomes other worldly as love conquers all.
Guillermo del Toro, who directed as well as co-wrote and came up with the story line, is a genius who is able to place within this film all those important issues of the day while not offending or being preachy about them. This film deserves to be a top contender for the Best Picture Oscar and by all reports it has a good chance to receive it. Thus it really doesn’t need my grade of “A” at all, but it deserves an “A” for its masterful photographic effects, moving scenes of love, chase and friendship, its actors making you believe in its story of defiance, courage and love, and for breaking the mold of typical Sci-Fi films of yesterday or today by giving heart to the creature. That scene in which Elisa is given a voice and is not only transported into a black and white musical number, as seen in the old movies Giles watches, but also has her dancing not with Fred Astaire but with the Amphipian Man is spectacular and too short. But it serves to show how we can overcome strange surroundings, the differences in our humanity and overcome obstacles seemingly insurmountable. But in the end it is a love story and that makes one feel good.