The Shape of Water (2017) ***1/2
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Runtime: 2h 3m
Monster movies have been exploring the dynamics of inter-species love affairs since the 1930s with varying degrees of success and commitment. The trope was most popular in the classic period where inhuman monsters like Dracula (1931) and The Mummy (1932) lusted after beautiful young women. The trope reached it’s most memorable, and most absurd moment early in its development with the central love story of King Kong (1933), where “the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood” romanced Fay Wray. The trope would become less common as animalistic or psychotic antagonists in the 1950s and 60s replaced the romantic monsters of the classic period (Godzilla and Norman Bates were anything but romantic figures). Still though, such an influential story would never vanish completely, and even in latter days glimmers of the old romantic monsters would turn up. Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) was perhaps the most influential of these stylistic regressions. Not only would it spawn two sequels, but also its titular creature would be adopted into the Universal Studios monsters pantheon and inspire countless knock-off of varying quality. One thing remained consistent almost constantly throughout the gill-man subgenre though: The monster’s desire for human women. Usually though, the gill-man successors were less romantic than their forbearer. There is little evidence that The Monster of Piedras Blances (1959) loved his human prey, though plenty of evidence that the beast lusted after them. The whole trend reached its stomach-churning climax in the form of Humanoids From the Deep (1980), where a race of mutated fish-men kidnaps and rapes the women of seaside town. Obviously, by this point the genre had strayed pretty far from the sensitive, sympathetic gill-man of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).
The Shape of Water aims to bring the gill-man movie back to its romantic roots, and indeed go a bit further and stick a toe into the land of campy romance. At times, this move feels like a natural extension of the plot and characters (as is the case with the musical number, no really). However, Guillermo del Toro is not content to just stick to his central objective, he also wants to make The Shape of Water feel like a fairy tale. He sets about it right from the start with a voice over narration that purports to tell us the tale of two lovers and the monster that tried to separate them. From there, the audience is plunged into the simultaneously gloomy and cozy world of Elisa Esposito’s apartment over a crumbling movie theater. It’s like a shabbier, color-swapped set of Amelie (2001). Every day Elisa wakes up, makes lunch, masturbates furiously in the bathtub, and goes to work at a secret government laboratory where she works as a janitor. Elisa is a mute, so her morning ritual is conducted in complete silence apart from her interactions with her neighbor, a gay commercial artist named Giles, and her closest co-worker a black woman named Zelda. Elisa’s office is a sharp stylistic break from her home, being an aerospace research facility along the lines of Gog (1954). Here, rather abruptly the fairy tale aesthetic beaks down and we are moved into 1950s-60s sci-fi-land. Between the fairy tale, the sci-fi horror, and the absurd love story, there is just too many ingredients in the pot. It’s the fairy tale parts that come off the worse, feeling like bits that wandered in from another del Toro movie.
The film is set in the early 1960s, around the time of the Cuban missile crisis judging from the bits of Kennedy speech we hear on the radio. The United States is still trailing behind the Soviets in the space race following the still relatively recent Sputnik I and II launches. Five star general (note, the last five star general the US has had was Omar Bradley who retired in 1953 so I’m not sure if this is a joke, a mistake, or a sign that we’re in an alternate universe) Frank Hoyt thinks he’s found an ace that will give the US an advantage over their Russian adversaries: An amphibious gill-man who can adjust to different atmospheric pressures. It’s an adaptation that is a must for serious space travel, and given the creature’s rarity he can be sure it’s something that the Russian’s don’t have. The creature is moved to the Baltimore facility under the guard of Hoyt’s go-to adjutant Colonel Richard Strickland, so the lab boys can figure out what makes it tick. Hey at least they’ve got some reason for the sadistic experiments they’re conducting on the poor gill-man, the scientists in Revenge of the Creature (1955) seem to be just doing it for kicks/for the amusement of the audience at Sea World. That said, there’s no excuse for Strickland’s casual brutality to the creature.
The only problem is that this gill-man is just about as difficult to control as the original creature. Even under heavy retsraints and with judicious use of Strickland’s cattle prod, the monster still breaks loose every now and then to wreak some havoc. It’s after one such incident that Elisa and her friend Zelda are called in to clean up after. Most of the work at the facility is pretty mundane engineering stuff, so the pair is caught a little off guard by the blood smears and severed fingers. Elisa even catches a glimpse of the monster, but rather than being repelled by the creature she finds it strangely attractive. Elisa starts taking her lunch in the monster’s containment room (the facility really should revise their security protocols, if the most sensitive asset it has ever held is accessible by unsupervised cleaning staff). Slowly the two begin to bond, the mute woman feeling an immediate connection with the silent monster. One of these sessions is interrupted by the arrival of Hoyt, Strickland, and Robert Hoffstetler, the scientist in charge of researching the monster. So far, Hoffsteler has failed to learn anything about the monster’s anatomy, so Strickland is of the opinion that they need to draw up plans for a vivisection. Hoyt agrees with his subordinate, and gives the order. If Elisa wants to save her new love, she’ll have to figure out a way bust the creature out of facility.
Unfortunately, The Shape of Water is one of those films that is not content with merely being a fun sci-fi/horror/romance story, and instead feels the need to burden itself with a preachy political message. To be fair, the film does handle it effectively at least some of the time, like when Giles demands that Eliza switch away from a news broadcast about civil rights marches. It’s not subtle, but it’s quick and gives us an important part of Giles’ character; namely that despite his own status as a freak within the conservative political culture, he is unwilling to help others in a similar position. He’d rather hide than stand up and fight the forces oppressing him and others like him. This is something of an aberration, though and as the film progresses it becomes more and more obvious just what axe del Toro is grinding. The treatment of the central villain, Strickland, in particular seems like an attempt to vest all the evils of an entire culture in one man with none of the positive attributes. It’s not enough that Strickland is ruthless and cruel when dealing with the monster; he must also be racist, sexist, and physically disgusting to boot. Indeed, in one scene he threatens to rape Elisa out of nowhere, just in case we’ve somehow failed to grasp that he, and the rest of the military-industrial complex that he represents, are morally repugnant. After this scene, I suspected that henceforth in the film, every straight white male Christian would be depicted either as a buffoon or a sadistic rapist; I was not disappointed. Make no mistake about it; this is a movie that delights in feeling superior to the backwards racial, sexual and political views of the 1950s.
Except, those of us that have watched The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) will know that this is not really the case, and indeed that the older film is considerably more broad-minded than del Toro’s one. Obviously, The Shape of Water is flipping the script on the old monster movie formula; with the gill-man being the ostensible hero while Strickland (who would be the hero in a 50s horror movie) playing the monster. However, it’s not exactly a straight-up role-reversal, and those paying attention should immediately spot the difference. The monster in The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) was a sympathetic, even romantic figure. But Strickland, is never anything more than a monster. Right from the start he’s a sadistic, racist, asshole who's physically repulsive to boot (in the scene that introduces him to Elisa he urinates without washing is hands afterwards). Indeed, the film is not even shy about giving him monstrous deformities either; the colonel spends most of the movie with two decaying fingers sutured onto his hand (when he rips them off, near the film’s end, it’s almost a relief). As a monster he’s more in line with the gruesome beast from The Monster of Piedras Blances (1959) than the original gill-man. It is telling, that a monster film that sets out to treat its creatures in a more humane light falls into the same trap with its own antagonists as the least imaginative of its predecessors. Make no mistake, this is not by accident, and from what I can gather reflects the most closely held beliefs of the director. For all del Toro’s talk of broad-minded tolerance, he doesn’t really mean that. Tolerance is putting up with all sorts, even those you don’t personally like. By contrast, there is no tolerance for the cultural mainstream; to del Toro we’re never anything more than sub-humans. Ironically, a film desperate to signal it’s own enlightenment and the enlightenment of it’s filmmaker, comes across as far more narrow-minded than the average cheesy B monster movie from 60 years ago.
Given the tonal inconsistencies, and the clumsy politics that are nowhere near as liberal as the director thinks, it’s rather impressive that The Shape of Water is as good as it is. Part of it is that despite the political context around the central relationship, the love affair between woman and gill-man is not only believable but also down-right engrossing. Del Toro also has a good handle on just how seriously to take the, admittedly, absurd romantic pairing. It doesn’t hurt the movie surrounding the central lovers is damn good looking too. It’s obvious that a lot of care has gone into the design and lighting of these environments. Elisa’s apartment in particular stands out. The monster suit is lovely as well, though it’s a bit too evocative of Abe Sapien from Hellboy (2004) for my taste.