Sunday, January 21, 2018

THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) movie review

The Shape of Water (2017) d. del Toro, Guillermo (USA)

This “adult fairy tale” sees Sally Hawkins’ mute cleaning woman falling in love with an unworldly beast after it is captured in the Amazon and spirited away to a generic top-secret research facility, with scientist Michael Stuhlbarg and government thug Michael Shannon vying for proprietary rights. What follows is a Visually Stunning Effort, with all creative collaborators working overtime to deliver a heightened urban landscape of the early 1960s (we hear references to JFK, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement), and the inimitable Doug Jones (Hellboy) donning arguably the most elegant rubber monster suit to grace the silver screen.

Full disclosure: I really wanted this to be the movie that renewed my love affair with GdT, following our early romance born with his Spanish-language films Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, and Pan’s Labyrinth, and our agonizing break-up in the wake of the strained humor of Hellboy II, the brainless stumble of Pacific Rim (don’t get me started), and the handsome but inert Crimson Peak. Unfortunately, despite (or perhaps because of) the accolades being showered, I couldn’t help but feel just a little disappointed by our unrepentant monster kid’s love letter to 50s-60s sci-fi/horror B-movies in general and Creature from the Black Lagoon in particular.

Several of del Toro and co-screenwriter Vanessa Taylor's subversions of genre tropes are successful, but for my money, the biggest flaw lies in their creating recognizable character archetypes and then failing to do anything with them interesting other than bestow more screen time. Hawkins is reliably impish, pure, and charming, providing a number of impressive shades considering her character’s limited box.

Similarly, Shannon is a Capital-V Villain, an unrepentant sociopath from the second he appears onscreen, but rather than travelling a conventional route showing us how and why he became the reviled antagonist he is OR showing us his few redeeming values OR justifying his single-minded hatred of the Other, del Toro merely doubles down on the evil, allowing Shannon oodles of screen time to repeatedly demonstrate what a bad, bad, bad, quirky, bad, quirky, bad man he is.

In terms of giving these gifted actors endless scenery to chew, Mission Accomplished, but with regards to serving the narrative arc, there is nothing learned about our hero or villain by the end of the movie that we hadn’t guessed from their first (beaming or glowering) moments. The same can be said about pretty much every single character we meet – we just keep learning the same things over and over and over while we marvel at the extraordinary production design swirling around.

Another bungled tweak of convention falls in the second act as Jones’ amphibian antihero escapes from his second prison – that of Hawkins’ character’s humble domicile. What should traditionally follow is the standard “stranger in a strange land” sequence, with the uncivilized creature’s rampaging through civilization (a la King Kong and a zillion others), encountering various “exotic” sights with curiosity or fury and being met with fear and violence until it can be safely recovered by our heroes or mercilessly gunned down in the streets. This trope doesn’t, in fact, occur, which is fine, but what happens in its stead is so completely mundane and devoid of dramatic payoff that one can’t help but say aloud, “Wait, that’s it? Why did you even bother having a dramatic monster escape at all?”

There’s no denying the artistry on display here, but I couldn’t latch onto the limited yet indulgent characters I was asked to emotionally invest in. Ultimately, I liked it instead of loving it, to the tune of a 7/10 rating (which, come on, folks, isn't bad).

Shape of Water will likely win some awards on Oscar night, perhaps even one for del Toro as Best Director, and I will quietly applaud, choosing to view it as a decade-delayed recognition for Pan’s Labyrinth, which still represents the high water mark for adult fairy tales, expertly blending joy, pain, fear, and redemption with sumptuous visuals, peerless technical expertise, and genuine moments of frisson.

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