The Shape of Water (2017)
Based on an idea by Daniel Kraus And Guillermo del Toro
Another installment of “waitstaff recommends.” Now, I like me monsters of all kinds, and del Toro has given me plenty of those sorts to enjoy over the years I’ve known of him as a creator. One would think that in turn this movie would have already been in my queue before this, but to be frank it largely was marketed as a romance movie from anyone I had heard speak of it review-wise and well, if we couldn’t guess from previous entries, I’m more of a dumb action and cheesy horror kind of person so I had passed it up. Still, when it comes up as a recommendation, who am I to decline? Let’s see if it can live up to it’s praise or if I find something to be fishy, let’s check out The Shape of Water.
So we start off with a lovely underwater “dream scene” of sorts, and it’s setting things up as I would expect - something slightly fantastical, grounded but also largely like a fairy tale of sorts. It’s a good first step to prep for whats coming later down the road. We then get something that I didn’t expect - nudity and some bathtub masturbation (although nothing really too graphic in the sense, unless your the kind of person who considers any nudity graphic). Really didn’t expect it, but in a way that’s also a good thing - this movie says to me “hey buddy, I’m gonna keep you on your toes some. You think you got my number, but you don’t.” To be honest, it isn’t wrong about this statement either. Yes, there are steps that I do see coming, things playing out in an way that broadly my mind would paint as an outline - but at the same time, little things here and there just want to step sideways and do their own thing, all while providing a lot of fat to chew for the type of person who likes to unpack a movie as more than just mind-off entertainment.
The setting here is more a time period to stand out than necessarily the lab or the apartment or anything of that sort - yes, these are things that exist and they all look quite well, but most of the “baggage” a person would engage in comes from the setting. The idea of the hidden communist agents, the terror of “the gay”, the segregation or general down-looking upon the black folk - these are all things that a person might expect for the time frame, but the movie uses them well in contrast to the “American dream” and it’s own terror, as well as something like a physical defect or the elephant in the room - a straight up maritime creature captured from the amazon with a humanoid shape and abilities unknown that’s worshiped by the natives as a god. Yeah, unpack that last part a bit in this little slice of key lime pie. The elephant is what you mainly expected based on trailers, but then you get the entire rest of little social commentary tidbits that all somehow tie into the whole vilification aspect that’s going to be a keystone on the whole inevitable inter-species relationship that’s going to bloom (because after all, this is a romance movie).
Now, part of making this all work comes to the writing - if it isn’t written well, things are going to come off jarring, campy, dishonest, or unrealistic. If not acted well it could again fail - being campy, lacking respect, not being entertaining or engaging, or what some might refer to as just “bad.” What a person doesn’t always think about however is the actual editing in regards to this - placing things and giving them their time without overstating it’s presence. Here, all of these things seem to be pulled off well, but it’s the last that I’d like to point out at the moment. At first, you might just get subtle hints that a character might be gay for example. Perhaps it’s an inflection in his speech that you don’t even notice. In a later scene, you get the impression that perhaps there’s something more going on between that character and another. In a final scene of the “arc” you may finally get a straight up declaration (without words necessarily), and see the reaction to it from other characters - which in the world of today might seem a bit unbelievable, but for the time was quite common - that then goes on to actually pivot that character in a plot related way. This is the important part - the payoff. A lot of movie might throw things in just to fill out a “resume” for their character to make them feel deeper or more fleshed out, but it doesn’t really actually add to the plot in any conceivable way. Here, we take all that time that might have just been cute or tense or building moments, but tie it all back to the main plot as though to declare “look, I wasn’t just throwing in filler to pad the time buddy.”
Of course, even the best lain roads can be destroyed by the careless, so it’s also quite fortunate that the actors here all do a great job. Chemistry across the board comes off pretty well spot on, and you find yourself enjoying how adorable the neighbors are, or sympathizing with to some extent the movies villain as you get this picture of him being a bit more troubled than simple evil for evil’s sake. The addition of the language barrier can also help at times, sometimes for a joke or largely to hammer home a line later on that the lead delivers about not being seen as broken or incomplete. If the actors weren’t playing these parts straight faced, it would have been very, very easy for this movie to go overboard into being something that couldn’t be taken serious - I’d argue a lot of romance movies are that way to begin with. Of course, the romance does play into it, and with the bulk of it signed out to you and even narrated over by the one being signed to, it’s pretty hard to miss the reasons and logic behind it. As weird as it might seem to be bonding to a creature that looks surprisingly like it came from a certain Lagoon, you can’t much argue with the reasoning, and it again just helps to ground the situation to some extent. Yes, at times some of the characters can feel a bit overblown - the machismo of the general and the “villain,” the Russian cell and how they act about their code words, but largely even those actors feel like they are doing what they were intended to be doing.
Effects here are pretty darn good. Outfits and furnishings look appropriate for the era it’s going for - which not being strictly modern means it can be a more noticeable thing despite most outfits still being relegated to “everyday clothes.” Violence, when it pops up, doesn’t over blow itself and looks solid without being too stomach upsetting. The strongest bit is largely probably a cat death, although some might say some missing fingers would be more impactful in the long run. Of course, the lab gets to play it up with it’s fancy containment room, allowing some science fiction to bleed through with a big containment tank and this little observation tube surrounded by all sorts of consoles and the likes for keeping track of the research I assume. The main dish, however, is without a doubt the creature of the feature, who looks quite impressive with the little detail movements on things like fins and blinking eyes as well as just on a whole. Of course, you think it’s impressive enough, and then you hit the point when you learn this little beastie has some bio-luminescence to it and it becomes even further impressive. The person in the suit nails some good body language at times as well, making for some pretty believable stuff that I can only imagine is in part why other actors interactions with it come off so well. There’s also a few floating scenes - such as the opening shot that looks quite nice and few others later that aren’t bad although I’d argue the opening is the better of them considering it’s feel of wonder.
Of course, this thing isn’t going to be for everyone. Although the inclusion of a creature might help, it’s still at it’s core a romance movie for better or worse. At one point, it even has a musical number totally inspired by films the characters watched on the telly in black and white. I’m serious, it happened. Beyond that though, it’s something that I think those who aren’t adamantly against romance movies would be able to enjoy for the assorted collection of things going on - they mystery of the monster that never really gets answered, the relationship of the characters, the thriller side of the embedded agents part. None of these things will overshadow the fact that it’s a love story, but they do all exist. Some people might not be so fine with the era setting either, and might find themselves a bit uncomfortable by the things it brings to the table to help support that main romance ideology. It happens. For those who appreciate it, the nudity is there (only female, except a dude butt at one point unless you include the creature who is technically always naked). For those who frown upon that sort of thing, it’s still there regardless. Likewise with the masturbation or sex themes running in there - nothing graphic is really shown in most instances, unless you consider some thrusting without details beyond dude butt graphic. I guess I could see why you might, given it’s a bit more than just an implication. I’m just saying the movie never turns into a porno, but it’s still not really appropriate for the younger crowd.
It’s a pretty good movie. From the hype of it that I had heard - which was nothing to extravagant - I’d say it lived up to it. That said, even with a wonderful creature and a beautiful message, it still falls into that watery realm of romance movies as a whole for me, where largely after once I’m pretty well done with it. It’s not the fault of the movie by any means - it knocks it’s intent out of the park as far as I can tell - but it’s no Princess Bride. It handles it’s elements both fantasy and real quite masterfully, and has a good cast to back it up even if you don’t know who they are. The soundtrack and effects fit their roles and pull their weight, but largely if the trailer can’t sell you on it then watching it probably won’t change your opinion too much regardless. It’s better than some romance movies just because of it’s branching out with that creature element, allowing it to be a bit more than your standard cookie cutter Hallmark movie, but really what else could be expected when you see a name like del Toro attached?