Review of The Shape of Water. Think of the major themes Hollywood has pushed for the last decade, and you’ve got the script for The Shape of Water. Don’t believe me? Give it a try. How about diversity, physical handicaps, forbidden love, same-sex attraction, racial bigotry, xenophobia, evil white male patriarchy, nudity, gratuitous sex and violence, plus a heavy dose of nostalgia?
Replay in Slow Motion
Diversity — A humanoid water creature as male romantic lead
Physical handicap – mute female as romantic lead
Forbidden love – love and sex between different species
Same-sex attraction – middle-aged gay male artist
Racial bigotry – black couple refused seating in a café circa 1965, which has no relationship with the plot
Xenophobia – Russians as villains
Evil white male patriarchy – a 5-star general & a CIA-type
Nudity – male and female protagonists
Gratuitous sex – The CIA-type villain
Violence – throughout
Nostalgia — Set in mid-1960s America
Some might argue that because these themes are so well-worn, they create sufficient cultural resonance to attract the audience. Definitely the romantic leads create an arresting dichotomy in the examination of similarities between two different species. Sally Hawkins plays the mute brilliantly and the film crew creates a humanoid that is horrifyingly wonderful. The scenes of the friendship and sexual involvement of the handicapped woman and the humanoid water creature are sensually framed with music that tells the audience how to feel. In many scenes, the actors achieve tenderness.
So, yes, go see the movie if you have a little extra time and money.
Physical Laws of Earth
But here’s the thing, The Shape of Water fails spectacularly in two crucial ways. First, a film that combines a fantasy element with the real world has to navigate the laws of both worlds. It doesn’t.
Here’s my evidence: The mute woman fills the small apartment’s tiled bathroom with water at least to the 8-foot level, because we see the large humanoid (likely 6-foot compared to the female) submerged and floating. Of course, this provides a few moments of humor as the water pours into the theatre below.
However, are we really expected to believe that when the middle-aged gay friend opens the bathroom door to find the source of the water leaks, that just a quick rush of water comes out and then stops? The audience knows it’s a wall of water against that bathroom door. Yet, after he exhibits respectful wonder at the heterosexual love scene, he then closes the door. What? That’s not possible with heavy, real-world water.
Submerged in an artificial pond of scummy water, early in the film, the humanoid suddenly thrusts his beak-like mouth, as a lizard would do, to capture some food; but within a day or two he has learned to sit human-fashion at a kitchen table, all soft dewy lips.
He bites off the fingers of the villain in a scene of blood and gore; but a few film-minutes later he docilely accepts the female’s offer of an egg, all before she’s even used civilizing music.
In the same vein, why would anyone believe that after we see the creature bite the head off a live house cat for its lunch, that five minutes later he will engage in tender coitus in a bathtub with a voiceless woman?
Come on! The rule of thumb allows one unbelievable thing! Not dozens.
Laws of Characterization
Second, for a film to be satisfying on a number of levels, the characterization has to be honest. It isn’t. Here’s my evidence:
1. Villains from Melodrama
The CIA-type operative played his melodramatic role with fiendish slap-dash, all horror-film style. No nuance of character whatsoever. But imagine what could happen to the storyline if he has some kind of driving motive for his actions that is actually honorable. What if he is prey to a certain flaw, a craving of some sort that causes him to choose evil. We could admire this guy if he didn’t have this one awful predilection. He’s charming enough to care about, but then he makes this same mistake again and again.
That’s what an audience wants. We’re fascinated to see somebody as flawed as we know ourselves to be enact the wrong choices we don’t want to make. There must be tension over what the villain will do next. Will he choose the good, the noble at long last and make things right? None of that happened in The Shape of Water.
From a plot stand-point, there’s not a lot of need for the Russian operatives. They do nothing interesting. A chase scene. Dead bodies. Inhumanity. Unmitigated brutality. We get horror-flick murder with all the grisly choking and writhing, the blood and the stench of rotting flesh (so we are told several times). All the uselessness of everyone’s sordid little lives.
2. Side-kick Roles Wasted
If your two romantic leads can’t have a conversation, it’s absolutely essential to have side-kicks to do the talking for them. Octavia Spencer plays a convincing work-place friend; in fact, the screen lights up when she’s there. But the screen writers waste the possibilities of both the gay artist next door and the Russian doctor. Both of them could have been strong foils who also advanced the plot.
The gay artist gets a lot of screen time and he’s a likable guy. His drawings of the water creature appear to be a break-through in his artistic development and beg to be incorporated into the plot line. But that strand goes nowhere.
Similarly, imagine for a moment that the Russian doctor role creates a man of strong ethical conviction who has the personal integrity to make a valid stand against his benighted superiors. We’d care about his peril. We’d root for him to help save the humanoid water creature despite the conflicting values of his homeland. But no, we get a stereotypical wimp who is given so little to do in the script that they bump him off just to get rid of an extraneous character. What a waste.
The Shape of Water has thirteen Oscar Award nominations in 2018, including, of all things, Best Original Screen Play!
So now you know how to do it. Say the same thing everybody says, thereby creating enough cultural resonance so that crowds of people will admire your film, pay you lots of money, and give you awards.