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The Shape of Water

by Glenn Erickson Aug 21, 2018

 

Miracle of miracles — last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner went to a genuine monster movie! Guillermo del Toro’s overachieving Gill Man spectacle features a gratifyingly anti-authoritarian attitude. The emotional love story is as pure as a silent movie — and has the sentimental commitment to pull an audience into its dreamy Fairy Tale horror fantasy.


The Shape of Water
Blu-ray
20th Fox Home Entertainment
2017 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 123 min. / Street Date March 13, 2018 / 29.99
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy, Stewart Arnott, Nigel Bennett, Lauren Lee Smith.
Cinematography: Dan Laustsen
Film Editor: Sidney Wolinsky
Original Music: Alexandre Desplat
Written by Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Produced by Guillermo del Toro, J. Miles Dale
Directed by
Guillermo del Toro

 

My favorite film from last year is The Shape of Water. After at least six viewings it still scores high in my estimation, and to record my thoughts I’ve selfishly chosen to pen this review of the disc released in March. The quality report down below is redundant, as most every Blu-ray disc released of a new title has a near perfect presentation. The UltraHD copy of the show, on a 4K monitor, looks as good as a theatrical presentation.

Guillermo del Toro’s original Spanish language thrillers are each imbued with a certain Latin flavor and poetry, and also a keen awareness of oppressive politics. He’s produced some Hollywood hits but has been less consistent with the projects he personally directed. A man of superlative taste who also has a deep reverence for fantasy and horror, del Toro has made some impressively wrought head-scratchers, the latest being the elaborate, emotionally nil Crimson Peak. We del Toro fans were worried — would he lose his standing as a bankable director? Would the Great Mexican Hope for non-franchise horror and sci-fi be taken out of the race?

2017’s The Shape of Water is del Toro’s fütbol kick out of the park, the picture that won him a Best Director Oscar to set aside those of his compatriots Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) and Alejandro Iñárritu; (Birdman & The Revenant). We originally heard that del Toro was taking on The Creature from the Black Lagoon (→) and had no idea that he’d use that beloved, somewhat campy classic as a starting point for an entirely original horror- sci-fi opus.

The Shape of Water is a winner in every respect. It’s a thematically dense film that rewards fantasy fans that value imagination and wonder over gore or cruelty. It operates first as a delirious amour fou romance. Instead of the generic monster theme of a creature run amuck, del Toro and his co-writer Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs) give us a tale in which marginalized Americans — the powerless, the rejected — resist The System. The main heroine is a sensitive mute who dreams of love. The system in question is the original liberal definition of the Military-Industrial Complex as forewarned by Eisenhower as he left office; idealistic innocents subvert the crimes of arrogant militarist villains. The ‘monster’ at first simply seems a fantastic fish-man from the antediluvian past, a Gill Man from another Black Lagoon. As if rediscovering the wonder and magic long lost to Hollywood fantasy, del Toro gives his fish-man a number of supernatural qualities… the thing may even be a god.

 

It’s 1962, in Baltimore. Janitors Elisa Esposito and Zelda Fuller (Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer) work in a high-tech secret military research facility. Elisa is amazed when an aquatic Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) is installed in a large lab outfitted with two water tanks; although the creature is clearly intelligent, it is referred to only as ‘the Asset.’ The G-man administrator in charge Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) thinks the creature is an abomination, and spends his spare time tormenting it with a cattle prod. The head scientist on the project Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) is appalled when told by General Hoyt (Nick Searcy) that the government has decided to kill the unique Amphibian Man. They feel they can learn about it from an autopsy; they don’t want the Russians to find out about it. Elisa lives in a room above an old movie theater. At work she’s soon spending her every unoccupied moment with the Amphibian Man. Communicating partly in American Sign Language, Elisa earns its trust. She discovers that it likes hardboiled eggs and swing music. Dr. Hoffstetler becomes aware of Elisa’s breakthrough but tells no-one; he has his own secret agenda. Elisa is soon enlisting Zelda and her neighbor, commercial artist Giles (Richard Jenkins) to help her pull off an elaborate scheme to liberate the Amphibian Man — and she has her bathtub back home ready to receive it. Fortunately, the supremely egotistical Strickland doesn’t suspect Elisa or Zelda, assuming that their status as women and menials makes them incapable of such a conspiracy.

The Shape of Water is a delight for film fantasy fans. It’s a stylized monster movie but also a strongly affecting drama that pulls in aspects of multiple genres. It’s sci-fi with a touch of horror, but is best described as a fanciful Fairy Tale, a supernatural fable with a semi-realistic context. The great Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky) contributes a classic performance that blends silent-movie expressionism with post-feminist heroics. The scenes in which Elisa gesticulates wildly to get her emotional point across, are the equal of mime work seen anywhere. The immediate point of reference will be two mime performances by Judith Evelyn, who played ‘Miss Lonelyheart’ in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and the deaf mute Mrs. Higgins in Castle’s The Tingler. Del Toro takes his subversive feminist heroine in daring directions. As in Cocteau’s La Belle et la bête Elisa falls in love with a fanciful monster, in this case scaly instead of furry. Del Toro transcends that reference as well — Elisa and her aquatic beau share interspecies sex. If one is going to break boundaries, don’t hold back.

 

Doug Jones’ magnificent creature is a thing with convincingly shiny fish scales, rich coloration and a mask-like face that reminds us of Cocteau. Patterns on its body glow when excited, or aroused. Thanks to the latest techniques (I don’t want to watch making-of extras that would dull the magic) its eyes have nictitating membranes; when he’s excited, his gills flutter and flare as a threat display. This obviously intelligent freshwater marvel is a Gill Man for the millennium, a symbol of natural wonders threatened by mankind. The Amphibian Man has superhuman potential but is also a savage animal, as an unfortunate cat discovers. That’s one kitty cat that Won’t Come Back, and its fate helps one to argue that The Shape of Water is much more than a nursery tale for liberals and tree huggers.

Del Toro takes from the Creature series the idea of a monster transported to civilization for study, and its attraction to a human woman. Like Universal’s Creature, the Asset cannot remain on dry land indefinitely — does that make him technically not Amphibian? He also reminds us of the biologically altered mer-man in the Soviet Chelovek-Amfibya (The Amphibian Man) from 1962 (←), a gender-swapped rethinking of the 1837 Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tale The Little Mermaid. Shape also riffs on the Andersen tale and especially the Universal mermaid fantasy Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948). That Nunnally Johnson screenplay features a dream-like amour fou romantic angle.

In terms of odd sex precedents, Ken Annakin’s 1948 comedy Miranda beats Shape in the race to portray an interspecies sex between a human and a fish-person: at the fade-out we see mermaid Glynis Johns with her baby, sired by Griffith Jones, a married man. The only difference is that the act happens off screen.

Matching the emotionally committed performances are political themes that are direct and unsubtle. American power is in 1962 becoming consolidated in blind militarism, not just because of fear of the Commies, but because of the ambitious, power-mad bigots in charge. General Hoyt and Richard Strickland are the kind of men that could assassinate a President. Hoyt is concerned first and foremost with his personal clout, while the psychotic, bigoted Strickland toadies for favor and promotion by cultivating belligerent Alpha Male qualities. Strickland relates to everything only in terms of his potency — his family, his car and his bullying status at work. He feeds on fear, and tortures the Asset as a way of not having to respect or understand it. In his egocentric worldview, Strickland must insult and dominate everyone around him. He makes advances to Elisa because he misinterprets her looks of veiled contempt as a sexual challenge. Michael Shannon fans may not be happy to see him typecast as yet another loathsome villain. And I think some of the audience will not like yet another film that demonizes an American White Male with undue power.

 

The Shape of Water saves its empathy for the powerless and oppressed. Elisa is marginalized as a woman, a menial worker and a handicapped person. Strickland feels comfortable telling Octavia Spencer’s Zelda that she’s created less in God’s image than he is. The rational pleas of Michael Stuhlbarg’s scientist not to kill the Amphibian Man fall on deaf ears; the cooperation of science and warrior in Golden Age sci-fi films is no more. They didn’t call it a Military-Industrial-Scientific Complex. Pure research will be tolerated only to the degree that it produces weapons systems.

Del Toro stacks the social comment arguments even higher. Although not oppressed directly by Strickland, Richard Jenkins’ Giles is another outcast willing to throw his lot in with Elisa’s activist conspiracy. A talented commercial artist, Giles lacks the judgment to know when to keep his forbidden gay impulses to himself. He’s lost his ad agency job, likely because his former art director is afraid he’ll be exposed as well. Giles also trips himself up by revealing his crush on a soda jerk. The culture of 1962 had no fair recourse for gays; Giles’ sense of worthlessness is all that is needed for him to go the distance with Elisa’s mad scheme.

 

The Shape of Water also folds in a direct Cold War espionage aspect, which for some viewers is one ‘big theme’ too far: Russian agents are also interested in the mysterious Asset, for the wrong reasons as well.

The exciting and suspenseful story builds on a number of surprises. With both a masturbation scene and a bloody mutilation incident in first reel, we can’t predict what will happen. The fear is that the show will become one of those films where everybody dies, with a pat moral for a curtain call, as sometimes happens in TV’s The Outer Limits. Del Toro’s most risky narrative swing occurs when Elisa’s despair warps reality into an Astaire-Rogers musical reverie. Elisa and her mer-man dance on a duplicate of the set for the famous, somewhat creepy Astaire musical number from Follow the Fleet, Irving Berlin’s Let’s Face the Music and Dance (→). As they first communicated through music, this fish & human dance to the song You’ll Never Know is okay; it helps that it’s barely forty seconds in duration. The ultimate sign of success is that audiences don’t laugh: the scene generates the same ‘doomed romantic melancholy’ from the Fred Astaire picture.

Literal-minded viewers have also expressed difficulty with the unlikely scene in which Elisa floods her entire bathroom just by jamming a towel under the door, creating a convenient underwater spawning ground for two. This of course connects with the dream opening in which Elisa experiences a foretaste of her own very interesting, very wet destiny. I’ve found that when viewers comment only this scene, it really means that the film hasn’t gotten through to them.

The show’s cinematic references are more than a little tricky, and none of them are cheap jokes. It took me months to realize that the choice of The Story of Ruth is no accident: two separate film writers almost immediately made the transcendental connection: Shira Feder (12.18.17) and Alissa Wilkinson (2.05.18). A knowledge of Bible literature is a valuable thing. But how the Fox film Mardi Gras fits in, however, is a subject for further research. What’s the significance that the enthusiastic theater manager wants to spell ‘Gras’ with a extra S?

When Strickland chains his Asset to a revolving platform for torture sessions, even casual monster fans will recall the Lon Chaney and Charles Laughton versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Asset is tethered to his exercise pool just like the Gill Man in Revenge of the Creature. And the design of the giant iron pipes behind the pool reflect the Asset’s covert status as a Brazilian god — the pool display is like the pagan altar in Caltiki, and similar designs in pagan epics like The Prodigal. And don’t forget that the lair of the original Creature, a supposedly completely organic sub-aquatic cave, sported an unexplained row of pillars that look like organ pipe tubes, as if the Gill Man once roomed with The Phantom of the Opera.

 

Let’s save the film’s wondrous manifestations of the ‘god’ theme as a possible spoiler, and just say that the miracles of the finale deftly sidestep the usual narrative pitfalls of sci-fi and horror. When a girl meets a guy, surrenders to him and decides he’s the answer to everything, who knows where she’ll end up? It’s a new world of gods and monsters, and a satisfying, uplifting finish.


A HUGE contributor to The Shape of Water’s success is its peculiar stylization. The arresting sets recall the ’50s nostalgia of Pleasantville but with even more detail. The steampunk enormity of the research plant interiors evoke the oppressive machine rooms of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Giles’ advertising layouts, the nostalgic theater with its CinemaScope double bill, the dinette (it’s a new thing called a franchise!) point us to the complacent, all-devouring consumerism of 1961. The boat-like, ostentatious Cadillac automobile is the ultimate status symbol.

Del Toro and designers have gone nuts with the color. We quickly become aware that the predominant hue of everything is either aqua, teal, or a mix of the two; practically every set and particularly those involving the Asset are very green, or teal. This includes Cadillacs, jello and lime pie. Is the rationale that making one color dominate creates a monochrome feel, so that contrasting colors seem all the more vibrant? With my attenuated color sense, I’m not the one to judge that. By the fifth viewing, this was the only aspect of Shape that I’d tweak… it’s not easy seeing green, or so much green-on-green.

 

The Shape of Water played Oscar roulette with all the right moves. It was nominated for 12 awards and won four, making it one of the most honored fantasy pictures in Academy history. The timing couldn’t be better. Patently liberal in tone, it struck a pro-feminist note just as the Harvey Weinstein affair heated up, and it’s outsider defense of artists, minorities, women and illegal-alien fish flies in the face of Philistine Trumpism. Best of all, it gives the jaded public a reason to love monster movies again, without apology. The Shape of Water does for monsters what The Silence of the Lambs did for serial killers.

Film critics also responded well to The Shape of Water, with reviews unashamed to use words like ‘poetic.’ The show has the outlines of great cinema that brushes with great ideas and avoids the solemn pitfall of pretension. It’s possible that it will be remembered as one of the more important films of its time.

I was personally bowled over, delighted to discover a humble MONSTER movie make the grade as one of the most impressive Hollywood productions of the year. Universal has been trying to relaunch its classic monster Creature since at least 1980, with separate efforts by John Landis and John Carpenter. The evidence in Tom Weaver’s book about the creature doesn’t make any of those projects seem promising, not even one written by Nigel Kneale. The closest the studio came was a live musical show on the Universal Tour. Universal’s attempt to shoehorn its horror franchise monsters into a Marvel-like cinematic universe have repeatedly failed. If the studio were wise it would engage Guillermo del Toro to oversee the project to re-invent the classic monsters in a respectful context. Guillermo would seem the right producer for the job.

 


 

20th Fox’s Home Video release of The Shape of Water comes in multiple formats; I purchased it as an UltraHD Blu-ray combo. In 4K UltraHD the contrast range and color definition are elevated beyond the excellent Blu-ray image; those greens that began to irk me distill into a rainbow of delicate shades that give objects more texture and dimensionality.

The show comes with several BTS and making-of featurettes; I’ve avoided them completely, preferring for now to enjoy the film’s fantasy undiluted. The film’s eccentric production design won an Oscar, as did Andre Desplat’s music score, which sets the dreamy underwater tone and forefronts hints of romantic melody.

Revenge of the Creature returns in Blu-ray 3-D in about a week, which ought to be a major treat for those of us 3-D enabled. That first sequel shows a more careful depth design than the original Creature and should be all the more entertaining. I’ve just now figured it out — returning to The Shape of Water is my way of mentally preparing for John Agar and Lori Nelson’s more primitive foray into girl hunting in a Florida Oceanarium. Cue Paul Anka: “And they call it, Guppy Lo-o-ve!”

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Shape of Water
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Featurettes: A Fairy Tale for Troubled Times; Shaping the Waves, a conversation with Artist James Jean; Anatomy of a Scene prologue & the Dance; Guillermo del Toro’s Master Class, trailers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 19, 2018
(5803shap)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.