Co-screenwriters Vanessa Taylor and Guillermo del Toro tell a science fiction romance in Cold War America, with mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) working as a night janitor in a high-security government laboratory. When she discovers one of their hidden projects - an amphibious, fish-like creature - Elisa not only befriends “the asset,” but falls into a romantic relationship. Despite its talented cast and stylistic veneer, the stranger-than-Stranger-Things feature is overhyped. (BKP: 3/5)
Review by Managing Editor Brigid K. Presecky
You most likely know the story of E.T. (you know, the extra-terrestrial?); a story of a young boy who befriends an alien through Reese’s Pieces and the help of Drew Barrymore. Now imagine that script was rebooted as a romance, but with hard-boiled eggs and Richard Jenkins ... and less than half the charm. Much like the plot from a college film student, the story takes place at a secret government laboratory in 1960s Baltimore. While gay people stay closeted, black people are turned away from diners and housewives jiggle their Jell-o molds, the cliche image of the Cold War are front and center here.
The only unique factor is its protagonist, impressively portrayed by Hawkins. Her mute character of Elisa works the night shift as a janitor at the Occam Aerospace Research Center, a facility run by evil boss Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who washes his hands before going to the bathroom (if that tells you anything - the metaphor was lost on me). When Strickland brings a mysterious fish-man discovery stateside, the lab’s doctors entrap him in a saltwater tank, providing Elisa with an unlikely new friend who enjoys eggs and new music. Without much substance, viewers realize they are now lovers. Suspension of disbelief is obvious, but suspension of story structure is disappointing. Their romance is disrupted by unnecessary subplots of supporting characters, particularly Strickland's home life with his son, daughter and wife cut out of a Coca-Cola advertisement from 1961. Their exposition takes away from the main story being told, despite the enormously enjoyable screen presence of Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer as Elisa’s staunchest allies.
The stunning, cinematic style feels like an homage to sci-fi films past, but within the four walls of the laboratory or Elisa’s apartment above a movie theater is a mismatched story with gratuitous nudity and gruesome visuals. “Film lovers” - the critics and/or students who fancy themselves in tune with the fine art of movie-making (who may throw around buzzwords like “Coen Brothers” or “Quentin Tarantino”) - will find this story perfectly suited for them. They may find Eliza’s connection with the merman fish romantic or even beautiful. For me, the bizarre outweighs the beauty. The tropes of the mid-20th Century are nothing new. And Octavia Spencer should never be just supporting.
© Brigid K. Presecky (12/8/17) FF2 Media
Social Media Manager Georgiana E. Presecky
Between the second season of Stranger Things and Guillermo Del Toro's feature The Shape of Water, this year I've learned that you shouldn't keep any mysterious creatures as pets, because they will almost certainly eat your cat.
Though the former is a science fiction series about friendship and other dimensions in a small Indiana town, the latter is the love story between a mute woman and an amphibious sea creature kept in a government lab. Despite memorable performances from Jenkins, Spencer and Shannon, The Shape of Water feels like a hodgepodge of films I've seen before - and didn't care for much - with an entirely original and bizarre aesthetic.
In high school English literature classes, students learn about types of conflict - man vs. man, man vs. self, man vs. society, man vs. nature, and man vs. technology. Though critically acclaimed and unequivocally unique in both style and narrative, this feature combines all of those conflicts, and takes each one just a step too far. Through no fault of its interesting (and at times mesmerizing) tone and absolutely outstanding cast, this well-made, well-meaning feature is drowning in symbolism. (GEP: 3/5)
© Georgiana E. Presecky (12/8/17) FF2 Media
Top Photo: Sally Hawkins as Elisa.
Middle Photo: Hawkins with Octavia Spencer as Zelda.
Bottom Photo: Elisa and "the asset."
Photo Credits: Dan Laustsen (Double Dare You Productions)
Q: Does The Shape of Water pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?