The Shape of Water: a magic realist mash-up of several genres lays on identity politics and self-indulgence too thickly

Guillermo del Toro, “The Shape of Water” (2017)

Inspired by the famous Hollywood classic “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro delivers his homage to that film and Hollywood’s Golden Age in this magic realist mash-up of horror, science fiction, romance, spy thriller, musical and political / social commentary.  The main plot – a “Beauty and the Beast” recreation – is straightforward and quite thin, and the Beast is very much under-utilised to this viewer’s disappointment. What makes the film work is the various little sub-plots, several of them admittedly very undeveloped little hints to the point of being stereotypes, that flesh out minor characters and make them interesting in their own right, with a subtle message about how people live and cope in a highly restrictive and conformist society. The film is set in the early 1960s during the Cold War at its most paranoid and thus becomes a criticism of the current world political climate in which Russia is being constantly demonised by an American empire whose politics, economy, culture and influence are in severe decline.

The film bears comparison with del Toro’s earlier “Pan’s Labyrinth”: both begin and end as Gothic realist fantasies about fairy princesses born as fragile humans who undergo trials that test their mettle to prove they are worthy of their royal heritage. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) begins life as an orphan baby found beside a river with neck injuries that prevent her from being able to speak. She grows up mute and finds work as a cleaner at a secret government science laboratory in Baltimore. Fellow worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), an African-American, befriends her and learns how to interpret Elisa’s sign language for the other staff and their employers. Outside work, Elisa lives alone in an old, dilapidated apartment above a movie theatre next door to unemployed graphic artist Giles (Richard Jenkins) with whom she shares a love of old musicals and romantic comedies.

Not much happens for a long time until the laboratory receives a strange creature captured in South American by US Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Curious, Elisa discovers the creature is an amphibious humanoid (Doug Jones) and feels pity for it, especially as Strickland treats it cruelly by administering electric shocks with a cattle-prod. She secretly visits the creature and though neither can speak, they form a fast bond.

On discovering that Strickland has been ordered to kill and dissect the creature for any anatomical features that might benefit the US in its race against the Soviet Union to put humans into space, Elisa determines to rescue and eventually free the creature. She enlists Giles in an elaborate scheme to get the creature out of the facility. Zelda is quickly co-opted into helping Elisa and Giles as is also Dr Hofstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a scientist who happens to be a Soviet spy and who has been ordered by his handlers to kill the creature against his beliefs that it deserves to live for further study.

Elisa keeps the creature in her bath-tub at home and plans to release it into the city canal when the rains come and the canal opens into the sea. Meanwhile Strickland searches for the creature and interrogates the two cleaners without much success. An incident involving the creature, Giles and the artist’s two cats reveals the creature’s ability to heal wounds and delay some symptoms of advancing age. Over time, Elisa and the creature become romantically and sexually involved but as the days pass, the creature’s health deteriorates and Strickland begins to close in on this very odd couple in his search, especially once he discovers Hofstetler’s Russian identity after the scientist is shot by his handlers and tortures him for information about who is holding the creature and where.

The acting is very good with the stand-out performance being Michael Shannon’s tortured Strickland who, although a villain through and through, manages to elicit sympathy as a man who desperately desires approval and acceptance in a culture and a hierarchy that demand a great deal of him and more. He lives what del Toro imagines a typical social-climbing upper middle-class life-style in a stylish house with a submissive wife and two rambunctious children, and gives in to a salesman’s smooth pitch to buy the latest model Cadillac. What happens to the car later on helps emphasise Strickland’s existential torment as a human hamster who has willingly chained himself permanently to a never-ending capitalist wheel of constant material consumption and the need to prove himself to his superiors, his family and society at large. At some point in the film, after the grilling he gets from his superior, Strickland seems to realise that his situation is hopeless, that no matter how hard he tries he will never gain the approval he has sought all his life and this realisation throws him into a blind rage against Elisa, Zelda, Dr Hofstetler and the creature that endangers them all.

Elisa, Zelda and Giles are essentially marginal characters who through no fault of their own will never be accepted by a highly racist, prejudiced and judgemental society and who are more or less resigned to living on its edges. Elisa and Giles find relief from life’s daily grind through their friendship and their love of old Hollywood flicks. The actors playing these characters invest them with quirky spirit, with the result that viewers come away feeling that Zelda especially is a much under-used character. Dr Hofstetler comes across as a man of conscience despite his duplicity.

The cinematography is often very imaginative with ingenious segues from one scene to another suggestive of dreaming or seeing something through water. Dark colours emphasising the paranoid Cold War atmosphere and the characters’ isolation prevail throughout the film. In spite of all this, del Toro inserts comedy and a fantastical sequence in which Elisa gives vent to her dream of starring in her own B&W musical playing a Ginger Rogers to Fred Astaire … and guess who plays the Astaire role!

True, parts of the plot are forced – how does the creature manage to learn sign language so quickly? and Elisa’s scheme to rescue the creature and the help she gets from Zelda and Hofstetler strains credibility – and the identity politics aspect is painted very thickly. There’s no reason to assume that gays, handicapped people, non-white people and others who don’t conform to the heterosexual white alpha male archetype will readily help one another against a common foe in a highly stratified society as early 1960s, pre-Civil Rights America. Male characters tend to have some weakness or character flaw while female characters are steadfast with inner strength despite outward vulnerability. For some viewers, the film packs in far too much in the way of different genres, that some sub-plots appear stereotyped, and Elisa’s fantasy musical dream sequence may stretch patience too far.

Above all, as social and political commentary and criticism, the film is shallow and offers no new insights or perspective on US capitalism as a system that divides and then slowly grinds and destroys people, and through its hostility towards other social and political systems (such as Communism) and nature generally, distorts those other systems and draws them into a downward spiral of mutual paranoia, suspicion and further hostility. Compared to “Pan’s Labyrinth”, this particular fairy tale is lacking in punch.

The obsession with past Hollywood glories is becoming a feature of many Hollywood films now and draws this viewer’s attention to the general decline in the movie industry, in its ability to create or find new stories to tell and new or revitalised ways of telling them. Poaching movie directors as well as actors from foreign countries to the detriment of their film industries is another indicator of decline.