As has happened before, I face the dilemma of reviewing a film that I have been clearly instructed to like, yet did not actually like. But, one might ask, what is there is dislike about The Shape of Water? It is the work of an author-director, Guillermo del Toro, who has repeatedly demonstrated his knowledge of, and fondness for, science fiction films, as well demonstrated by the excellent Pacific Rim (2013 – review here). Working with co-writer Vanessa Taylor, he has here chosen to craft a loving homage to a classic science fiction film, Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), offering an ingenious story and generally making excellent use of a strong cast and limited budget. The Internet Movie Database reports that the film has already won nine awards, with others sure to follow. So, why did I finding myself hoping that this non-particularly-long movie would quickly come to an end? Perhaps I was just in a crotchety mood, having had to drive a long distance to watch the film, currently in limited release, but I suspect I would feel the same way had I seen it at my friendly neighborhood theatre, since the film’s problems seem both overt and fundamental.
Let us begin with an issue that, everyone agrees, shouldn’t be important: the film’s special effects. Like other commentators, I have repeatedly argued that the quality of special effects bears no relation to the quality of a film, and I have praised excellent films with shoddy special effects and lambasted awful films with superior special effects. But if you are making a film about a monster, you need to visualize it with care, and that simply hasn’t happened here, for the Gill Man in the original film was far more persuasive, both as a terrifying menace and a tragic victim, than this film’s “Amphibian Man” (Doug Jones). This version of the creature – here abducted from his home in the Amazon River by government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and imprisoned for study in a secret facility near Washington D.C. – is too brightly colored, and too cartoonish in his appearance, to seem either frightening or likable; frankly, he looks like a villain in a Power Rangers episode. Noting the film’s resemblance to romance novels, I considered entitling this review “Tall, Dark, and Loathsome,” but I couldn’t, because the Amphibian Man is neither tall, nor dark, nor loathsome; he simply looks silly. And this strikes at the heart at the film’s appeal, which hinges on the idea that Strickland and his colleagues would fear and despise the creature while mute cleaning lady Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) would fall in love with it; observing the actors’ efforts to convey these reactions, one feels that they instead should be laughing at this ludicrous spectacle. One explanation might be that del Toro did not have permission to make an official remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon – Universal Studios is planning its own reboot of the film as part of its “Dark Universe” franchise – so he felt obliged to make his aquatic monster look very different, but the result of his choices is lamentably ineffectual.
In addition, one might imagine that this subdued, sensitive film would have nothing in common with a raucous blockbuster like Justice League (2017 – review here), but they share one unfortunate feature: an underdeveloped, unbelievable villain, implacably devoted to incessant evildoing for no clear reason. Every time Strickland appears, del Toro manages to provide yet another reason for despising him, and his determination to kill the Amphibian Man makes no sense at all, since a living specimen of a unique species (even if he has bitten off one’s fingers) is clearly more valuable than a vivisected corpse. (It is surely ironic that the persistently negative Strickland is observed reading Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking ). All one can say in Strickland’s defense is that the general (Nick Searcy) overseeing the project, and the Russians in contact with sympathetic scientist and spy Robert Hofstader (Michael Stuhlbarg), share his inexplicable obsession with killing the creature – which is even more striking because one of the stated reasons for studying him is to better understand his durability and survival skills, to assist in keeping astronauts alive in outer space, and one obviously can learn nothing about these matters if the creature has died. It is also surprising that none of the researchers ever notice the creature’s remarkable healing powers (later a key plot point), another excellent reason for preserving what they repeatedly describe as an “asset.” Furthermore, all of Strickland’s moustache-twirling antics are completely unnecessary; del Toro’s story could have unfolded just as well with a principled antagonist like Hofstader, seeking to keep the creature confined for research purposes while Elisa and her allies want to free it. And this cardboard villain is entirely out of place in a movie, otherwise filled with rounded characters, that seems designed more for art houses than multiplex theatres.
Still, the major source of my displeasure involves a topic I explored at length in a 2010 article, “Notes from a Mixed Marriage, Or, The Lady and the Monster” (here). Briefly, I argued that classic science fiction films often feature monstrous characters who, like their viewers, feel so fundamentally different from typical people as to merit, and desire, isolation instead of socializing; in contrast, contemporary films maintain that their strange creatures, if only given a little TLC, can effortlessly be domesticated and integrated into normal society. As it happens, these thoughts were prompted by my wife’s reactions to the second Gill Man film, Revenge of the Creature (1955), and I noted that Hollywood had declined to remake Creature from the Black Lagoon and similar 1950s films because of their “disquietingly ambiguous aliens or monsters,” preferring creatures that are either relentlessly loathsome or adorably cuddly. Now, just as the people who remade The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008 – review here) solved the problem by making their Klaatu thoroughly despicable, del Toro has solved the problem by making his Gill Man thoroughly lovable, and from the start he is visibly aiming for a happy ending.
In a filmed interview shown at the end of The Shape of Water in Arclight Theatres, del Toro explained the origins of this film: at the age of six, he had watched Creature from the Black Lagoon on television and longed for the Gill Man and Julia Adams to get together; later, encountering a similar story (apparently by Daniel Kraus), he purchased it and started working on the film. One shouldn’t be too harsh in criticizing the aesthetic judgments of a six-year-old, but the young del Toro clearly misread the film; the point of Creature from the Black Lagoon is not that Adams should have embraced the Gill Man and settled down with him on a riverfront plantation, but that the creature’s passion for her was an imprudent error, best resolved by having Adams and her colleagues leave the creature alone – or, at best, maintain some sort of distant relationship. Indeed, the essential argument of the third, very flawed film in the series, The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), is that any effort to make the Gill Man human, or treat him like a human, will only make him, and the people around him, very unhappy.
Of course, recasting the Gill Man as a misunderstood nice guy is in perfect keeping with the film’s manifest, and thoroughly contemporary, theme – its “celebration of difference” (the phrase used by del Toro’s interviewer). With older Caucasian men as his villains, del Toro seemingly made his way through a checklist to foreground characters that, in various ways, represent all of the groups that have shamefully been despised and oppressed – poor people, racial minorities, people with disabilities, homosexuals, foreigners – presenting them all as wonderful people and criticizing the misguided folks in 1962 that weren’t treating them with the respect and kindness that they deserved. The Amphibian Man, then, fits right in as yet another outsider who is being mistreated for superficial reasons when he’s really just another person who wants and needs to be loved; and we know his heart is in the right place, since Elisa says, “He doesn’t know what I lack or how I am incomplete.” This is all well and good, as far as it goes, but the aliens of science fiction, as I once noted, are both “metaphors” for humans and “real possibilities”; and if we ever encounter intelligent aliens, we must anticipate that they will actually be, well, alien (as Gregory Benford reminds us). Even some human beings are genuinely strange (hello!), and their strangeness should be acknowledged and dealt with; arguably, if you say that hey, underneath our white, black, brown, or blue skin, we’re all really just the same, you’re not “celebrating” difference – you’re ignoring it. In sum, if we ever discover a creature that is half human and half fish, I don’t think we’re going to solve all our problems by giving him a hug – and the same might be true of some people as well.
While its sensibilities are completely modern, The Shape of Water is also an exercise in nostalgia – for two eras of American history. First, the story is set in 1962, a year undoubtedly chosen because, with the space race and Cuban missile crisis, it represented the height of the Cold War, and the competition between the Americans and Russians to exploit, or slaughter, the Amphibian Man is one key element in the film. Characters are seen watching episodes of television series that were aired around that time – Hong Kong (1960-1961), The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-1963), Mr. Magoo (1960-1961), Mister Ed (1958-1966) – and the seedy theatre underneath Elisa’s apartment is showing Mardi Gras (1958) and The Story of Ruth (1960). The only historical inaccuracy is the implication that John Glenn’s pioneering orbital flight (in February, 1962) came just days before President Kennedy’s speech about the Soviet missiles in Cuba (in October, 1962). Yet the film’s main heroes – Elisa and her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) – are more devoted to the popular culture of the 1930s and 1940s; Giles enjoys watching old movie musicals like Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda’s That Night in Rio (1941) and Faye’s Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943), while Elisa watches Shirley Temple’s The Little Colonel (1935) and entertains the Amphibian Man with a recording of Glenn Miller’s “I Know Why (and So Do You)” (1941) and a Benny Goodman album. In the film’s strangest sequence, Elisa imagines herself singing and dancing with the Amphibian Man in a glitzy black-and-white set modeled on the Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930s. We hear other old songs like “Babalú” (1941) and “Theme from A Summer Place” (1959), and the locker room where Elisa and co-worker Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) prepare for their labors is incongruously adorned with the World War II poster “Loose Lips Might Sink Ships.” Reflecting his proclivity for the past, Giles muses, “I was born either too early or too late,” and says to the Amphibian Man, “Maybe we’re both relics.”
One can develop several explanations for this film’s many references to vintage American popular culture. If nothing else, including numerous excerpts from films, television shows, and songs that most young people have never experienced, or even heard of, provides the film with an ambience of novelty. Some of the characters observed – the Moabite Ruth, the Brazilian Carmen Miranda, the blind Mr. Magoo, Dobie Gillis’s beatnik friend Maynard G. Krebs, and the talking horse Mister Ed – could be related to the film’s “celebration of difference.” The songs and musicals of the 1930s and 1940s above all else foregrounded romance as the central human experience, so her repeated exposure to this material may have made Elisa more inclined to view the Amphibian Man as her potential partner; and while the only signs of Giles’s emotions are his fondness for cats and a fumbled effort to pick up a restaurant employee, his sentimental advertisement paintings of happy families, and his willingness to assist Elisa in freeing the creature, show that he is also a romantic at heart.
There are finally three significant absences to discuss in this film. First, unless one counts the fantasy of Mister Ed, del Toro does not include any science fiction movies or television programs in his panoply of film clips – perhaps because they are insufficiently romantic in their disinclination to embrace their monsters. It is even possible that he could not obtain permission from Universal to feature excerpts from their classic films in a competitor’s product. (Interestingly, I just checked, and it seems that every film del Toro shows was made by Twentieth-Century Fox, precursor to this film’s company, Fox Searchlight.) Second, the filmmaker del Toro unsurprisingly does not provide an abundance of references to literature to match his use of films and music, indicating a belief that they are no longer significant aspects of our culture. In fact, instead of consulting books of quotations like other filmmakers, del Toro may be employing a new strategy of making up his own literary quotations to suit the film’s purposes. That is, I invite knowledgeable people to show that I am mistaken, but repeated internet searches suggest that Vladimir Lenin never said, “There is no profit in last week’s fish”; despite a vaguely similar quotation from Voltaire, there is no precise analogue to the film’s calendar maxim, “Life is but the shipwreck of our plans”; and there is no centuries-old poem stating that “unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me.” Still, instead of charging him with duplicity, one could also praise del Toro for his originality.
It is also telling that the only major character who never watches television, or never displays any interest in popular culture, is Strickland, as he ignores the programs his children are watching and doesn’t listen to music. Implicitly, then, the film argues that there is a relationship between people’s morality and their attentiveness to films, television, and music, though the direction of causality is uncertain. Perhaps, because they so frequently enjoy popular films and songs, Elisa and Giles have become good people; perhaps, because they are good people, they enjoy popular films and songs. Conversely, the absence of popular culture in Strickland’s life either has brought about, or reflects, his sinister nature. In making a film that emulates, however bizarrely, the old movies that Elisa and Giles prefer, then, del Toro is, in an understated way, praising both himself and his audience: I have made a film that inspires people to be good and/or attracts good people, and if you love this movie, and want to see it again and again, you must be a good person. On the other hand, if (like me) you don’t love this movie, and don’t want to see it again and again, you must be a horrible person like Strickland. Oh well; this is not the first time that I have been classified as cold and unfriendly, but sometimes, displaying those traits is the job of an honest film reviewer.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, based on a story by Guillermo del Toro
Starring Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy, Stewart Arnott, Nigel Bennett, Lauren Lee Smith, Martin Roach, Allegra Fulton, John Kapelos, Wendy Lyon, and Morgan Kelly
Gary Westfahl has published 25 books about science fiction and fantasy, including Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012), A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website. He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books. His most recent books are the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History (2015) and An Alien Abroad: Science Fiction Columns from Interzone (2016), now available from Wildside Press; ; his forthcoming books include Arthur C. Clarke and Bridges to Science Fiction and Fantasy: Outstanding Essays from the J. Lloyd Eaton Conferences.