The Shape of Water- Impressions & Insights
February 7, 2018
Let me preface this by saying that The Shape of Water is an objectively brilliant movie. It stands out among all the quarterly piles of shit that get dumped into your local movie theater, which in itself is commendable. That in itself is worthy of praise because it’s harder to do than most think. There is no weak-kneed suggestiveness about themes, actions, or opinions throughout; for better or worse The Shape of Water is overt and blunt. I’d give it a 79% positive reception, which should not be sniffed at, because for all intent and purposes, I dismissed this movie. I am huge on Sci-Fi/Fantasy for every medium, but not every rating. Hard-R rated adult tends to…hit or miss in this department. And even when it hits off well, if the story continues, the subsequent installments can whiff even harder than a standalone project. Another red flag about this movie, despite the synopsis, it’s a very low-end dose of Fantasy. In fact, so much I wouldn’t consider this Historical Fantasy so much as Speculative Fiction. However, leveling with the stylistic choices of Guillermo del Toro here, even only an inch pays dividends in the movie experience. SPOILERS AHEAD!
One thing I commend The Shape of Water for in many regards is layering it’s R-rating properly. Too often, a film has one or two sexual scenes depicted in complete intimacy, where the rest of the run time might as well be PG-13. It doesn’t matter the maturity of the audience, this is jarring as hell and doesn’t lend itself well into the explicit material’s reception. However, The Shape of Water went out the gate with nudity/masturbation within the first ten minutes give or take. This is a crucial aspect for setting the stage. It’s establishes something more moderate so that the subsequent sex later on doesn’t come out of left field and feel squeamish.
However, what The Shape of Water did right in nudity, it fails spectacularly in tone. The very first scene of the movie is Eliza prepping for a day—or rather night—of work. She gets up, starts the stove, masturbates in the bathtub while the eggs are boiling, gets dressed, rips off a leaf from the wall calendar, shines her shoes, gets on bus, stares out into the sky before clocking in at the government laboratory. It came off bleak to me, or gritty at the very least, especially with repeated showing of this sequence throughout the film.
Everything is a literal interpretation, realistic accounting, barring two scenes. The first scene is when Eliza floods the bathroom to the ceiling in a wooden apartment. Granted, water is leaking, but between the amount of time it takes to fill completely, and how long the floor and walls are able to sustain the pressure, if nothing else, this has to be purely fantastical—far more remote from reality than anything else in this movie.
Aside from this, the Amphibian Man is the only thing fantasy, but is it much more rooted in realism. There is no buffer to lead credence to this astronomical leap of fantasy, which only leads me to believe that it isn’t in fact a real display of the story’s events, much like the second scene.
This one is similar, Eliza has an out-of-body experience that we were let in on. She gets her voice back, singing her love to the Amphibian Man in an allusion to the first scene watching TV with Giles. It is the only expressionistic scene of the whole movie, and although it’s well executed, it’s out of place, inconsistent. The story essential changed portrayal of emotions midway through just for that one shocking moment where Eliza “has” a voice, but the rest of the story is distinctly rooted outside the psyche of Eliza.
Love or Lust?
Go big or go home is good for many things—subject matter, drama, themes. Most literary works come up short by not dialing up the complexity/intensity of their story to its maximum potential. However, The Shape of Water doesn’t suffer from this. See, go big or go home has some exception: emotional connections. Subtlety, for all its bad rep, has its merits, and that is exemplify most of all in characters.
This is hands down my biggest complaint of the movie: The emotional connection between Eliza and the Amphibian Man is not earned.
The most crucial element in this story came up short. Why? Because I didn’t buy into Eliza approaching it in the laboratory for the first time, after Strickland lost his fingers to the damn thing, without a semblance of fear or caution. And for such naivete, she is rewarded, instead of mauled. From the very outset, the Amphibian Man made an exemption for her on his otherwise extremely violent behavior. Why? He hurts Strickland, he hurts Gile later, despite having no quarrel with him. Why is his guard dropped for Eliza before they even interact with one another? Other than the plot demands it, what prompts Eliza to see this freak of nature and immediately wish to communicate with it?
It falls into place after the fact, but the character motivation is choppy at best.
A high percentage of this movie’s run time is invested in this relationship, but at the laboratory, the only interactions they have is Eliza giving him eggs (and naming them) and playing a record in the chamber. See, The Shape of Water has the mindset of introducing an exotic relationship, without delivering on the exoticism. For all the trouble they have intermingling, it might as well have been some coworker at the factory.
This makes it hard to buy into where the story goes. Eliza plans an intricate and dangerous escape plan for the Amphibian Man over these small tidbits of socializing. At least the Russian spy, Dimitri, has a scientific motivation for keeping the Asset alive, and his job is already self-explanatory. For Eliza to rise to something, well over her head and anything extreme she has ever done before off of this, I never really thought it is earned.
Even after they escape the laboratory under the radar. The relationship has ample opportunity to evolve, but it kinda…doesn’t. For starters, the Amphibian Man never gets a name. That’s literally his title in the screenplay.
I never understood this decision for del Toro. It’s human nature to name things we grow attached to, and for the Amphibian Man to only be referred to as “the Asset,” or “the creature” detracts from the overall theme of the movie.
As a result of these shortcomings coupled with the sex scenes, the depiction of the relationship comes off more as lust rather than love.
The lack of avenue for easy communication doesn’t make it easier, but it shouldn’t constrict it this far. In regards to personality, the Amphibian Man is remarkably unremarkable. There’s no distinctive label I can find for him except, well, passive. There’s no playfulness, or protectiveness, or idiosyncrasies of his. Does he love eggs, but hate fish? Is he one to sleep at the back of the tank or bang up in the front? Does he originally start out as a copycat to Eliza, thus piquing her interest, and eventually learns the movements of her hands is a form of communication? It is too fixated on his abilities and captivity, that, for a fictional creature and the second most important character of the story, he is awfully flat as a character.
Strickland- Defining Moments and Deriding Moments
Aha! Now, we’re entering my abode! This is make it or break it territory, and, by the skin of his teeth, Colonel Richard Strickland made the movie.
It certainly didn’t seem promising to me at the beginning. The lead-in scenes featuring Strickland tried too hard to make him hated. His racism is depicted a bit over the top, and really, is the weakest aspect of his depictions as a character. For the ’60s, it is cliché, impersonal, and overall a caricature of the time period as opposed to an individual.
The redeeming part about him, as an antagonist, is the occupational pressure enforced by his superior, General Hoyt, after losing the Asset.
“This is—what happened here is—a man is faithful, Sir—loyal, efficient all of his life. All of it—and he is—useful. And he expects—he has certain expectations in return.
And he fails, then—once. Only once. What does that make him? Does that make him a failure?
When is a man done? Proving himself, Sir?”
This scene in his office. 1000x this! Holy shit, barring the “temple” scene at Zelda’s house, this is my favorite exchange of the whole movie. This perfectly ties up and justifies the time spent at Strickland’s home with his kids, and when he buys the Cadillac. At first, I question the menial investment in his story line, but this flipped a freakin’ switch. This made his character the most compelling of the entire story for me, and single-handedly saved the movie for me.
It’s personal; it’s a threat on all his life’s work coming to nothing. Racism or being obnoxious and authoritative are cheap currency for an antagonist. This brought about an entirely greater dimension into the plot of the story.
I had been aggravated with the power-hungry model of Strickland that was introduced, wondering why there is all this unnecessary conflict because of class/race, rather than the blaring divide in front of us: Strickland lost half his fingers because of the Asset. Of course he would be bitter, vengeful, and unsympathetic.
The temple scene was even a step above this one, though. Stitching his amputated fingers back together and having them rot on his hand is by far my favorite aspect of this movie. It’s a very Picture of Dorian Gray-esque thing to do, mirroring his decline of patience and self-image. And to have it all accumulate in the scene at Zelda’s house where he rips them off, after telling the end of the story of Samson is a stroke of brilliance. To me, this is the height of this movie’s storytelling. When the focus shifts more to the fall of Strickland, as opposed to the rise of Eliza and the Amphibian Man, everything falls into place a lot more potently and cleanly.
A bad story can turn great given a good enough ending. The Shape of Water didn’t have that going for it. It was predictable and say unearned. Yes, there was some establishing scenes prior about Amphibian Man’s healing powers, both to himself in the laboratory, and to others with Giles’s cut, but nothing even close to the damage that he healed in the climax.
In magic, there’s an importance for the creator to distinguish and define magnitudes of power. It’s crucial for implementing limitations of character abilities. Without this, there’s virtually no difference between the task of lighting a candle and the task of letting the entire world on fire. Similarly, lifting a feather would be just as simple as lifting a moving freight train.
While magic is a weird way to put it, that is essentially what this healing factor Amphibian Man has in his genetic makeup. And healing a cut on the arm or torso is nothing, nothing compared to healing bullet wounds. Not only does he heal his own wounds, but he heals Eliza’s as well. And what took a day to heal Giles’s wounds, took mere minutes. And he also transforms her neck scars into gills. This is several magnitudes higher than the abilities otherwise demonstrated in the story. It’s three distinct feats in an exponentially more difficult spectrum that, by the end of it, barely even seems to tax him.
It’s too easy. Why isn’t this strain on his already wounded body putting him over the edge? Where are the limits?
Not to mention, where is the point? If Eliza and Amphibian Man are shot critically in the finale, why is the severity of that so easily dismissed?
Could it have been stronger if Amphibian Man died saving Eliza? I think so, but I’ll level with del Toro. It’s his story, so if he wants a happy ending, at least remodel the finale to fit more to that narrative. It’s too clean, and too quick for my tastes. Strickland let’s his guard down too quickly afterwards. If he’s on a path of destruction, let him make the choice after shooting them to beaten over the head by Giles. The blindsided thing makes no sense. What did he expect would happen? Giles is literally right behind him and he had only knocked him down a second ago, two feet away from where he stands. The whole sequence of events to lead to the conclusion could’ve used some ironing before it was released. In fact, Strickland didn’t advance the plot at all really at the canal. Giles and Eliza were gonna release Amphibian Man, and the only blemish, at the end of it all, was that Eliza got to join him. So…uh, thanks, Strickland?
When all is said and done, though, I appreciated the work. A lesser movie wouldn’t put me up to making a 2,200 word post about its faults. I’m excited to see Guillermo del Toro’s coming projects, because, as great as The Shape of Water is, what’s upcoming from him is more of my speed.