Greg Eichelberger reviews 'The Shape Of Water'

Greg Eichelberger
Staff Writer

Water, water everywhere, but not a plot to think …
Prepare for some major spoiler action, friends. Sorry, but in order to present this critique, I have to reveal a few things about this production. First of all, there are any number of what we call "Good Alien" films, from "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (the 1951, NOT the horrid 2008 version with Keanu Reeves) to "E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial."
However, "The Shape Of Water" is not your grandfather's "Stood" or even your father's "E.T." First of all, I don't think that Elliot and his cute space friend ever even THOUGHT of having intimate relations (ugh!), but here, that's the result. If I upset any readers, it's not intention, but in full disclosure, it HAS to be reported.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's first take a look at the positive aspects of this fantasy effort from director Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth," the upcoming "Pacific Rim: Uprising").
Taking place during the Cold War paranoia of 1962, the period design and detail are wonderful. Under the leadership of Nigel Churcher ("Ant-Man," "Baby Driver"), the look is very consistent for an early 1960s vision in both the exterior and interior shots. Then, of course, is the makeup and costume departments (the former headed by Jordan Samuel, "Spotlight,""Crimson Peak," the latter by Lisa Pagliaro, "It"), which has the actors and actresses looking and dressing like folks from the middle of the last century. It is a terrific outcome and the often dark, gritty atmosphere so prevalent in del Toro's past productions come through strongly here.
Finally, the special and visual effects (Dennis Berardi, "Resident Evil: The Final Chapter," the remake of "Ben-Hur") are quite well done and the creation of the "star" of the film looks very lifelike and realistic. It's just that the monster's origins and backstory are in question, here. By the way, the thing looks like across between the "Creature From the Black Lagoon," a cat and a weird Marvel Studio's superhero creation with a bluish glow (played by Doug Jones, "The Bye Bye Man"). The movie looks amazing, too, and, upon first glance, seems like the perfect film (and thusly has been "honored" with 13 Academy Award nominations).
Now the muddle appears, though.
Working as a custodian in a super secret research laboratory in Baltimore, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins, "Paddington 2"), a mute woman, discovers that an entity is kept in a locked tank. We are also not sure it even IS an alien — or a heretofore unknown earth species (it was, after all, found in a South American river — the Amazon?!) and brought to the United States by a clearly evil military operative, Mr. Strickland (Michael Shannon, "12 Strong, an Academy Award nominee for "Revolutionary Road" and "Nocturnal Animals").
Strickland sadistically taunts and abuses the creature almost to the point of absurdity, even though he gets a couple of fingers bitten off for his trouble. Meanwhile, Elise discovers that the thing can communicate (and boy, does it really like eggs and Benny Goodman). The research staff finds out that she and the alien/whatever are relating to one another, but no one seems to try and keep her out of the lab. This group also seems to be in disagreement with the Army, especially after a madcap general (not quite "Dr. Strangelove's"Jack D. Ripper, but close) wants the thing destroyed so it will not fall into the hands of the Russians, who are currently on the trail of the discovery.
Using her ragtag friends and neighbors — notably Giles (Richard Jenkins, "LBJ") and Octavia Spencer ("Hidden Figures," "The Shack") and both Oscar-nominated for these roles— they formulate a plan to steal to the prisoner and set it free into a canal which eventually leads to the sea. Of course, the Russians and Strickland's goons are closing in and the question is will the good guys get away and save their friend, which, by the way, may actually be some kind of god because of its healing powers and love of feeding upon cats — what it this thing, part ALF?
Surely a thinly-veiled allegory for modern times (don't trust anything different, fear new things and avoid white people — especially those in the military), there is absolutely NO grey area in this film. Elisa and her compadres are 100 percent perfect, while everyone else is ignorant fodder (even scenes with Strickland being a dad and having sex with his wife — yep, all part of the family fun — are colored here with ultra-negative hues).
The director clearly tells us all of this without equivocation even while we are in the midst of this fairy tale production.
No wonder so many non-thinking critics are falling —and fawning— all over themselves to claim this is the best picture of 2017, and I haven't even gotten into Elisa having physical relations with the water guy.
It's not charming or beautiful to see a human woman engaged in such activity with a different species, but in today's film world — where Hollywood honors a movie in which Armie Hammer seduces an underage teenage boy — viewers have to get used to the New Normality. Also, since he has to take her back "home," does he have to introduce her to his disapproving parents, or what?
Anyway, the scene is also logically ridiculous to boot, with water pouring all over the place, even drenching a crowd in a movie house below her apartment, but shortly thereafter everything is back to normal with no residual damage or cost effects from the tons of cascading liquid.
Using sign language and broad (almost over-the-top) gestures, Hawkins is fine in a non-speaking role and does deserve her Best Actress nod (but certainly not a win), although it's not as impressive as say, Jane Wyman's in 1948's "Johnny Belinda" or Holly Hunter in "The Piano" (1993). While Spencer, who seems to alternate with Viola Davis for Supporting Actress every other year for recognition; and Jenkins lend adequate aid in their prison break sequences.
The relationship is even more vague between Elisa and Giles, whom I thought was supposed to be gay, initially. Shannon, on the other hand, plays his usual pissed off guy to a tee. So, despite the 96 percent Rotten Tomato rating and the numerous accolades heaped upon it, stupid me, I just do not get what all the fuss is about.
Grade: C+