Movie Review - The Shape of Water
Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine and Happy-Go-Lucky) stars as Elisa Esposito, a mute janitor and cleaning lady at a laboratory in Baltimore in the 1960's. She lives above a movie theater. Her next door neighbor and best friend is a gay man who works as a commercial artist designing posters for an ad agency. Elisa can only communicate through sign language. She wakes up early every morning to ride the bus to work. She has a morning ritual of boiling eggs and taking baths, which include self-pleasure.
One day at work, she sees the scientists bring in a new life form, a half-man and half-fish, simply called the "asset." Elisa ends up falling for this creature. Like with Elisa, del Toro doesn't create a character that feels fleshed out and real but yet a thing to operate solely in this narrative.
One could also argue that this movie argues for bestiality. Elisa does end up having sex with the asset who again is half-fish. She first has to teach him sign language. Some monkeys and apes can be taught sign language. What's the difference between Elisa having sex with the asset and having sex with an ape or some lower-level primate?
This movie is said to be inspired by Beauty and the Beast. In that story and other fairy tales, as well as other science-fiction, there are plenty of humans hooking up with aliens, mutants or various creatures. In Star Trek, it's tolerable because the aliens are civilized and usually speak the same language as humans verbally. It's a little more difficult when the partner is more animal than man. That's seemingly the problem del Toro has here. What also is problematic is that in an attempt, a sincere attempt, to say something about xenophobia, which is a form of racism and bigotry, one runs the risk of saying that the outside, different or foreign person is like an animal.
Whether the creature here is a stand-in for Latinos, Black people, Muslims or the LGBT community, one risks comparing those minorities to animals. Del Toro might be an animal rights activist because a part of this film could be symbolic of animal testing and the ethics surrounding it. Some see animal testing as cruel to the animals. This movie takes that idea to its extreme.
Michael Stuhlbarg (Call Me By Your Name and Arrival) plays Robert Hoffstetler, one of the scientists working with Richard. He's also a Russian spy in league with the Soviet Union. He learns that Elisa and the asset are falling in love but he keeps it secret for as long as he can. He seems conflicted or caught between two worlds. He has a genuine respect for the asset but his Soviet bosses would kill him if he doesn't help to steal or destroy the asset.
Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures and The Help) also co-stars as Zelda Fuller, the best friend to Elisa and fellow worker. Zelda is in many ways the comic relief. Thankfully, del Toro fleshes out her character a little bit. We get to see her home life and understand her a little more.
Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 3 mins.
In select theaters.