“The Shape of Water” won the Oscar, because it’s a veritable checklist of Hollywood’s favorite progressive agenda items. It advocates for the disenfranchised, it slams the Soviet communists—all good. But folks? I’m drawing the line at transspecies carnality! Or is it interspecies? Yeah, interspecies. I’m not having it. In 2018, bestiality wins the Oscar. Metaphor, schmetaphor: Can we get literal for a minute?
A metaphor is the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood” representing rapists and pedophiles. When railing against racism, persecution, social injustice, and upholding the concept of love knowing no boundaries, at least pick an example that’s not universally as reviled as bestiality. It’s not cute, it’s not twee, it’s gross. So what? Don’t take things so seriously, you say? I suppose one could look at it that way. In the end, art criticism is subjective; I don’t like Broadway show tunes, for example.
What director Guillermo del Toro would like to tell here is a fairy tale of innocent, compassionate, wholesomeness-of-heart, bathed in green-tinged, 1950s Hollywood monster movie nostalgia. I applaud the intention; he was clearly trying to capture the same magic he caught brilliantly in “Pan’s Labyrinth.” But in “Water,” the result is a cloying, turgid, teal-tinged, mildly repugnant, bloody mess. With Broadway show tunes.
All kidding aside, see, here’s the thing: What we have here is the Oscar equivalent of the emperor wearing no clothes, but instead of the naked emperor, call it a naked fish. Why? Because basically, boiled down to its essence, what you’ve got here is a woman having, er, relations—with a fish. What? Yes. “But it looks humanoid!” So does a silverback gorilla.
So, Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) is from the Amazon River. I’m thinking he’s the great-great-great grandson of the “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” except maybe his grandfather must’ve swum from his Floridian lagoon down to the Amazon. That’d be my guess.
He’s caught by generic CIA operative Strickland (Michael Shannon), who cages him in a water tank version of Hannibal Lecter’s chomp-proof mask, down in the bowels of a high-security, industrial prison lab.
It’s 1962, the Cold War is on, and the American government wants to see if it can use Amphibian Man to beat the Soviets in the space race by sending him into orbit.
Now, in that prison lab is also a mute woman, Eliza, of janitorial employ (British actress Sally Hawkins, whose stock in trade are the marginalized and defective), who falls in love with the two-legged fish-man because he, much like herself, can’t talk. And is terribly misunderstood and abused. Plus, he’s so nonjudgmental. And grateful. What a catch! Pun intended.
Eliza empathizes with his isolated plight, feeds him hard-boiled eggs, teaches him sign language, and, in addition to romance, develops lust, because, you know, while he might be scaly and cold-blooded, he does have a bit of the Greek statue about him. With ripped abs. He’s kind of like a deep-purple version of Michelangelo’s “David” with gills, fins, and nictitating membranes.
But can their love last? Villains abound! Russian undercover agents circle! And he’s gone and bitten off the fingers of his tormentor, who’s now dangerously close to beating him to death with his electric shock baton. There’s always blood pooling somewhere. Maybe it’s a painterly thing; the crimson offsets the green-lens photography.
Anyway, Eliza to the rescue! With the help of her cleaning co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), aging commercial-artist friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), and a Soviet secret agent/scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg) who actually cares, she smuggles the fish-man into her apartment and sticks him in the bathtub. Sprinkle in some ocean ingredients.
For purposes of providing an old-school Hollywood atmosphere, it just so happens that Eliza’s apartment is right over a movie theater that shows nothing but vintage 20th Century Fox movies.
There’s a sideline narrative about her lonely friend Giles, who likes Key lime pie but loves the young waiter who serves it at a diner, more; that is, until said waiter rebuffs Giles with the line, “Don’t come back, this is a family establishment.” There’s also the part where fish-man eats Giles’s cat’s head. This is all understandably traumatic for Giles.
But just when you think it’s time for fish-man to get thrown back into the water, cue climactic violent attacks by all interested parties, and suddenly Eliza is sinking in the murky waters off some city pier, with fish-man, striking the suspended, slow dance, sea-green tableau captured in the movie poster.
Is she dead? Drowned? Was it a bullet? It’s a mystery. But we have learned that fish-man has supernatural healing powers. Maybe he’ll heal her with some of his blue-spangled chi, and they’ll swim away, back to the Amazon, and raise some kids who are going to be bullied at school for having gills and webs.
Buttering Up Hollywood
The 2018 Oscar win is a replay of 2015, where a Spanish director (Alejandro González Iñárritu) won for pushing all the right Oscar buttons in “Birdman,” with Hollywood’s nostalgia for its sister enterprise—Broadway theater.
So now here’s another Spanish-speaking director capturing Hollywood nostalgia with vintage film clips of Carmen Miranda, Shirley Temple, and the Glenn Miller Orchestra. From Birdman to Fishman, if you will. (And while we’re at it, 2017’s Oscar winner, “La La Land,” also tickled Hollywood’s self-congratulatory tendencies with endless references to Hollywood’s golden age.)
The Moral of the Story
We’re meant to leave the theater with warm and fuzzy feelings about tortured pariahs who find love, courage, and acceptance. The fact that the monster is not the real monster—Strickland with the cattle prod is—is underlined multiple times, in (bloody) red pencil.
And we’re meant to wonder: Who could possibly be so cruel as to exploit such a Greek-god-like, blue-spangled-chi fish-man? Oscar? Don’t get me wrong; I’m for giving credit where credit is due. Credit is just not due here.
‘The Shape of Water’
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones
Running Time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Rated: R, for suggested sexuality, graphic nudity, strong violence, and language
Release Date: Dec. 22, 2017
Rated 2.5 stars out of 5