Warning: This article contains some degree of spoiler.
Guillermo del Toro is at least trying to bring back fairy tales and, since very few others have any interest in even making an effort that bold, that’s worthy of a lot of respect. For a lot of people, it means overlooking a variety of flaws, and perhaps rightly so, but it shouldn’t mean that any effort becomes worthy of praise.
In Crimson Peak, for example, most of the elements are managed beautifully and the general idea of the story is solid, but a lot more attention is paid to atmosphere and a depth of mood than to working out a story that actually pulls you in, or is actually worth the time.
The Shape of Water turns up the clear strengths of that film, but it has all the same flaws, and while some of them may simply be characteristics of the genre, others are just sloppy storytelling and boring construction.
The story is that of Elisa Esposito, who is brilliantly portrayed by Sally Hawkins. Elisa is mute, lives in a tiny apartment above a theater, and works the graveyard shift cleaning up at a secret government facility. She happens to be around when the latest government secret is wheeled in by government-secret wrangler, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Said secret is a glowy merman creature. Elisa, obviously, befriends the creature and ultimately aims to free him.
It’s Fairy Tale 101, just brought closer to the future, set in a fabulous world of Institute Green walls, fluorescent lights, and steampunk labs filled with vacuum tubes and more pipes than could ever lead anywhere. As del Toro builds the world around us, it’s fairly mesmerizing and the fact that everyone on screen should be nominated for awards isn’t hurting anything. At this point, it’s easy even to forgive the idea that secret government installations bus in maids in order to allow for the, “no one pays attention to the help,” themes.
But, as we begin to dive into the meat of the story, it eventually becomes clear that there really isn’t any text. Moreover, the story is wildly forced. The story doesn’t evoke or represent deeper, broader subjects, it just hits you with those things as though neon lettering introduced each scene. The villainous, inept, cowardly, misogynist actually says that he likes women who don’t talk and carries a giant penis around everywhere he goes. The painfully-white General can’t stop repeating the idea that difference equals inferiority. And, since we, for some reason, want to talk about old artisans, who filled their work with meaning and emotion, being replaced by machines without anyone batting an eye, we include a sub-plot that goes nowhere and is irrelevant to the main story which finds people saying things like, “Look, the old artisans are going to be replaced by machines, and no one cares.” I may be paraphrasing.
Even most of this is forgivable, along with notions like filling a room with water, because again, it’s a Fairy Tale. Besides, del Toro is weaving together glorious visuals and subtleties of dialog that, along with Sally Hawkins’ efforts to convey everything as a mute, grip you in a way that would make The Wizard proud. However, once solidly into the second act it becomes more and more difficult to distance yourself from the fact that virtually everything comprising the story’s main plot steps is utterly nonsensical, and part of that difficulty comes from the movie continuously saying them at you.
In as nondescript a way as I can delve into further details – A breakout effort falls short of its ultimate goal, for no discernible reason, simply because we need to hole up for several days in order to have Elisa and the creature spend time together. Our villain is “on the case,” post breakout, despite the fact that there is no reason to suspect there is anything to find in the vicinity. In fact, it’s patently ridiculous to suggest “searching the area.” But, how will he find them if he isn’t looking? The list goes on.
Despite the laudable effort at creating a general sense of magic and wonder, and even despite the fact that Hawkins and Richard Jenkins give performances worth watching, the story is ultimately rather boring and isn’t overly impressed with your intelligence. It’s beautiful, but delivered in the simplest terms it can manage. Strickland does everything short of shooting puppies at random and we had him at hello.
Worst of all, for a Fairy Tale, it’s wading in such hackneyed thematic waters that any theory of delivering a message is just so much noise.
For those who can forego the story and take this as the equivalent of a roller-coaster, The Shape of Water is probably a 10. For anyone else, it’s not only underwhelming, but difficult to distinguish in terms of merit from Crimson Peak.