The Shape of Water is not a good movie
Professional critics, in their widespread acclaim for what is, at best, a mediocre movie, have committed a dereliction of duty. The thirteen award nominations are galling and further evidence that the world has gone mad.
(Spoiler Alert.) This movie is not good because…
1. The monster character had no depth. A wild beast with a soft soul? How many times has that already been done? (King Kong, Beauty and the Beast, Terminator 2, basically all “bad boy” movies…) Can we not be a bit more imaginative?
2. The characters were too cartoonish (the no-nonsense black housekeeper, the emotionally-unavailable military villain, the self-sacrificing man of science). Plus, it is unimaginative, absurd, and unrealistic for two housekeepers to steal the American government’s most precious military object with little more than a laundry bin. The dialogue, except for Richard Jenkins’s bathroom soliloquy, was inexcusably dumb. All of the above made it impossible for me to suspend disbelief and get emotionally absorbed.
3. Could the writers have drawn up a more cliched villain? Michael Shannon [who I really like as an actor (I like all the actors!)] plays someone who’s overtly racist, a misogynist, and an animal torturer. Why not make him homophobic while you’re at it! Why not have him drown a sack of puppies just to underline the point? Having a character perform a sequence of terrible deeds (so that we may identify him as “the villain”) is disrespectful to an adult’s intelligence. Actual evil — real, scary, compelling evil — must be mixed with charm or mystery or something enigmatic. It must be mixed with a creditable backstory. There have been more layered villains in children’s picture books! You can’t just give a steel-jawed man an electrified club and have him utter a few racist remarks and expect us to wee our knickers when he comes on screen. Throughout the movie, I kept thinking, What does Del Toro think we are, children!?!
4. Including a movie subtheme within your movie shows that you, as storyteller, are out of touch. In this story, we have the Richard Jenkins character watching movie musicals. We have the ridiculous and cringingly-flamboyant woman/monster musical number. And we have most of the movie taking place above a movie theater—the symbolic value of which escapes me. Hollywood loves these self-congratulatory self-references. In the past six years, three movies about the entertainment industry won Best Picture [Birdman (2014), Argo (2012), The Artist (2011)], and last year La La Land (2016), about an aspiring singer and actor in Los Angeles, took away the most awards with six. Only .000001% of Americans have any real relationship with Hollywood or the entertainment industry, yet so many singers sing about songs, so many writers write about writers, so many movies are about movies. Artists must make a real and deliberate effort to tell stories that are about real people, and that have real relevance to people’s lives. We cannot fall back on telling stories about our elite and tiny bubble.
5. What was the symbolic value of Michael Shannon’s putrid fingers? A materialization of his moral decay is the best I can come up with, and, for the filmmaker’s sake, I hope I’m not right.
6. What was the thematic value of Michael Shannon’s devotion to consumerist accumulation? His nice home, his beautiful family, and his reoccurring Cadillac? Was the degradation of the Cadillac commentary on the shallowness of American materialism? Was the movie saying we should value love over things? Could the filmmakers have chosen such a hackneyed theme, or am I missing something?
7. The movie had a chance to spice things up with a dramatic heist, but the heist was uninspired, unsuspenseful, and anti-climatic.
8. The monster had random healing powers. Not only is this a knockoff of Wolverine and E.T., but it is a shallow and convenient plot device that let’s the filmmaker kill a character and then bring the character back from the dead. Richard Jenkins’s hair grows back after the monster touches Jenkins’s bald head. Does this mean that baldness is something that needs healing? How would the monster know Jenkins was ailed by his baldness—does the monster have insight into America’s standards of male beauty in the early 1960s?
9. Gratuitous disfigurement is utterly pointless and a lazy way of getting an emotional reaction out of an audience. Del Toro has a thing with facial disfigurement. In Del Toro’s movie Pan’s Labyrinth, the villain (who is almost as character-less as Michael Shannon’s villain) has to stitch up a gruesome cheek wound in front of a mirror after a knife attack. In The Shape of Water, Dimitri gets shot in the face, leaving him with his own gruesome cheek wound. In both movies, the injury serves little-to-no narrative purpose, other than to momentarily make the audience squirm in revulsion.
10. Please, storytellers, put an end to the Bible allusions! (Unless it’s a religious movie!) The super evil Michael Shannon character gives a Bible lesson to Delilah (the black character) on the story of her namesake’s biblical character. Biblical analogies get under my skin. It’s lazy symbolism. It’s pseudo-intellectualism (“I’m going to give this story a second layer of meaning by giving characters biblical names!”). And it’s a desperate attempt to enhance character depth. We see these Bible allusions all the time in stories. Think of random Biblical recitations (Pulp Fiction), wanton use of Biblical names (There Will Be Blood), heroes sacrificially dying with outstretched arms (Braveheart). Lacking some deeper symbolism? Just impale a palm. Why do writers even feel the need to pay homage to the Bible, which may very well be history’s most overrated piece of literature? Let’s tell our own new story, with symbolism of our own, with non-derivative characters, without feeling the need to legitimize ourselves as writers by referencing nonsensical stories from the ancient past.
11. The transformation of the monster should have been challenging, but really all it took were a few hard-boiled eggs.
12. I’ve read that Del Toro wanted the movie to serve as an adult modern-day fairy tale. This may explain the cartoonish settings, the archetypal characters, the simplistic dialogue. But you can’t just dismiss all of my above criticisms because “You don’t get it, it’s just a fairy tale!” All that matters is whether or not the story has emotional resonance. It must make you feel. It must sit in your gut. It must make you care about the characters. I went to this movie to have this experience, but I resented the child-like presentation. I refused to be duped by something so half-hearted, so callow, so stylistically-driven. There were a few visually beautiful scenes (the love scene in the water-logged bathroom, for example), but visuals are wasted when they’re not part of a story that works.