Monday, May 28, 2018

REVIEW: The Shape of Water (live action movie)

This review includes a few things that could be considered spoilers. Read on at your own risk, or take a look at the spoiler-tagged version of this review that I've cross-posted on LibraryThing.

The Shape of Water is Cold War-set fantasy romance, I guess, although I have issues with the romance that I'll get into in a bit.

Elisa is a mute cleaning lady who works at a high-security government facility. When a mysterious aquatic being is brought to the facility, she forms a bond with him and comes up with a plan to free him and get him back to the ocean where he belongs. (Although apparently he was originally captured in a South American river where he was worshiped by the locals as a god, so wouldn't he have been more comfortable in fresh water?)

Unfortunately, two governments have a stake in the River God's fate. The U.S. government wants him dissected in the hope that his ability to breathe both water and air could somehow lead to important advancements in space-related technology. (I'm sorry, I know this doesn't really make any sense, but this is the reason viewers were given.) The Russian government doesn't see a point in capturing him for themselves but does want him killed before the U.S. can learn anything useful from him.

I had wanted to go see this when it was showing in theaters, but if the movie theater in my town ever showed it, it wasn't around for long. I'd heard bits and pieces about the movie from several different groups. The disabled community expressed concerns with the casting decision for Elisa and the way her muteness was handled. The romance community appeared to like that the movie was a fantasy romance starring a human heroine and nonhuman love interest. And then there were the folks who repeatedly made jokes about fish-man sex.

I went into this thinking I'd either love it or at least like it. At the very least, I thought I'd enjoy its romantic storyline. What I didn't expect was that I'd find the movie, overall, to be kind of repugnant. It took willpower to finish it, and I may never get around to watching the extras.

As you can probably tell from my summary, many aspects of the story didn't make sense. I've already covered a couple things. In addition, there was the way that Elisa handled hiding the River God. She needed to be careful and avoid drawing attention to herself until the date came when she could set the him free. So what did she do? She smirked at Strickland, the government agent who was bound and determined to find the River God and kill him, and told him "Fuck you" in sign language. She also blocked her bathroom door and flooded the bathroom up to the ceiling so that she could have underwater sex with the River God, never mind that the water dripped through her floor down to the theater she lived above.

Sadly, I even disliked the one aspect I thought I'd enjoy, the romance. I could understand why Elisa was drawn to the River God, although I thought it was a bit stupid of her to approach him so soon after he removed two of his captor's fingers. I also found it difficult to believe that Elisa would have had so much time alone with him in the facility. Still, my real problems with the romance didn't start until after she'd broken him out and taken him home.

Their first time having sex bugged me. 1) He'd given no indication that he was sexually attracted to her. 2) He was completely at her mercy. Was consent even possible in this situation? What if he viewed sex as the price he'd have to pay to stay safe until he could finally get to the ocean? 3) The characters kept alternating between approaching him as a man with fish-like aspects and as a wild animal who didn't know any better when he, say, bit the head off a pet cat. (Yes, a cat is indeed eaten on-screen.) Having sex with him seemed even dumber than rushing up to his pool to feed him an egg had been. How was she to know how he'd react?

I was also bothered by the way the movie handled things like Elisa's muteness, racism, and Giles, Elisa's friend, being gay. While trying to convince Giles to help her free the River God, Elisa said something along the lines of the River God being the only one who didn't see her as lacking something. However, this was the first time the movie had touched on anything like this. People talked to her the same way they did anyone else, and she had several people in her life who understood her sign language. No, she didn't have a lover, but nothing in the movie had indicated that this was because of her muteness.

Apparently viewers were expected to assume that she was alone because no one wanted to have sex with a mute woman. The weird fantasy dancing scene later on in the movie just made everything worse, as it seemed to indicate that Elisa felt unable to properly communicate her love to the River God because she couldn't speak. Over and over again, the person who most viewed Elisa as "lacking" because she was mute was Elisa herself.

Giles and Zelda were the gay sidekick and the Black sidekick, respectively. There was a moment when Giles was given a choice between potentially furthering his career and finding romance or helping Elisa. He opted for the former and only ended up doing the latter after he was professionally and romantically rejected. For the rest of the movie he existed only to help Elisa and the River God, even to the point of casually brushing off the fact that one of his cats had been eaten and he'd been clawed. Zelda, too, existed primarily to ensure Elisa and the River God's happiness. Her husband treated her like she was his hired help, and there was one part where I was genuinely worried that she was going to die to protect Elisa.

I'll wrap this up with Strickland. He was a giant ball of grossness, from his first conversation with Zelda and Elisa, in which he proudly stated that he viewed washing one's hands before and after using a urinal to be a sign of weakness in character (he always skipped washing after), to the ongoing issue of his increasingly necrotic fingers. He also added an element of rapiness to the movie as he fantasized about having sex with Elisa and even arranged to be alone with her so he could creepily come onto her. He was supposed to be nasty, I know, but combined with all the other issues I had with the movie he was almost too much for me at times.

I really thought I was going to enjoy this movie, and I'm sad that I didn't.


Again, I haven't seen any of these yet. Once I do, I may update this review with a few notes on what I thought about them.
  • A Fairy Tale for Troubled Times
  • Anatomy of a scene: Prologue
  • Anatomy of a scene: The dance
  • Shaping the waves: a conversation with artist James Jean
  • Guillermo del Toro's master class
  • Theatrical trailers


  1. I haven't seen the movie and don't intend to, but one explanation for the government interest in the merman is that immersion in a fluid matching body density can protect it against strong acceleration. Salt water is perfect for this application, especially if you can breathe water, since the lungs would not be protected otherwise.

    This would be of more use to fighter pilots, since astronauts only experience brief periods of tolerable acceleration and are passive while undergoing acceleration.

    1. Interesting. I wish the movie had been clearer about the government's plans. I got the impression that they were going to use the River God's abilities to help astronauts somehow breathe in a vacuum. Your explanation makes more sense.

  2. Wow!! This is a great review. I had been interested in seeing this movie, and even reading the book, but there was something that caused me to keep making excuses about going to the theater and about actually buying the book, even though I couldn't figure out what that something was. After reading your review, I'm glad I didn't rush to the theater like everyone else did. I'm awaiting your review on the book to see if you felt the same way about it, or if it explained better the issues that you had.

    1. Thank you! I'm crossing my fingers for the book.