An amphibious humanoid resembling the Creature from the Black Lagoon is brought to a government lab during the height of the Cold War. Cleaning lady Elisa (Sally Hawkins) forms a relationship with the creature and takes action when she learns of plans to vivisect him.
There is a scene in The Shape of Water that demonstrates much of what’s wrong with the film; I can’t write “everything that’s wrong” because there’s a lot more wrong, but much of what’s wrong.
Giles (Richard Jenkins), the friend and eventual accomplice of Elisa is in a neighborhood pie shop that he frequents. He gets into a conversation with the young man behind the counter, Pie Guy (that’s what he’s called in the credits, played by Morgan Kelly) and decides that this is the opportune moment to make a fairly aggressive homosexual play for Mr. Guy. Pie Guy is very uncomfortable with this and rejects the advance, as one might expect a young, straight guy to do in 1958.
The audience, while having sympathy with a lonely older man who is an outcast from society due to his homosexuality, might also have some sympathy for a young man thrust into a very awkward situation. And We Cannot Have That. It needs to be known the Pie Guy’s flustered rejection is because he is pure evil, so at this precise moment, a black couple walks in and Pie Guy rudely lets them know that they have no place sitting in the empty diner and kicks them out. And Giles, of course.
It is important to the film’s theme to establish Giles’ homosexuality and some of the societal rejection that comes with it. But why does poor Pie Guy, who has seemed like a very pleasant young man up until this point, have to be Pure Evil in order to establish these things?
This is a film that, while posing as uplifting, hates humanity. With the exception of a couple of bit characters needed to advance the plot, every character not involved in the plot to extract gill-man is either evil or extraordinarily blasé about the evil around them. (The bit characters might be evil as well, we just don’t get to know them.) The Cold War is nothing more than a dick-measuring between two evil governments. Men don’t care when their wives are being verbally abused, humiliated, and threatened right in front of them. The pleasant man behind the counter at your neighborhood diner is coiled hate just waiting to spring.
The most evil of them all is Michael Strickland (Michael Shannon), the tired cliché of an evil general. General Strickland is not allowed the slightest smidgen of humanity. He isn’t misguided, mistaken, or imperfect. In fact he is perfect! Perfect evil. That critics are praising a film with such a stereotypical one-dimensional antagonist should let future film-makers know that all you have to do to fool these dullards is dress your film up to make it look pretty and pander to the critics’ ideology.
Also, the movie is as utterly predictable. By maybe twenty minutes in, the only major plot point that viewers may not be able to guess in this formulaic movie is the very end, and even that can be guessed if some not-terribly-subtle foreshadowing is paid attention to.
Three things elevate this film to the whopping two-star level: The performances are fine, with even poor Michael Shannon doing the best with what he has to work with; the pacing at least keeps things moving; and the art direction is beautiful. None of that is enough to make the film worth seeing, but if you do see it, you’ll at least have those things to distract you.