Movie Review: This flick is a little fishy

‘The Shape of Water,’ about a woman who falls in love with a fish
person, has an intriguing concept, but could leave audiences dry.

It’s going to be a weird Oscars season.

If you’ve been to the theaters for a movie that isn’t Star Wars in December, you most likely have seen a movie that’s strategically placed itself in the year-end release cycle so as to be fresh in award voters’ minds come winter’s film award ceremonies.

After the sobering Moonlight won over the escapist La La Land earlier this year, it seems voters are seeking something more fantastical this go-around.

Right now a heavy favorite is The Shape of Water, which is being touted as director Guillermo del Toro’s best work since 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth.

The film premiered in New York Dec. 1 and has been slowly trickling into more theaters nationwide (only a few Philadelphia theaters have picked it up, and only for a short amount of time). Despite word of mouth only just beginning to spread, the film already has enough award nominations to warrant its own Wikipedia page — 116, in fact.

So, what is this potential Oscars sweeper even about? A woman who falls in love with a fish.

Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) plays Elisa Esposito, a mute woman who lives in a dumpy apartment above a movie theater. She works as a janitor in an ocean research facility where she mops up spills with Zelda (Octavia Spencer, once again transcending whatever she appears in).

Michael Shannon plays the big bad leader of the facility who brings in Amphibian Man. Found in South American waters, he’s a human-shaped fish creature being tortured and tested on to see how he is able to breathe out of water.

The scientists want to utilize this knowledge to see if his anatomy can give any insight for how humans can breathe in outer space during the 1960s Space Race (oh yeah, this is a period piece, too).

Kind-hearted Elisa bonds with the creature, bringing him hard-boiled eggs, introducing him to music and teaching him rudimentary sign language. An inter-species romance develops from her frequent visits.

There’s a lot of great things going for this movie, which will be discussed later, but let’s focus on the one negative for now: it’s poorly written. It was written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, the latter of whom wrote the first Divergent film.

The concept of the romance itself is fine. It’s a twist on the “animal cruelty is bad” moral we’ve seen on screen thousands of times, taking it an unexpected step further. Knowing about the romance is what will draw people to theaters in the first place.

But the romance, and surrounding story parts, are clumsily written. There isn’t much development between Elisa and Amphibian Man other than she’s the only human to show him kindness. As strange as it is to be analyzing the relationship between a human and fish, it was an experiment del Toro didn’t quite make work.

It doesn’t help the surrounding story is so basic. It doesn’t have much more to say than the standard “animal cruelty is bad” moral, and by the time the second half rolls around you know exactly where the story is going. For a movie about a human-fish relationship, it takes shockingly few risks.

The film is a technical marvel, which is why the story is such a disappointment. Dan Lausten’s cinematography is gorgeous — it infuses ’60s nostalgia with “seapunk” colors (blue, green, teal) to create a stunning and wholly original setting. Alexandre Desplat’s score works with the visuals to make the environment immersive, like you’re slowly stepping into a warm hot tub.

Hawkins is excellent in the lead role — her wordless performance speaks volumes. She broadcasts her character’s every thought and insecurity with crystal clear specificity. In the film’s best moment and her finest moment of acting, she articulates through sign and body language how she feels she is an incomplete person (and Amphibian Man makes her feel whole). Moments like these are where the ambitious concept pays off.

The film has seven Golden Globe nominations (including best Drama Picture, Actress, Director and Score). It’s that Best Original Screenplay nod that doesn’t feel right. All the big picture ideas work here — it’s the small details that could leave the audience feeling dry. ••