Friday, March 23, 2018

The Shape of Water: A Beautifully Humane Film

Movie Review: The Shape of Water (2017)
Version: Cable purchase

For transparency, let me begin by saying I've never cared for alien-monster movies. But The Shape of Water isn't your typical alien-monster movie. Actually, the "monster" in the film isn't an alien and it isn't really a monster. On the IMDB page, it is listed as "Amphibian Man".

Now let me explain why I was blown away by the humane element of this film. Amphibian Man has been dragged from a rain forest in South America by an American intelligence officer during Cold-War-era America, sometime in early 1960's. He is seen as a threat and treated as a monster, but Amphibian Man is far from one. He is sentient, with more than simply intelligence but also with an emotional core, a soul. He only acts out aggressively in response to abuse, torture really, by the intelligence officer, played venomously and angrily by Michael Shannon. It is rare to see a film treat a non-human being with sympathy, but we find it even more so in The Shape of Water.

Without treating Amphibian Man simply as a threatening monster but as another thinking, feeling, sympathetic character on par with any human, it allows the viewer to focus on the themes on humanity instead of the horror of monstrosity. The real monster, it shows, is the inhumanity of human against humanity, depicted by the way Shannon's character, Strickland, treats the other characters in the film: mute character Elisa, played with precision by Sally Hawkins; African American character Zelda, played with passion by Octavia Spencer; the other cleaning staff, mostly composed of minorities; and the scientist seeking to save Amphibian Man from Strickland's abuses, Dr Hoffstetler, also a Russian asset, played by Michael Stuhlbarg. There is a point during the story in which Strickland ponders creation and whether anyone but his own kind could have been created in the image of God, using it as a crutch to abuse others, anyone who doesn't mirror his white maleness but especially Amphibian Man, showing no pity and no empathy for others.

The theme of The Shape of Water, however, is isolation and loneliness. Elisa, who is a mute, feels lonely and isolated by her inability to speak. She immediately relates to Amphibian Man, who is alone and isolated in the government research facility in which she is a lowly scrub woman, working around barriers to accessing the room where he is locked up to communicate with him and come to know him as a person rather than as a strange being. Strickland uses Amphibian Man's isolation to torture him with plans to disembowel the creature to learn more about his dual ability to breathe in the water and out. Elisa hatches a plan to save Amphibian Man, with the help of Zelda and Elisa's graphics artist friend Giles, with her ultimate plan being to release Amphibian Man when the spring rains come and flood the canals, so he can swim away to safety. But getting to that time and place is fraught with risks and difficulties. Part of the danger involves Soviet spies, who also want to get their hands on Amphibian Man. Another part is the military, who put pressure on Strickland to gut Amphibian Man and end the research project. Still another is Strickland's search for vengeance against Amphibian Man for biting off his fingers in an abuse-baited attack early in the film -- Strickland seethes with hatred. You could also say that Strickland felt isolated and lonely in a world of "others", who aren't like him. And Hoffstetler felt isolated and lonely as a Russian asset. They all encountered Amphibian Man in a different way and their lives changed as a result of their encounters.

You might not relate as well to Strickland's mindset if you didn't live through the Cold War days, but you might be able to understand the personality of a bigot, which Strickland clearly is. Someone  showing disregard for both Zelda and her husband in their own home, weaker (in his eyes) Elisa, and of course, the creature who couldn't possibly be created in the image of Strickland's God and, thus, unworthy of respect or mercy. But perhaps you can relate to many characters' humanity and how it was shaped by the amphibian in the water. It may well be that you will be shaped by it, too.

Why watch The Shape of Water? It's a well-made film with compelling characters and worthy themes. It's more than entertaining, although it is that, too. It's a beautiful film about acceptance and freedom of spirit, and it's about finding commonality in the uncommon among us. The Shape of Water won Best Picture Oscar for a reason. Because it earned it.

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