'The Shape of Water' film review: 'Splash' is a more convincing fantasy-love story

'The Shape of Water' film review: 'Splash' is a more convincing fantasy-love story

Do not be fooled by the eloquent score, the beautiful production value or even an admittedly remarkable lead performance from Sally Hawkins - "The Shape of Water" (opening in additional cities Dec. 15) is a mess masquerading as a dark and fantastical tribute to love.

In short: Elisa (Hawkins), a mute janitor, falls in love with a mysterious creature (Doug Jones) held captive by a cruel army colonel (Michael Shannon). Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer and Michael Stuhlbarg also star.

"The Shape of Water" fails on two fronts: thematic and narrative. A faltering on either of these goals is problematic for any film - failing on both fronts spells certain doom for any film. This is the case with "Shape."

Writer-director Guillermo del Toro's latest film props itself up as some sort of "love is love" statement. The brilliant Jenkins is burdened with a clunky and obvious b-plot: his character has an unrequited crush on the guy who works at a local pie shop. But this intriguing thread lasts only a couple of scenes - just long enough for "Shape" to establish that only traditional forms of love are accepted in the 1960s. In fact, once this b-plot is resolved (quite early in the movie), Jenkins is reduced to playing a nervous neighbor hesitantly helping his mute friend in a heist. Furthermore, his character is initially dead set against helping Elisa at all -- that is until his short-lived b-plot is resolved (fairly early into the film), which begs the question: would his character have helped Elisa out at all if the "pie guy" b-plot ended differently?

The more overt "love is love" thesis comes from the relationship between Elisa and the water creature - but "Shape" spends more time planning and executing the heist to rescue the creature than cultivating a genuine relationship between Elisa and the creature. It's difficult to care about the romance between a woman and a man-ish shaped creature when their "relationship" is forged in a few hasty scenes - mainly of a woman introducing boiled eggs and a record player to a creature. "Shape" invests time in establishing Elisa as a dimensional, rich character, however, it presents little reason why Elisa is so intensely drawn to the creature or exploring the depth of their relationship.

If the heart of "Shape of Water" is supposed to be some whirlwind romance between Elisa and the creature, then the film fails this premise by investing so little time on such a shallow and rushed infatuation. Consequently, this undermines a core and fundamental aspect of this story.

If the simplistic relationship is disappointing, the film's similarly underwhelming plot-driven story is equally underwhelming. After "Shape" hastily slaps together a hollow relationship, it then haphazardly throws together a needlessly convoluted and oddly paced heist aspect into the mix. Elisa hatches a plan to help the creature escape his imprisonment and the cruelty he suffers at the hands of a comically arch villain (Shannon). The antagonist is not a character - he's a bad guy with a cattle prod. His motivation for finding the escaped creature: he doesn't want to lose his job. He's menacing without any character depth - his motives are weak and his one-dimensional characterization is broad. Oh, and just for good measure, there's an odd Soviet spy plot thrown in for good measure, as if to increase story tension by way of the most ham-handed means possible. A gross number of conveniently-timed moments shove the narrative forward, ultimately resulting in a film that isn't so much "plot" driven as it is "well there's sure convenient"-driven.

"Shape" is a confusing R-rated film: many of the aspects that warrant the movie's R-rating do not add much (or anything) to the film. Several scenes of graphic nudity are justified by their respective scenes, and some of which (especially as the film opens) are just gratuitous. This also applies to the violence - scenes in which characters are grievously injured serves the story, but some grotesque moments (such as a domesticated animal being torn apart) are just baffling. Undisciplined inclusion of superfluous nudity and violence - seemingly throwing odd moments into the film because the justified moments would demand an R-rating - undermines the integrity of the film's genuinely sensual and violent moments.

Yes, Alexandre Desplat's score adds to the film's complex fantastical and dark tone. The production design is impeccable. But "Shape" commits the unforgivable crime of wasting Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer and Michael Shannon in thankless and simple roles that demand very little of them and add little in the way of dimension. They are merely pawns who awkward lurch the story forward. 

Final verdict: Despite its beautiful visual composition, "The Shape of Water" is not the a beautiful celebration of love it purports to be - it's simply a flawed imitation of a romance. The plot is a house of cards made up of lazy coincidences, the heart of which is founded in a lazily executed love story. 

Score: 2/5

"The Shape of Water" opens in theaters nationwide Dec. 15. This romance-fantasy-drama is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language and has a running time of 123 minutes.

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