I feel about Guillermo del Toro, the way I do Quentin Tarantino. They’re both so fun to listen to in interviews, because of their enthusiasm about making movies. I was lucky enough to even sit in at a luncheon where del Toro was speaking at during CinemaCon a few years ago.
Both writer/directors shoot films beautifully, and sprinkle theirs with lots of moments from other movies they love. In this movie, you’ll get Amelia meets the Creature from the Black Lagoon, sprinkled with some E.T. and Free Willy (as well as a scene straight out of The Artist). Yet like Tarantino, their movies often are missing the magic of what made the films that influenced them so great.
The story follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins, who was so terrific earlier this year in Maudie); she’s a cleaning woman that can’t speak. The first sign of trouble was when del Toro had to show her morning routine of boiling eggs, and masturbating in the bath. It was a tad gratuitous, but I suppose he’s throwing a bone to the fan boys that are watching this and don’t get to see many nude women.
Elisa has few friends. Her gay neighbor Giles (the always welcome Richard Jenkins) loves cats, and paints advertisements in a Norman Rockwell style. Since this is the early ‘60s in Baltimore, he’s having trouble with his love life as well.
Her other friend/co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) has her own set of problems. There’s some racism (she’s even called “the help” in one scene), as well as a loveless marriage. She’s criminally underused, but then, the cast is filled with a lot of great actors. It would’ve been hard to tell all of their stories.
One day Elisa and Zelda are surprised to be mopping up blood in the government lab where they work. It’s after an Amazonian sea creature (Doug Jones) is brought in.
Elisa forms a bond with the fishy guy, and feels bad at the way he’s being treated. He’s usually at the butt end of an electric cattle prod that Strickland (Michael Shannon) uses on him. Shannon, an actor I love watching (especially when he plays the villain), is a bit over-the-top and cartoonish.
The well-written character is played by Michael Struhlbarg (catch his great performance in Call Me By You Name, coming out soon). He’s a scientist that seems more interested in studying the aquaman, instead of the vivisection Strickland and his bosses want to perform.
One of many problems with this movie is trying to figure out why Elisa would’ve fallen in love with this creature. It made sense in Avatar when the human fell in love with a blue alien. It worked in Beauty and the Beast. Nobody had a problem with Tom Hanks falling for Daryl Hannah in Splash; but that’s helped by the fact that she can go out and live on land with him. In this movie, the guy would be relegated to living in her bath tub. But hey…that’s where she likes to pleasure herself, so maybe that’s perfect. I’ve just always hated when a movie doesn’t show why characters fall so quickly in love with another (even when it’s all human relationships).
The film wants to make a statement, with various humans sympathizing with the creature based on how they’re treated and oppressed in society. Sometimes the points are made with metaphors, sometimes by being ridiculously obvious. Del Toro tries to shove in so many messages, it comes off as heavy-handed.
Del Toro just doesn’t do a good enough job blending all the various genres together. The film needed more humor and romance like in Earth Girls Are Easy, where a woman had an affair with another creature (although alien Jeff Goldblum had his hairy body shaved to look human).
The Cold War era was recreated nicely. The cars were cool (especially a teal Cadillac). The diner evoked the perfect feel, as well as the incredible looking movie theatre with red velvet seats and huge, neon marquee (and a quick scene borrowed from Boogie Nights).
There were enough interesting scenes in the movie. One of those involved Spencer getting sassy in the bathroom. Another had Shannon at a car dealership. I also liked that del Toro showed an ad agency moving away from painted artwork in their ads, to using photographs. In the documentary Drew: The Man Behind the Poster, del Toro is interviewed about how much he misses those old movie posters that relied on artwork, instead of a lazy photo collage that shows different scenes from the movie or actors’ faces. The way del Toro showed that shift in this was a nice reminder of that documentary on Drew Struzan.
There was stunning cinematography from Dan Lausten, incredible gothic/industrial sets created by Paul D. Austerberry, and a score by Alexandre Desplat that works the way a score should — to invoke just the right emotions at the right times.
Overall, I was sorely let down by this movie lacking fun or creative characters.
My wife, who was making fun of the film with me as we watched it, ended up falling for the fairytale romance by the end.
I’m giving it 2 stars out of 5. She thinks it deserves at least 3 ½.