THE SHAPE OF WATER, the unusual film now playing in cineplexes across the country, is billed as a science fantasy. And, as much as those of us in the science fiction romance community would like to see a romance between a lonely human and an apparently alien being light up the big screen, there are good reasons why this particular offering by creative genius Guillermo Del Toro doesn’t quite fit the SFR mold.
At first glance, the premise certainly seems to slip right into our orbit. In a hidden research facility, a mute (not deaf, mind you, just voiceless) cleaning person (Sally Hawkins) falls in love with the captive amphibian creature that is the subject of experimentation by a sadistic government operative (Michael Shannon). With the help of her partner on the cleaning staff (Olivia Spencer), a sympathetic scientist/Russian spy (Michael Stuhlberg) and her gay next-door neighbor (Richard Jenkins), she rescues her lover, and they make their escape together. SPOILER ALERT: Yes, they have their happily-ever-after. If you believe.
We have a lot of the standard elements of science fiction in this film, and though technology and “the future” are often invoked, they are seldom put in a good light. The setting is 1962, but none of the shiny, space-going optimism of that time is apparent here. The lab where the creature is captive is a dark, depressing place, far from the brilliance and can-do spirit of NASA. And what goes on there is more the realm of The X-Files than THE RIGHT STUFF.
Elisa, our heroine, by contrast, loves old musicals (in fact, she lives in an apartment above a movie theater) and old-fashioned romance. In one memorable scene in the film, she imagines herself dancing with her Amphibian Man to one old show tune. (Hokey, yes, but somehow it works.) She woos her lover with food (by sharing her lunch) and, later, music. And because she doesn’t speak, they communicate with signs.
You may have surmised by now that THE SHAPE OF WATER requires quite a lot of faith on the part of its audience. Like much of Del Toro’s work (PAN’S LABYRINTH being the best example), this film has a sort of dream-like quality that doesn’t lend itself to logical interpretation. It’s more magical realism than science fiction—beautiful, even touching on an emotional level. But not plausible.
This idea of plausibility—no matter how far-fetched or how far in the future—is what ultimately grounds science fiction romance for most of us. We rely on the science to create worlds in which things make sense (internally, at least). Love can still happen between aliens and humans—but lovers must be compatible somehow. Death can be overcome—with science. Happy endings can be found—if all obstacles have been overcome.
I suspect those readers out there who say they never read science fiction are afraid those conventions won’t apply—that no matter how beautiful the writing or touching the story, it won’t be plausible to them. After having seen THE SHAPE OF WATER, I have to say I understand that point of view. The film is lovely in its way, but ultimately unsatisfying. I am sympathetic to these characters and their unique love, but I’m not sure I truly believe in them.
Still, Del Toro’s creature is gorgeous; Hawkins, Shannon and Spencer are at the top of their acting game; and THE SHAPE OF WATER is like nothing you’ll see in theaters all year. It’s well worth a trip to see it. Definitely a GO.