Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water is - alongside Martin McDonaugh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - leading the 2018 awards charge with a myriad nominations between them. And if you were to believe the critics, they're pretty much masterpieces already - the former being touted as del Toro's best ever film in some quarters.
I, for one, am simply not having it.
With a wafer-thin plot focusing on Sally Hawkins' mute cleaner Eliza, the film doesn't really do much other than apply superfluous window dressing to the central romance between her and 'the creature' - a humanoid aquatic man-thing (expertly played by prosthetic make-up go-to guy Doug Jones) hauled into a scientific research centre for all the inhumane testing its early-60s period setting affords it. Michael Shannon's Strickland is the one administering said inhumanity, his justification being it isn't human - and it bit a couple of his fingers off, therefore he has carte blanche to be a full-blown one-dimensional prick for two hours. But don't worry, there's more cardboard cut-outs in this film than just Shannon riffing on sheer arseholery.
Eliza's flatmate, the usually dependable Richard Jenkins, is a clichéd older gay man who's enamoured with a much younger straight waiter at a nearby diner. In these heated times, I was under the impression certain communities and demographics were after being represented in a less-stereotypical and jaw-droppingly ham-fisted way. Maybe if you're del Toro, you're allowed to get away with hackneyed representation because, you know, you're a real auteur. I won't do him the disservice of comparing him to certain peers who are also guilty of this, but it does often seem that if you are held in high regard in the cine-literate community, you are allowed to get away with any old tosh if you know how to make it look nice.
And to del Toro's credit, The Shape of Water does indeed look nice. Utterly stunning in places. It's got a fetish for the colour green (Strickland's boiled sweets, the uniforms worn at the research centre, the algae poured into the amphibian's tanks and baths) that also spells out the main characters' journeys - do you get it? They're GREEN. As in, innocent and wide-eyed and whatnot. I've not read any reviews of the film, but I can only imagine the words 'whimsical' and 'enchanting' and 'beguiling' and 'childlike wonder' are bandied about like nobody's business. The kind of nonsense Western critics write about Studio Ghibli films, chucking five stars at them when the culturally-specific whimsy factor is dialled up to eleven.
In fact, I'm reminded of the unfortunate addendum Terry Gilliam stuck on the beginning of Tideland, after preview audiences felt a relationship between two characters (a young girl and a mentally-challenged adult man) was paedophilic in nature. Gilliam filmed an address to-camera, telling the audience to watch the film "through the eyes of a child". When you have to instruct your audience to watch a film a certain way - lest they perceive something in a manner you hadn't intended - you know you've failed quite spectacularly at what you were ever hoping to achieve. The Shape of Water doesn't suffer that same fate, thankfully. But it does ask that you are indeed 'enchanted', the film existing in a bubble where characters are basically fine with an aquatic man-thing eating the head off a pet cat (such whimsy!).
I guess I should have seen this coming. After all, del Toro has previous in the period-fantasy field with Pan's Labyrinth - a far superior film that in many ways The Shape of Water uses as a blueprint for its heightened fantasy-reality hotchpotch: instead of a razor to the face, this time we get a bullet going in one cheek and out the other; where Pan's Labyrinth was an allegorical sexual awakening, this time the main character is a grown woman who masturbates in the bath every morning (until she gets to play with aquaman's prawn cracker).
Now I know I might be coming off as flippant. I get why all these characters are drawn in the way they are. But del Toro wants to have his cake and eat it. The jarring clash of bedtime fairy tale with ostensibly adult overtones feels like Pan's Labyrinth minus the nuance. Several lines feel loaded with shock value; Strickland telling a colleague his "thumb, trigger and pussy finger still work" after having the other two fingers bitten off feels like a jolting reminder you're watching a film for grown-ups, rather than the line being essential to the story itself. It insists on these reminders every so often - like a particularly nasty episode of Boardwalk Empire crossed with Splash (no, seriously - it's outright plagiarism, cleverly disguised with beautiful cinematography and non-mainstream credentials beloved of cineastes who will leap to its defence).
You can see on one hand it's been a labour of love for del Toro, the whole venture basically a belated sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon (del Toro has gone on record with this, the film playing out his fantasy of having Gill-man succeed in his romance with co-star Julie Adams). And for those who are able to overlook the film's numerous flaws in execution, there's much to enjoy - the use of sign language as both a plot device and conveyor of exposition is commendable, and from a purely visual standpoint you can't argue it's anything less than a stellar achievement. But I'm sick of saying "well, it looked good" after practically every duff film I watch these days. MOST new films look good. With a decent enough crew and a few quid chucked at it, it stands to reason. Darkest Hour looks bloody beautiful; it doesn't mean it's anything more than adequate entertainment (unless you're a Tory, in which case it's borderline pornography).
Which brings me back to my original point - the bar being lowered. Maybe it is me. Maybe I'm just getting old, and unable to enjoy new stuff the same way I used to. Then again I loved Blade Runner 2049, The Last Jedi and Downsizing. Plenty didn't. I sound like I'm just being contrary for the sake of it, like an average issue of Little White Lies. I'm really not. The Shape of Water is the Emperor's new clothes. Critics say its good, therefore it IS good. Without question. Oh look, now it's won some awards - it MUST be good! Well, it isn't. And I know I can't be alone in thinking this. If I get one person agreeing with me on Twitter, I'll be happy. Until then, I'm off to watch Splash.