The Shape of Water–E.T. Meets Aqua Man

 

The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water (2018  Academy Award for Best Picture) is written and directed by the Mexican wunderkind, Guillermo del Toro (of “Pan’s Labyrinth”). Part-fantasy, part-political commentary, and part-love story, “The Shape of Water” is difficult to categorize.   The Shape of Water, an adult fairy tale of sorts, is both deeply familiar and suggests magical realism.

The opening scene, an aquatic beneath-the-sea dreamscape, leads us into a floating world of teal green water, gliding past chairs, lamps and tables, all swirling in the interior of the flooded apartment of Eliza, a mute janitor (the awesome Sally Hawkins), who lives a very spartan and lonely life.  The Shape of Water

Set during the Cold War, an alien aqueous creature worshipped as a god in the Amazon, has been captured for weapons research and is subsequently mistreated in a top-secret military research lab in a race against Russian scientists. The addition of a sensitive Russian biologist, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg of “Call Me By Your Name”,”The Post” and “Fargo”) , who recognizes the humanity of the amphibious anomaly, gives a surprising twist to the Cold War plot.

In The Shape of Waterthe damage is more psychological than physical.  Eliza’s face has been inexplicably burned some time in her past. Both she and the underwater sea creature, as well as her friends, are outcasts in a cruel, unforgiving world. “The others” — those with ethnic, racial and class differences, gays, the disabled, communists— are outsiders and misfits like Aqua Man. The way those “others” are woven together is a minor wonder and a parable for resisting authoritarianism and valuing diversity.

Because of her muteness, Elisa is looked at by others as something less than fully human, a type of alien herself. Her interest in the Aqua Man evolves into a deeply empathetic relationship, stirred less by curiosity than by recognition and identification with his plight. Think ET–an innocent befriending an alien.

Her neighbor Giles (in a wonderful performance by Richard Jenkins), a gay struggling aging artist , and Zelda (a sometimes hilarious Octavia Spencer), her co-worker on the cleaning crew, are her only social connections. Until she meets the Amazon amphibian.

Scientists in lab coats and military officers march officiously past their cleaning carts, rendering Elisa and her friend Zelda invisible at best and insulted more than occasionally. Richard Strickland (an always astonishing Michael Shannon), who is a government official in charge of the research project, carries an electric cattle prod, urinates in front of Eliza and Zelda, and genuinely enjoys sadism towards the Aqua Man. Now who is the monster, the dangerous alien?

Tension builds as one of the Russian research scientists is ordered to assassinate the amphibious creature before the Americans do. Here The Shape of Water pivots from a spy thriller with an ET vibe to a hodge-podge of 1940’s dance musicals (“La La Land” anyone?) and old film clips of musical numbers starring Shirley Temple, Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda and the Glenn Miller Orchestra among others. What happened to the main story? This not only didn’t hold this viewer’s attention but was a major disconnect.

Sadly, Shape of Water does not represent storytelling at its best. The drama is derivative of ET, and while water is ever changing in its shapelessness, only Elisa brings enough form and feeling to allow us to disavow the plot holes, offkilter sidetracking, and lack of backstory to understand some of the other major characters’ flaws.

Nonetheless, this is a career high for Sally Hawkins, who must   communicate emotion with sheer physicality, since she plays a mute woman. And her performance is extraordinary.

Worth watching for Sally Hawkins and her colleagues Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, and Richard Jenkins. Not so much for the story!

“Hidden Figures”–A Gestalt for Our Time

 

Hidden FiguresThe story of three brilliant African American women pushing back against the pre-Civil Rights America of 1961 is a stunning, mostly hidden story which has particular relevance today.

“Hidden Figures” is an adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name and follows three black women– Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson– who worked in NASA’s Langley, Virginia computer department. They worked in a segregated basement but not on computers. These black engineers were referred to as “human computers”, calculating complex calculus equations by hand. Even the mathematical formulas were hidden in a sense, to be discovered by these three remarkable women. They were among the first NASA employees to understand the power and capabilities of a massive IBM mainframe brought to NASA to assist in America’s first space launch.

Known as “human computers”, we follow these three intellects as they painfully rise through the ranks of NASA facing hurdles at every step, even under the watchful and largely sympathetic boss, Al Harrison (well played by Kevin Costner). They face the dual barriers of sex and race, while attempting to balance work and family life as well.  Hidden Figures

This untold story of the unsung heroes–the brains behind the pioneering Space Race is the history of hidden figures who contributed to the pivotal moments in science and technology after Russia had successfully launched Yuri Gagarin on Sputnik.

The opening scene of “Hidden Figures” reveals the precarious situation and tightrope dance that these three friends have to maneuver. Dorothy Vaughn (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) is a mathematician who is also mechanically-inclined, and knows how to fix their car which breaks down on the way to NASA. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) is a brilliant mathematician who wants to stand up to the police officer who seems to be questioning why they are traveling on the highway at all. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) tries to signal to her friend to follow the playbook and let the officer take over, which he does, leading them to NASA. The tone is set for tiptoeing in a white man’s world.

At NASA we see Dorothy fight to be a supervisor, Mary struggle to attain the necessary educational certification to become an engineer, and Katherine receive the credit for her critical mathematical calibrations which enable NASA to launch and land safely. Even as Katherine continues to outperform her male colleagues, she still must drink coffee from a pot labeled “Colored” and have to walk 20 minutes each way to the building where the nearest “colored” women’s restroom is located.

Most of the screen time belongs to Katherine’s story and Taraji Henson chews up each scene with great humor and her signature feistiness. Her colleagues Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe are equally dazzling and the ensemble acting is impeccable. Hidden Figures is notable for being a disavowal of easy, uncomplicated stereotypes projected onto black women.

“Hidden Figures” is a marvelously entertaining and important film. Like the story of the Bletchley Circle of women codebreakers on the Enigma project during World War II (see my October 26, 2015 review of the Bletchley Park museum, “Bletchley Park: An Enigmatic Exploration” and my January 15, 2015 review of “Imitation Game”–Breaking the Code Breaker”. “Hidden Figures” is also an education in what our history books have failed to tell us.

Note: Katherine Goble Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of 17 Americans, on November 24, 2015 by President Obama. She was 97 at the time and is still living and active in STEM, a nonprofit program to encourage girls to study science and technology.