I just don’t really respond to the work of Guillermo Del Toro. There was some bit of mood-over-story issue that made me hate Pan’s Labyrinth (can’t remember what it was now) and the two Hellboy films are absolute garbage, as are Pacific Rim and let’s not overlook the godawful Crimson Peak. That last film made me think that Del Toro really, really should not write his own films, and this one made me think that he really should not write his own films. That’s only one “really” this time, which describes the degree by which this film is “better” than his others.
If you don’t know, we’re in the 50s, with all clichés of the 50s solidly in place, and our heroine Elisa is a mute cleaning woman who falls in love with an aquatic fish-man being kept in a lab by the evil government. My central issue, and the big lost opportunity of the film, is that the relationship between Elisa and the creature is rushed and poorly developed. We barely get to know her (she’s a lovely person but a little lonely!) before she suddenly, inexplicably plunks herself down and decides to befriend this fish-man. The first thing she knew about him is that he bit off a man’s fingers; then she’s tying to befriend him, with no sense that he even has any consciousness, or would not hurt her. Next thing we know she’s sneaking in Benny Goodman records and they suddenly have some “relationship.” It’s just not built up, it’s too sudden, and it’s a fatal flaw of the movie, because all we’re left with is a visual design and a succession of clichés because the central relationship has no meat to it.
This sums up the problem with Del Toro in general; he thinks in visuals but can’t tell a story or write characters (which is why he should not write his own work). With their love story crammed into the first 30 minutes, I was thinking—where does this movie have left to go? And the misshapen structure of the film that follows is evidence of this; scenes seem pointless and aimless, scenes go down blind alleys and then just end. And while you may like the movie—it creates a lovely mood, even though mood is almost all it’s got—just imagine how good it could have been if the we really felt the connection between the two, rather than just that “they’re lonely” and “they’re misfits.”
The common response to this is that “It’s just a fable,” to which I would respond: “Yes, but some fables are well-written.” The idea that “it’s a fable” is often used as an excuse to give up all notions of quality and accept any dreck that’s handed you—and believe me, Del Toro knows this better than anyone. He’s built his career on it. It is a fable—but it could be a much better fable if the characters had a deep, rich connection and everything else wasn’t just a collection of clichés. Compare this to the Disney Beauty and the Beast (animated one, obviously) and see how, in just 90 minutes, they build up a rich relationship that suggests further depths, instead of our having to try to add on dimension in our imaginations, because it just isn’t in the movie, as in this case.
And can we fucking see some other color than green for, like, one second?
There’s a certain kind of historical writing that takes “what we know” about the period and makes it everything, lacking a certain kind of imagination that could really bring the past to life. In this movie, we know that in the 50s, there were significant problems with racism, therefore, in this movie, EVERY white person is a racist. Some government honchos were obsessed with power and order, therefore our villain is a borderline psychotic willing to do anything to maintain his control. We like to think that all black working class women were tough broads with hearts of gold, with no-goodnik layabout husbands, so that is what we have here. All of the characters are clichés, which leads those who allow “fables” to excuse any flaw to say “they’re not clichés, they’re archetypes.” I guess it comes down to how well the archetype is handled, whether it hints at more depths or whether you, the viewer, have to try to add onto it in order for it to work.
What else? I’m honestly getting to the point where I have seen enough fucking Richard Jenkins. Especially not in the sad-sack-cat-person-gay-best-friend role he has here, some scenes of which I literally had to turn away from.
Anyway, here I am, rambling on and I need to find a fucking job in an industry that has gone gig economy! The point is, Del Toro is clearly gifted visually, I just wish he would let an experienced writer do his scripts. This film is more tolerable than many of his others, but is still paper-thin and simply a mood blown into a movie. We may like the mood, and the thoughts it requires us to add on in order to make it work may be pleasant thoughts, but imagine how much more powerful it could have been if some of that stuff had actually been in the movie.