November 29, 2017 – This is a very odd combination of fantasy, combined with cold war-era love story with some social commentary thrown in for good measure. Although there is darkness here, murder, torture, inhuman experimentation, the love story is both warm and powerful. This is one of the best films I've seen this year.
Sally Hawkins (“Godzilla”) stars as Elisa Esposito, a janitor in a government lab in Baltimore in 1962. Elisa, who can hear, but cannot speak. She lives a lonely existence above a movie theater. Her only friends are a gay, artistic neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins of “Kong: Skull Island”) and a talkative fellow janitor, Zelda (played by Octavia Spencer of “Hidden Figures”).
One day, workers bring in a kind of fish-man in a water tank, reportedly captured in the Amazon by a soldier named Strickland (Michael Shannon of “Midnight Special”) who takes over as head of security on the project. Strickland doesn't like this creature, especially after it bites off two of his fingers. He campaigns for the creature to be dissected, a move opposed by a scientist who is studying the creature, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg of “Miss Sloane”).
Elisa is attracted to the fish-man (similar to “The Creature From the Black Lagoon”) and makes friends with him. The creature is friendly with her and it soon learns sign language. He seems to embody something very much like humanity. When Elisa learns that the creature is to be killed, she conspires to break it out of the lab and let it loose in the ocean. Dr. Hoffstetler, who is actually a Soviet spy, helps her get the creature out of the lab, even though he is under orders from his Soviet superiors to kill it.
Through sign language, Elisa explains why she is willing to take the risk to save the creature, because of, “The way he looks at me. He doesn't know what I lack or how I am incomplete. He just sees me for what I am. As I am. And he is happy to see me every time. Every day. And now I can either save him now, or let him die. Never see his eyes see me again. I will not let that go.”
Strickland, who is under enormous pressure to recover the creature who escaped under his watch, becomes increasingly desperate, questioning everyone in the lab, including Elisa, Zelda and Dr. Hoffstetler, who were all involved in the heist. Before it is over there is a shootout with Soviet agents and a deadly confrontation between Strickland and Elisa.
There are magical moments between Elisa and the creature. Giles also becomes friends with the creature, and is fascinated by the way it looks and acts. Along the way there are scenes showing the racism, homophobia and misogyny prevalent in America. The point seems to be that Elisa, Giles, Zelda, Dr. Hoffstetler and the creature are all outcasts in America, and they all instinctively look out for each other, regardless of risk.
The artistic touches of writer-director Guillermo del Toro (“Pacific Rim”) are evident in the film, particularly in an indoor underwater scene. Guillermo del Toro, one of the best in the business, is more comfortable in this kind of fantasy genre than most. The acting is excellent here, especially by Sally Hawkins. Michael Shannon is one of the best villains on screen these days, and he is great in this film. This is a magical film. It rates an A.
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