Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Despite being adorable, mute woman Elisa (Sally Hawkins) has only two friends: one, a closeted artist who lives next door (above a cinema permanently showing sword-and-sandal epics), and two: a fellow cleaner at the high-security government facility where they both work.
That’s the opening hook right there: this is a film about cleaning ladies at a top-secret government installation, where the newest asset is an amphibious creature captured by an agent played by Michael Shannon. And it’s a great hook. In the trusty hands of the brilliant Guillermo Del Toro it should be a great film. Should.
The problem is his treatment. Billed as Del Toro’s love letter to movies, that’s mainly because of the downstairs cinema and the fact that musicals are always playing on TV and act as a motif throughout. No doubt the 1950s setting is supposed to evoke the golden age of monster movies, or maybe Frank Capra, but in fact it’s nearer to the steampunk whimsy of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and even Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’, meaning that what the film most closely resembles is a mix of ‘Amelie’ and the director’s two ‘Hellboy’ movies. (And given that the creature looks a lot like Abe out of ‘Hellboy’, and is played by Doug Jones, who played Abe in ‘Hellboy’, and the facility looks a lot like an old-timey version of the base in ‘Hellboy’, I’ve wondered whether it’s supposed to function as a kind of ‘Hellboy’ prequel.) The upshot is that although the film looks gorgeous, it feels a little forced and rote, while the more whimsical elements — including an unbelievably corny score — just made my teeth itch.
Then there’s the material, which is best described as thin. I won’t reveal what transpires – The Thing That Happens – but I’m not convinced it’s the dramatic tentpole that the filmmakers (and, to be fair, most critics, awards panels and my wife) think it is. Michael Shannon plays the same baddie he always does, and is strangely dull. What’s more, he and his comedy sidekick are virtually the only representatives of whatever government agency employs them – the base seems to consist just of those two and a bunch of cleaning ladies – which makes you pine for the massed shadowy forces of, say, ‘E.T.’ To me – and again, I’m very much in the minority, given that it currently rates a zillion per cent on Rotten Tomatoes – it all feels a bit botched and poorly thought-through, as though all the imagination-juice was used on production design and there was none left over for story or characters.
Might appeal to people who enjoyed:
Little spoonfuls of honey, one after the other.