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21st February
2018
written by Mad Cow

Morality rating: R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language

Mad Cow’s Rating:

This is a lovely film and one that I didn’t expect to like as I have an aversion to most science fiction. It’s been nominated for 13 Academy Awards. At the Golden Globes, it won best director and best movie. I predict it will do as well at the Oscars, even though it’s not my first choice. You heard it here first.

Guillermo del Toro directed this film, wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay with Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones; Alias). 

Del Toro

Del Toro is known for both writing and directing. Many people appreciate his writing of Pan’s Labyrinth. He is an intellectual writer and director. Reviewer Alissa Wilkinson suggests the meaning of The Book of Ruth (“Wither thou goest…”) playing in the theater of the building in which our character lives. She also says “The movie takes its name from Plato’s idea that in its purest form, water takes the shape of an icosahedron, a 20-sided polyhedron, evoking the idea that beauty, and humanity, has many faces.” I wish I had thought of that.  Did I mention that del Toro is from Mexico? He lives in Toronto and Hollywood now, although, given the political landscape, I imagine he gets back to Canada or Mexico whenever he can.

              Sally Hawkins (Happy Go Lucky; Blue Jasmine) heads up an all-star cast in the role of Elisa Esposito, a young woman, an orphan with an abusive past, who is mute but not deaf. She is brilliant in the role, as she is in most I’ve seen her in, but in this one her acting is exquisitely done with face and gestures alone. Her best friend is Giles (Richard Jenkins, LBJ; The Visitor) who lives in the apartment next door. She has a friend at work, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures; The Help) who speaks sign language with her and interprets when necessary. It is 1960 in Baltimore and the Cold War is rampant in the country. Elisa and Zelda work as cleaning women in a top secret laboratory, the Occam Aerospace Research Center that seems to, well, investigate things. It’s hard to tell what they do but it’s all top secret.

Michael Shannon

The juxtaposition of the light-hearted and even funny aspects of the movie and the more serious elements is amazingly seamless. In many ways the movie is like an old-fashioned comic book. Elisa’s boss, security supervisor Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, Take Shelter; Midnight Special), is a stereotypical army man who expects things done to the letter (expecting people to knock on his door even when it is open, for example). He carries a cattle prod.  He’s sort of like Sergeant Friday’s evil twin with OCD. Strickland’s boss, General Hoyt (Nick Searcy, Landline; Zoobiquity), is similar. Neither of them has any sympathy for the Asset (Doug Jones, Beneath the Leaves; Star trek, Discovery), a strange man-like amphibian that Strickland has brought back from the Amazon, an “abomination” in his view.

Almost immediately upon encountering the Asset, Elisa is drawn to him. She gives him a hard-boiled egg she brought for lunch and

Hawkins and the Asset

soon is bringing him eggs every day. She is one of two people in the lab who realize that the Asset is a teachable sentient being. The other is scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstedler (Michael Stuhlbarg, Call me by your Name; The Post; A Serious Man – he’s everywhere), someone who has a secret reason for being in the lab. They see that the Asset can learn and understand things with sign language. Elisa falls in love with the monster. Meanwhile Strickland and Hoyt want to chop him up and see what is there.

Although the plot revolves around Hawkins, the film almost operates as though there is an ensemble cast. Stuhlbarg shines in playing a duplicitous character plagued by his conscience. At first I was annoyed at finding that Octavia Spencer plays a cleaning woman, traditionally the only role given to an African American woman.  But she has a strong supporting role, along with Richard Jenkins. Giles is an artist trying to sell his work to advertisers who have moved on to photography. Elisa’s friendship with Giles is well-developed and for both Giles and Zelda there are back stories, well done. Only the very bad guys are stereotypes; Shannon and Searcy are great villains.

Hawkins and Spencer

The Asset and Elisa fall in love in a weirdly “natural” way. When his life is threatened by Strickland she is determined to save him and of course calls upon her friends to help. Since he lives in water it is complicated. Much of the movie revolves around what happens next and we are launched into a thriller. It’s refreshing that the heroes are people who are low on the hierarchy of admiration in the U.S. Love is like that. There is good suspense at the end and a lot of satisfaction. Just a tip: note that Elisa has some unexplained scars on her neck that people keep asking about. Why do you think she has them?

This film would not be my first choice for Best Picture, but it is a wonder. The direction and acting had to be precise to make sure the love story was realistic, the amusing parts amusing, and the compassion real. And of course the amphibian man, monster, Asset, is marvelous even if not my type. The whole thing works.

 

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