The Shape of Water (15)

Guillermo del Toro’s latest film is inspired by iconic monster movie Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). In that film, scientists discover the evolutionary ‘missing link’ between fish and humans – a gill-man who is attracted to the female lead, in the tradition of King Kong (1933). But del Toro has twisted the story into a clumsy vehicle for his personal views on religion and love.

Spoilers ahead!

Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute janitor at a top secret US research facility. Richard Jenkins plays her neighbour Giles, a gay man isolated by the prejudices of society. The amphibious creature (Doug Jones) is brought from South America for military study, and Elisa learns to communicate with it through sign language, forming a romantic bond. Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) is the brute in charge who treats the captive fish-man with cruelty and disdain – but is supposedly a Christian.

The name Elisa means ‘consecrated to God’, and in the Amazon the creature was worshipped as one. Its touch has healing powers. Their relationship soon becomes physical – can the filmmakers really be condoning bestiality? The film is also unnecessarily explicit. Creature from the Black Lagoon may have had risqué undertones, but The Shape of Water shows everything.

Michael Stuhlbarg plays Dr Hoffstetler, an open-minded scientist. With this character del Toro seems to suggest that logic and reason are all you need to forge a moral compass. The philosophy of the story is pure humanism. “If we do nothing, so are we”, Elisa says to Giles, who then realises his obligation to support her forbidden love, after being thrown out of a restaurant for being gay.

The discrimination Giles suffers is of course despicable, but the film deceptively compares it to the ‘Christian’ villain’s treatment of the creature. Strickland is nothing but a cartoon bad guy. Del Toro didn’t need to make him a Christian – the script is too puerile to disguise the preachy message.

Del Toro has said: “It’s really urgent that we do not fear the other, do not believe the ideology that they’re feeding you to reduce a person to one word.”  But all the film does is offer a different ideology. The villains – who flinch at the sound of blasphemy – argue that man is made in the image of God and that the fish-man is ‘an affront’, while the heroes blindly pursue a false ideal of ‘love’.

In one scene Elisa and the creature find themselves in an old-fashioned cinema, as The Story of Ruth (1960) plays on the big screen. Christians often hold Ruth as an ideal of godly romance – is the director positing his characters as a new model of love, for the modern world? Later the characters are in a fantasy song and dance sequence so silly and out of place, that even those with a taste for the surreal might think del Toro has lost the plot.

Stylistically The Shape of Water oozes with affection for a bygone golden age of cinema, executed with technical excellence and visual panache. But sadly, the man behind the camera is misusing his considerable skills to promote immorality. The prophet Isaiah said: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” – but this year it seems they get Oscars instead.

★★★☆☆ Beautifully made, but dangerously misguided.

Ready Player One (12A)

Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, Ready Player One, is a treasure trove of 1980s pop culture. Initially it has a nihilistic message, that there is no God and that the world we live in is only good for escaping from.

The film differs wildly from the book, leaving many fans of the source material furious. The changes are mainly to make the story suitable for younger audiences – with a greater range of pop references, minimised peril and Cline’s snipes at religion removed. Spielberg’s movie-going audience is much broader than the book’s readership.

The setting is a common one in science fiction – a not so far off dystopian future. Almost everyone is living a parallel life in the OASIS – a virtual universe accessed by the internet. Their alter egos, or avatars, are controlled with the user’s whole body, so they can do everything that can be done in the real world – and more. Tye Sheridan plays Wade, a lone player who spends all his spare time in the OASIS – where his only friends are.

The idolised creator of the game is the enigmatic James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a cross between Steve Jobs and Willy Wonka. The story begins years after his death, with players (including Wade) on a quest to discover a hidden prize, known as an Easter egg. Halliday’s fortune is at stake, as the winner is set to inherit his empire. Innovative Online Industries (IOI) are corporate bad guys pouring money into the search, with plans to dominate the global economy, and flood the virtual world with advertising.

To say that Ready Player One is a feast for the eyes is an understatement. Spielberg has crafted a digital wonderland, full to bursting with imagination and detail. The story touches on social issues that have been raised before, in films such as WALL-E (2008), but with greater prescience as VR gaming is already a reality.

Spielberg’s usual composer, John Williams, is sadly missing, with stand-in Alan Silvestri’s score completely unmemorable.  A nostalgic rush of classic 80s tracks helps to make up for this, plus musical nods to Silvestri’s magnum opus, Back to the Future.

For a film aimed at younger audiences the amount of blood and gore is surprising. Scenes from 18 rated horror films are smuggled in as references, but still have the power to shock, even in the context of a simulation. That said they include one of the most inspired sequences in Ready Player One – a huge treat for fans of the classic film in question, where Spielberg pays tribute to one of cinemas greatest directors – and one of his old friends.

The coherence of the story starts to fall apart in the last sixty minutes or so. The plot moves at lightening pace as Spielberg works to cram the book into less than two and a half hours. The intercutting between the real and virtual worlds isn’t always convincing, and the villains’ actions sometimes don’t make sense. These problems would be easier to overlook if the film was aimed strictly at children, but for anyone over 12 there are huge plot holes. The flaws aren’t enough, however, to detract from the overall effect of wonder and fun.

Spielberg’s achievement with Ready Player One proves he will always be a relevant voice in cinema. The book might be anti-Christian, but this adaptation has a simple and wholesome message. It offers an encouragement to spend less time escaping from reality, and more time making the most of what’s real.

★★★★☆ Immense fun, even if the story doesn’t always work.

Mother! (18)

Darren Aronofsky’s follow up to Noah (2014) finds him again grappling with biblical themes, in an abstract and original story. Mother! is a return to the kind of small-scale filmmaking he began with, as well as the more graphic and disturbing content that his film Requiem for a Dream (2000) gave him a reputation for.

Spoilers follow.

The characters have no names, credited simply as ‘Mother’, ’Him’, ‘Man’, ‘Woman’ and so on. Clearly they are meant as symbols, though who or what they represent is open to interpretation. Jennifer Lawrence is in the title role, the young wife of a mercurial poet (Him), played by Javier Bardem. Living a seemingly idyllic life in a country house, their peace is disturbed when Ed Harris (‘Man’) knocks on the door. Apparently a fan of the poet’s work, he outstays his welcome, and soon his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives to join him. Some obvious symbolism identifies them as Adam and Eve, the first in a series of forced symbols that pepper the film.

‘Mother’, most likely representing Mother Nature, becomes increasingly panicked as her home fills with more and more intruders. Lawrence pushes herself to the limits of emotion as her character endures horrifying situations. It’s a difficult film to watch – you can feel the director wrestling with what he’s read in the Bible, trying and failing to make sense of it.

The stakes increase when Mother becomes pregnant, and as the story nears its distressing climax, Aronofsky seems to suggest that the Christian idea of God sacrificing his son is disgusting and depraved, with a shocking scene that matches that description.

Mother! is an unsettling allegory of an imperfect god’s fragile hold on a chaotic world. It’s refreshing to see a filmmaker of Aronofsky’s calibre putting his mind to spiritual issues, even if the results are mixed.

★★★★☆ A dizzying mix of the sacred and the profane.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (15)

Abrasive, brutal, opinionated and ambiguous. Not natural fits for a Christian audience, and perhaps that’s why Three Billboards has received a bad rap from the Christian press. But look beyond the rage and violence, and you’ll see an honest story that wrestles to reconcile our natural sense of justice with the evil in the world around us.

Major plot spoilers follow.

Francis McDormand plays Mildred Hays. Her life has been torn apart by the rape and murder of her teenage daughter, and the local police are failing to investigate. Her fury building, she takes action by hiring advertising space to post messages challenging the police, in particular police chief Willoughby.

Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is a character so unlikable that initially it strains the limits of believability. But all is not as it seems… writer/director Martin McDonagh is cleverly setting up our expectations for a surprise later. Dixon is the first police officer to see Mildred’s billboards, and so a hate-fuelled face-off begins.

By contrast, Mildred’s relationship with Chief Willoughby is marked by a measure of mutual understanding. Woody Harrelson plays him as a world-weary and compassionate man, who makes efforts to sympathise with Mildred. But she doesn’t soften, even when he confides that he is dying of cancer.

McDormand and Harrelson particularly shine in their roles, and the soundtrack is one of Carter Burwell’s most memorable. McDonagh’s wicked sense of humour that worked so well for In Bruges (2008) sometimes gets in the way here. Comic interludes break the tension, usually not in a good way. A scene where Mildred kicks two children in the crotch serves no purpose beyond giving a splash of dark humour – the story’s theme of justice put on hold as she gets away with it, no questions asked. An early scene where she makes an illogical rant against the Catholic Church also undermines the otherwise exceptional script.

A dramatic twist turns Dixon’s life upside down, and his attitude to Mildred’s case is set right – just as Mildred is firebombing the police station. In one of the most moving scenes of recent years, Mildred looks on from the shadows as Dixon emerges through the flames, clutching her daughter’s case file, rescued from the fire.

The scarred Dixon is now a changed man, and sets his mind to solve the case. Mildred gets away with the arson attack, but her once clear conscience is increasingly sullied, as she starts to realise that anger just leads to more anger.

The cliffhanger finale shows it wasn’t all about retribution, but forgiveness too. The desire for revenge is a sad trait that makes the characters all the more believable. As Mildred and Dixon drive off together in pursuit of a scapegoat to punish, they ask each other whether they are sure about such vengeance. “No”, they admit, agreeing to work it out along the way. Dixon touchingly reveals he knew all along that it was Mildred who torched the police station, causing his horrific injuries. At this Mildred smiles a smile of immense gratitude – their reconciliation sparking hope in her heart once more.

Three Billboards is a dark and angry film, that builds to reveal thoughtful examples of grace and redemption. There are depths that few filmmakers dare to sound, and if you can forgive the missteps you’ll be rewarded with an unflinching, all too recognisable study of human nature.

★★★★★ A brilliant, authentic look at the human condition.

Mary Magdalene (12A)

Rooney Mara plays the title role in this well-intentioned film from Lion (2016) director Garth Davis. Her casting smacks a bit of the whitewashing Hollywood has been accused of in recent years, but that aside her performance is ample, though constrained by a very limited script.

In striving for a sense of depth and awe the screenwriters have stripped out most of the known narrative, favouring silence and space over the literate and clear message that Christ brought. The usually great Joaquin Phoenix mumbles his way through the few lines he has, giving us a Jesus who seems distant and disturbed.

The film seeks to restore Magdalene’s reputation, as for centuries she has been wrongly assumed to have been a prostitute. In 2016 the Pope declared her ‘Apostle of the Apostles’, somewhat over-egging this correction. The film doesn’t do much better, portraying the disciples as slow-witted and in much need of Magdalene to explain Jesus’ words to them.

Key moments from the gospels are barely touched on – perhaps Garth Davis thinks we’ve seen it all before. But for those who don’t already know the story, little is left beyond a simple tale of a headstrong woman leaving her family to follow a troubled religious leader, whose message is unclear.

The cinematography is transporting, often appearing only to use natural light, and the music has its moments – but quality of craft alone can’t make a film worth watching.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian sailed close to the wind of blasphemy with a fictional story that ran parallel to Jesus’ life, and there’s more than a whiff of that here. The real story is always just out of reach, as the filmmakers turn the camera away from the action to focus on Mara’s saintly and earnest expression.

Hopefully Mel Gibson, when he returns with his sequel to The Passion of the Christ, can include a more worthy portrait of Magdalene. He could do more in five minutes than this film does in two hours.

★★☆☆☆ A confused, boring disservice to the woman it tries to honour.