Visionary filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a strange, bold hybrid of Creature from the Black Lagoon, Beauty and the Beast, E.T., Free Willy, and La La Land that, despite its eclectic grab bag of influences, pulls off the impressive feat of not being a total mess.
The movie centers around Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman in the early 1960s who works as a janitor at a government base where a strange amphibian man (who is quite similar to the Gill-man) has been imprisoned. Sneaking into his prison room while at work, she slowly builds a relationship with him, eventually resolving to free him while avoiding being caught by Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), the ruthless man who captured him.
Overall the film is relatively entertaining. It’s well paced, takes some interesting twists, and features good performances from the cast. Hawkins (who sells a lot of emotion despite having almost no dialogue) and Shannon (who is absolutely terrifying at times) are both terrific. A special shout out also goes out to actor Doug Jones, who plays the creature. He gives a truly impressive performance while being covered head-to-toe in prosthetics. Similar to Hawkins, he has no lines but conveys a great deal of emotion anyway, with his body language going a long way towards letting us know how the creature feels.
There’s also a surprisingly nice, if somewhat unexpected, touch where the movie pays tribute to Golden Age Hollywood through throwback references to movies, music, and the general ambience from the era (not unlike last year’s crowd pleaser La La Land). It’s odd to think that homages like that are in the same film that has an amphibian humanoid as one of its main characters, but that’s Guillermo del Toro for you, and it does make for some very enjoyable moments in the picture.
As you watch the film, you’ll quickly realize the creature is clearly intended as a metaphor for those who have been marginalized and persecuted by society; he represents minorities, the disabled, and anyone else who is “different” and has been mistreated as a result. And in case the symbolism of the creature is too abstract, the film reinforces its message with various other characters who are abused or ostracized in the world of the 1960s. I’ve already mentioned Elisa, who in addition to having a disability, is also Hispanic, and the film implies she has suffered from some racism due to this. Furthermore, there is her friend Zelda, who is African American and another victim of racism, as well as her friend/neighbor Giles, who is homosexual and has been made a societal outcast as result. On the other end of the spectrum is the movie’s antagonist, Colonel Strickland, a stereotypical 1950s white male with the perfect house/wife/kids but who is racist, misogynistic, violent, self-righteous, and heartless, and who is obviously meant to represent All That is Wrong With The World.
I worry that the preceding paragraph has come across as a little sarcastic, so I should mention that I do like the social themes present in the movie. They certainly enrich the story and add to it emotionally, and I admire del Toro’s boldness to put them in a “creature” film. Still, at times the message is a little too blunt for my taste; even a movie like this can benefit from some nuance and subtlety when handling themes like this.
It’s also worth noting that, in addition to social themes, there’s a bit of Cold War political commentary going on in this movie. We learn that the United States wishes to study this creature to see if its anatomy can help them get an edge in the space race against the Soviets, and we also learn that a Soviet spy has been planted in the military base as a scientist studying the creature. It turns out that, like Elisa, he too has grown fond of him and wishes to save him against his orders to terminate it. Thus we have folks on both sides of the Iron Curtain casting off the Us vs. Them nature of the world around them in order to come together and save another living being. It does add something unique and touching to the film.
If there’s anything in the movie I would describe as truly problematic, it would be the handling of the central dynamic between Elisa and the creature. Eventually Elisa’s relationship with the creature becomes romantic and ultimately sexual, which results in several scenes that are meant to be touching but end up just coming across as bizarre. I get what del Toro wanted to do, which is to take the “Love the Outsider” theme to its logical extent by showing how two people so different can fall in love; but he just doesn’t provide enough connective tissue to justify how Elisa goes from wanting to free this creature to wanting to sleep with him. It never really overcomes the inherent strangeness of the concept of interspecies intercourse. Still, I feel the movie’s heart is in the right place, and this issue ultimately doesn’t derail the movie.
When all is said and done, despite my issues with the story, I can’t help but admire The Shape of Water; it’s an incredibly daring and stylistic, yet also entertaining, piece. It’s certainly another feather in Guillermo del Toro’s cap. Though I don’t think it’s for everyone (the premise is a little too out of the ordinary for mainstream audiences), I do recommend it for anyone with an interest in monster movies, Guillermo del Toro’s other work, or both.