Guillermo Del Toro’s newest, The Shape of Water, has been both praised and panned by critics and common moviegoers alike. While some adore it, others say it is formulaic, predictable, uncreative at its core. I say even if all this is true, it doesn’t matter.
The film opens with a dreamy scene of our heroine Elisa sleeping underwater, her living room afloat around her, the gently bobbing lamps and doilies accented by Alexandre Desplat’s whimsically lovely theme. Elisa wakes and follows a brisk schedule: brushes her shoes, packs her lunch, runs a bath, and sets an egg timer as she takes care of some–ahem–business in the tub, showing that while our protagonist contains emotional fortitude that runs quite deep, she’s just as human as the rest of us.
Before she leaves, Elisa makes sure to stop by her neighbor Giles’ apartment to drop him off a bite to eat. Giles is a sweet, lonely, gay, down-on-his-luck (but very talented) artist who is balding and can’t seem to figure out where the last 30 years went. Played by Richard Jenkins, Giles seems incredibly real, and Jenkins’ performance stands out alongside the immensely solid performances of the entire cast.
A cleaning woman in a Cold War-era Baltimore facility dedicated to top-secret government projects, Elisa’s coworker and friend on the night shift of the past 10 years is Zelda, played wonderfully by Octavia Spencer. More than compensating for Elisa’s inability to speak, Zelda provides a running commentary of all the facility’s happenings and also imparts anecdotes about her good-for-nothing husband.
The plot begins when the cleaning women, being routinely ignored, are in the room as a large tank is rolled in containing The Asset. “The most sensitive asset that’s ever been housed in this facility”, Elisa’s obsession with him begins when a scaly, webbed hand slams a porthole inches from her face, piquing her curiosity immediately.
While Zelda warns her that it’s best not to think about the goings-on at the facility, ignoring blood, screams, and severed appendages, Elisa cannot be stymied. She sneaks off to see creature alone, and over time the bond between the two grows, beginning from a peace offering of a boiled egg and expanding to listening to Benny Goodman records, learning sign language, and even a dance number together as Elisa mops and the creature twirls in his tank.
This portion of the film feels magical. All the characters feel genuine; Giles and Elisa share a love for antiquated movies and music and a distaste for pie franchise pastries, and the rapport between Zelda and Elisa feels very natural. And as you see Elisa and the Amphibian Man falling for each other, you’ll want it to last forever. But alas, all good things must come to an end.
Before we get to the bad stuff, it’s important to emphasize how critical Doug Jones is as the Amphibian Man, and with what painstaking care the suit was created. Detailed in Wired.com’s article, it’s clear that much attention was expended by both Del Toro and special effects artists Dave Grasso and David Meng into getting the suit just right. Without the suit, Doug Jones would simply be a man opposite Elisa, no mystery, no magic. And without Doug Jones, the suit might have been digitally animated, or perhaps even housed another actor, but none with the skill and talent of Jones.
Aesthetically, the film really sells the 60’s. The costumes, the sets, the city, the movie theatre above which Elisa and Giles live; everything feels like something out of a fairy tale and only serves to further immerse you in the world crafted by Del Toro. Everything works and works well.
Back to the bad: Col. Strickland, Michael Shannon’s casually racist, bible-quoting all-American with the perfect family, has had enough of this girly science stuff. His interest in the creature is purely pragmatic, and it’s run out of use. He’s stolen it from the savages who worshipped it “as a god”, and if he can’t gain anything from it alive, he’ll find out what he can after it’s dead. Shannon’s antagonist is a looming, brooding man’s man, content to torture The Asset with a cattle prod in order to assert his own superiority. His hate for the creature only grows after it takes off two of his fingers, and as the reattached digits blacken, so do the morals of his character.
There is a bit of political cloak-and-dagger intrigue sprinkled into the film as well. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Robert Hoffstetler, a scientist in charge of the caretaking of the creature. He is, of course, also a Soviet spy. Conflicted between his desires to learn as a scientist and serve his country’s interests as a patriot, Stuhlbarg does a good job as an unconventional ally and serves an important role as the film goes on.
The film makes a lot of (oftentimes obvious) comparisons between the future and the past. Col. Strickland drives a Cadillac (“You look like a man of the future.” the salesman tells him). The Americans and the Soviets both want to study the asset’s biology to beat the other nation to the moon, again the future. Photographs have rendered Giles, a practical artist, jobless. On the other hand, you have the magical, idyllic past: Giles and Elisa live above a massive movie palace (which its owner laments that no one attends anymore) called the Orpheum. The creature is a relic of times long past when mermen were real and magic was alive. Though some have complained that Del Toro was too heavy-handed with these contrasts, I disagree. They didn’t bother me, even as I realized they were there.
So: disaster is coming, and Elisa cannot bear to do nothing and lose her newfound love. There is an immensely emotional moment where Hawkins steals the spotlight and really shines in her role, a woman overcome with the products of a life spent feeling less than whole and being seen as such. As I was watching I really felt drawn in by her pain, her need, her desperation.
Every time I think about the film I find it incredible that such passionate connection could be communicated by two characters who have no voice. And should it feel wrong? The Amphibian Man is, after all, not human. But is this story not simply another version of the sort we all grew up hearing as children? Princesses and frogs, satyrs and demigods; the difference here is how real Del Toro was able to make their relationship seem. These are living people, in the flesh; we see their blood, their tears, their fear, and heroism.
In a world where $300 million blockbusters like Justice League or Batman v. Superman manage to be so immensely lackluster, it proves even more amazing that The Shape of Water can be produced on only $19.5 million and still feel like such a treat. Much work must have gone in behind the scenes to make Del Toro’s vision come to life, as one can deduce from an interview with Yahoo:
Oh, a terrible filmmaking experience. Very difficult, very difficult; we crammed $60, $70 million dollars of budget into a move that had only $19.5…It demanded huge sacrifices, it doesn’t show in the movie…but making it was very very hard.
-Guillermo Del Toro, interview with Yahoo!
I honestly have no complaints about the film. I went in expecting a great story and that’s what I got. It didn’t matter that the plot was predictable. It didn’t matter that it was simply another story about beauty and the beast, or the dreamer kid and the written-off horse. It just worked. Would I say it’s absolutely perfect? No. But The Shape of Water is a compelling and memorable experience, and well worth watching. If this fairy tale for troubled times is still in theaters near you, do yourself a favor and nab a showing.
Overall rating: 8.5/10