The Shape Of Water Is Singularly Del Toro
Review by Aaron Haughton
Guillermo del Toro is at his visual best with his latest fairy tale, The Shape of Water. The filmmaker's longstanding obsession with the classic Universal Monsters is in full force here, and his penchant for spinning "fish stories" has never been more ironically on the gills (or nose). While there are notes of things like Creature from the Black Lagoon, King Kong, The Lure, and even E.T., there is nothing pastiche about it; love it or hate it, it's singularly del Toro, and it's the strongest his vision has been since Pan's Labyrinth.
Set against the backdrop of Cold War era America in the early 60s, the film follows the lonely and mute Eliza (played by Sally Hawkins), who feels trapped in a life and world she doesn't belong in. One day, her life is forever changed when she and her co-worker Zelda (played by Octavia Spencer) discover a classified experiment — an aquatic creature referred to as the Amphibian Man in the credits — in the high-security government laboratory where they work. Eliza begins to forge an unbreakable bond with the creature (played by Doug Jones), and as the future of the creature starts to look grim, Eliza, along with Zelda and her neighbor Giles (played by Richard Jenkins), devises a plan to free him from his captivity.
The film packs the kind of whimsy and brutality that we've come to expect from del Toro, but also adds a sexual aspect that can't be fully realized from the trailer. Within the first 5 minutes, directly after meeting Eliza, we see her strip down, get in the tub and proceed to pleasure herself. It feels very left field, along with the film's physical relationship between Eliza and the Amphibian Man, which isn't wholly vital to the story and would've worked just as well without it. However, as creature actor and frequent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones mentioned in an interview with IMDB, this was always del Toro's modus operandi. "The Creature from the Black Lagoon was one of [del Toro's] favorite Universal Monster ever, and he told me that he wanted this to be a movie where the monster actually gets the girl this time," Jones told the interviewer. "Because there was always a love that can't be [in films like] King Kong, Dracula, Frankenstein, or what have you, so this time he actually wanted to see that consummated."
And consummated it is. Not only do we get to see a bit of this consummation — nothing grossly explicit — but we also get a follow-up scene where Eliza mimes to Zelda how exactly everything is feasible anatomically. This may work for some moviegoers, but I never felt like I was able to buy into this romance between woman and fish, and I thought it reduced the film down to a more comical level in some respects. However, on a metaphorical level, their relationship also represents seeing past the differences others and loving them for who they are, which is an important message to send, especially in this day and age.
In a lot of ways, The Shape of Water is a story about outsiders just as much as it is about love; we have a mute woman, a gay man, and black woman, who are all outsiders in their own right (particularly given the films setting), that band together to do something that seems impossible. The characters feel believable and real, even the creature, and their development and progression is one of the many shining qualities of this film. Some of the story elements feel a bit rushed, but we're giving new information and insights into each of our characters at a steady and evenly dispersed rate. Eliza's backstory, however, is a bit soggy and leaves more questions and murk than answers.
The film isn't as neatly constructed, narratively speaking, as del Toro's masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth, and begins to lose mystique around its midway point. After that, it becomes fairly easy to predict how our players will move on the narrative chess board. However, del Toro doesn't just lay all his cards on the table, so there should be at least one surprise that you may not see coming. From a technical standpoint, it's tightly composed and flawlessly executed. Scenes flow together with seamless ease, and everything is paced at a steady speed.
Del Toro firmly anchors his world in reality, which helps make it feel all the more real. Aside from the Amphibian Man, everything about the film's world feels tangible and familiar. The set and costume design are fantastic and consist of larger set pieces like the government lab and Eliza/Gile's apartment building. The look of the world feels something out of a Bioshock game, and the cinematography plays the aquatic elements nicely — everything is rain soaked and DP Dan Laustsen manages to incorporate every conceivable shade of green. The creature was almost entirely practical, with only a few CGI flourishes here and there, which helps to make the creature feel more convincing. The creature really did look fantastic, but his impact was reduced due to how prominently featured he is in the trailers.
Overall, it's a very solid film, but not quite on the level of Pan's Labyrinth. It's chock full of quirk and whimsy, and the performances are exceptional across the board. It's a must watch for any del Toro fan or fairy tale enthusiast, and I encourage everyone to check it out in theaters when it opens for wider release tomorrow, December 6th.
Rating: 3.5 hardboiled eggs outta 5.
What did you think of the film? Did the creature/human romance work for you? Do you think The Shape of Water is del Toro's best film yet? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always remember to viddy well!