What if the Creature from The Creature From the Black Lagoon wasn’t actually the monster of that film? Well, you’d have something similar to The Shape of Water, which clearly takes inspiration from The Creature From the Black Lagoon and other classic Universal monster movies. Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water is an otherworldly fable set against the backdrop of Cold War-era America circa 1962. In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works, lonely Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is trapped in a life of isolation. Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) discover a secret classified experiment. Rounding out the cast are Michael Shannon as Colonel Richard Strickland, the man in charge of the creature research team; Richard Jenkins as Giles, Elisa’s friend and neighbor, a closeted commercial artist; Michael Stuhlbarg as Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, one of the lab’s scientists; and Doug Jones as the Creature. (Mild spoilers follow)
To say that I liked The Shape of Water feels like an understatement. It’s literally everything I wanted it to be and more. Since it was an original movie (that paid homage to a variety of previous films, yes, but was still an original story), I had very little expectations of what the plot itself would be. All I wanted from this film was a beautifully shot, emotional, and narratively satisfying experience – the kind of experience that Guillermo del Toro excels at providing through his films – and I was rewarded with all of that and more. My introduction to del Toro was through his Hellboy films, as I’m sure was the case for many people, and the thing I’ve loved about the films of his I’ve seen – aside from his visuals, of course – is that he always focuses on his characters and their development. Sometimes, this comes to the detriment of the plots of the stories, but it usually works out well. His characters are as memorable as his visuals are.
Guillermo del Toro is a master at telling stories about the underprivileged, outcast, and downtrodden and The Shape of Water is his ultimate magnum opus on the subject. At its heart, underneath all the Cold War intrigue, monster movie elements, and gorgeous visuals lies a film that’s about two voiceless people – Elisa Esposito and the Fish Man – connecting with each other and seeing each other for who they really are instead of who they aren’t. The Shape of Water is a film that’s all about giving a voice to the voiceless. Giles is a gay man in the 1960s – not exactly the safest thing in the world, Zelda is a black woman in the 1960s (again, not exactly the safest thing in the world at the time) who’s in an unhappy marriage with a man who doesn’t give her the respect she deserves, the Fish Man is some kind of amphibious creature that’s been captured by an evil man and is being subjected to torture and imminent death in the name of science, and Elisa is a woman that was rendered mute in some kind of accident that occurred when she was an infant.
All of these people are people who would have been severely discriminated against in the 1960s and all of them find themselves at odds with the character that most represents the patriarchal status quo of the times: Colonel Richard Strickland. So, while on the surface, it looks like The Shape of Water is just a Cold War drama with an element of fantasy/horror, it ends up being something bigger and more universal than your regular run of the mill genre film (not that there’s anything wrong with being a regular genre film). Among the many reasons that The Shape of Water succeeds in this regard is the fact that it uses this fantastical tale about a woman freeing a literal sea god from the clutches of the US military as a metaphor for the voiceless finding a voice. It does the thing that all truly memorable films do and elevates its material past the confines of any one genre and ensures it’s a story that anyone can relate to and enjoy.
The other main reason that it succeeds is that it’s a beautifully crafted film. Every element works together to create a final product that’s wholly satisfying, unique, uplifting, dramatic, and – most of all – enjoyable. The Shape of Water is not a particularly complex plot; girl meets boy (who happens to be a sea god), girl and boy fall in love, girl rescues the boy from the evil US military, boy and girl live happily ever after. The thing is, it doesn’t need to be a complex plot. It’s using the structure of a fairy tale (simplistic, universal plot) as a way to examine the characters that are at the heart of the film. The Shape of Water isn’t about the minutia of the plot. It doesn’t matter exactly what the mythology of the Fish Man is. It doesn’t matter how Strickland found it or what exactly the Russians are up to or any of that. What matters is how the characters interact with each other and why they do the things they do and The Shape of Water elaborates on both of those elements with precision, care, and beauty.
Del Toro has gone on record as saying that The Shape of Water is heavily inspired by the reaction he had when watching Creature From the Black Lagoon as a child. As he watched the film, he always wanted Gill-man (the Creature from the Black Lagoon) to end up with Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) at the end of the film. It would seem like he always sympathized with Gill-man in the film, a sentiment that many fans of The Creature From the Black Lagoon share with him. In a way, The Shape of Water is Guillermo del Toro’s way of making his childhood wish come true. In many ways, The Shape of Water is a reboot of sorts of Creature From the Black Lagoon. The monster design is similar and the creature ends up being one of the most sympathetic characters in the film. This is no accident. In may of those old monster movies, the monsters are really misunderstood and the humans who are terrorizing the monsters are really the horrible ones. The Shape of Water presents the idea that perhaps the humans in the film are the true monsters.
This idea is most explored through the characterization and development of Colonel Strickland. He’s a hard-ass, misogynistic, borderline psychopathic, power-hungry man who takes advantage of everyone who ranks lower than him in the societal totem pole. He subjects the Fish Man to countless scenes of brutal torture solely because the Fish Man is different. Strickland won’t even entertain the possibility that the Fish Man possesses any kind of intelligence. It’s a pretty obvious parallel to how many people in power have viewed various minorities (racial, gender, and differently-abled) throughout history. He can’t view the Fish Man as intellectually equal to him because if he does that, he can no longer rule over it. The Fish Man is shown throughout the film to be capable of language, intelligence, and empathy. The Fish Man is no more a monster than the average person is. He simply wants to do good, exist peacefully, and be loved. By humanizing the Fish Man in such a way, the audience empathizes with him in such a way that Strickland’s behavior becomes completely inexcusable (not that his behavior towards any of the actual human characters in this film are excusable, but they only further the point that’s being made) and the film makes it clear that Strickland is the real monster. It’s a monster movie where the fantastical creature is more human than some of the humans are.
The Shape of Water is a film that will stay with you after you see it. It’s beautifully written by screenwriters Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, beautifully shot by cinematographer Dan Laustsen, beautifully scored by renowned composer Alexandre Desplat, beautifully edited by editor Sidney Wolinsky, and beautifully acted by the entire cast. It’s a genre film that elevates itself above the common perception of what constitutes a genre film. It’s a Monster Movie that examines what truly makes someone a human and casts the Monster as more human than many of the humans. It’s a film that will make you laugh, cry, and genuinely reflect on what you’ve seen. It will challenge how you view the world while thoroughly entertaining you. There are moments that are truly scary and there are moments that are truly funny and there are moments that are truly emotional. It’s a film that can’t be boxed into any one genre or type of film. It’s a film worth seeing. I can’t recommend it enough to literally everyone. It’s a very adult film, so maybe don’t take anyone under the age of fifteen or so, but it’s a truly remarkable film and it’s finally beginning to open up around the country. So, seriously, go see it.
5 out of 5 wands)