I must confess that Guillermo del Toro is among my Top 5 Directors of all time. He’s my favorite example of a creative mind who is too creative for his own good. His ideas are too big for the limited imagination of modern Hollywood. Had he been around during the 1980s, when studios were willing to take risks, he would have been right up there with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, pumping out one fantastical flight of fancy movie after another. However, in the modern age of “safe” and “sure thing” blockbuster making, del Toro’s twisted, fairy tale style of movies are too weird and unusual for the big studios to get behind. Not a year goes by without there being a story about del Toro pitching some grand idea for a movie, only for every studio to tell him they can’t make such an ambitious film. So whenever del Toro does get a movie made, I find it to be a minor miracle. I find it to be an even bigger miracle when one of his movies gets as much award attention as “The Shape of Water” has, considering that the Oscars tend to have raging hard-ons for straight dramas and anything that has to do with World War 2.
There’s two best ways to sum up “The Shape of Water”. The first is simply “Hey, what if The Creature From The Black Lagoon was a serious movie, and on top of that, the woman who he was menacing was actually into the idea of being in a romantic relationship with it”. The other is being “Stranger Things, but for Baby Boomers instead of Generation X’ers, so instead of being set in the 1980s and paying homage to Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, it’s set during the 1960s, and pays homage to the social issues and old timey media of that era”. Take from those two elevator pitches what you will. That might not seem like an idea that would warrant 13 Oscar nominations, but upon watching the movie, I can see why it’s up for that many awards.
The movie stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito, a mute woman who lives in a loft above a movie theater, and who works as a cleaning woman at a secret government laboratory. Richard Jenkins plays her next door neighbor, Giles, an advertisement illustrator who is struggling from the competition of commercial photography and that fact he’s a homosexual. Octavia Spencer plays Zelda, Elisa’s best friend at work, and Michael Shannon plays Colonel Strickland, the movie’s villain. Needless to say, when your cast is made up entirely of great character actors, you end up with great performances, and sure enough, that’s what we get here.
The government laboratory becomes a location to house a humanoid amphibian creature that Strickland discovered in South America. Said Creature is played by Doug Jones, who del Toro hires for literally every role in all of his movies that requires an actor is be fully covered in makeup from head to toe. The American government wants to use this Creature as part of the Space Race with the Soviet Union (they just recently sent a dog into outer space), but of course, Strickland is an insecure douchebag of a human being, and prefers to physical torture the Creature every chance he can. Naturally, Elisa takes pity on the Creature, befriends it, and even falls in love with it. And there’s a healthy dose of feminine sexual from Elisa, but it’s not graphic and tastefully done.
I’m not going to go into much detail about the movie besides that, because I want you to see it for yourself, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. As it is set in 1960s, there is social commentary about the politics of that time, such as moments of the black civil rights movement and Jim Crow laws, Giles’ homosexuality making him awkward in most social situations, some dealings with Soviet spies, and Strickland’s entire character arc being about him wanting to the the 1960s ideal of an American male, ie a manly man who gets things done, refuses to show any signs of “weakness”, and provides for his family. Yes, you can almost hear everyone at Fox News cheer with glee during one scene in which Strickland comes home to wife and kids, and his kids show him the utmost respect, his meals are already prepared for him by his wife, and she offers him sex afterwards, in which he is always on top and telling her to be silent. I’m sure in some people’s minds, Strickland is the hero of the movie, not the villain, however, by most modern standards, he is a relic of old ways of thinking.
It’s the sights and sounds of “The Shape of Water” that has caused it to be the darling of the film award season. Since Elisa lives above a movie theater, we get plenty of scenes of old movies being played. She plays vinyl records of old, timey music to the Creature. Giles is a living encyclopedia of information about actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood. There’s even an a song and dance routine. As I mentioned with the comparison to “Stranger Things” being taylormade to appeal to children of the 80s with nostalgia, this movie is designed to appeal to Baby Boomers and their nostalgia for that bygone era. One such scene will have any fan of classic Cadillacs swooning, only to be cringing a few scenes later. There’s just the right amount of social commentary, and looking back on those times, it’s rather pitiful that we’re still arguing about those issues to this very day. The great production, set design, musical score, and visual effects also help in emerce you into this world. If the opening sequence doesn’t hook you in and leave you intrigued, I don’t know what will.
But the movie is not without its flaws. Zelda’s character arc is unwritten, and climaxes with a scene between herself, her husband, and Strickland that seems kinda forced and underserved. Likewise, the monologue that Strickland gives during said scene seems kinda pointless and unrelated to the subtext of what’s going on during the scene, and while Michael Shannon is doing his best to sell said monologue, it comes across as unnecessary as a whole. Oh, and there’s a scene where an animal needlessly dies, and that always puts me in a sour mode when critiquing a film. While the Creature is what sets everything in motion within this story, we learn very little about him, other than a bit of backstory that’s never really explored in further detail, and a few supernatural abilities that aren’t explained in detail either. And lastly, there’s that song and dance routine that I mentioned. Yeah, it’s weird, and it made most of the audience in my theater either laugh or whisper “what the f*ck”, and those really are the only two reactions that can come from such a scene like this one.
Unwritten characters, weirdly placed monologues, and jarring dance scenes aside, “The Shape of Water” is a beautiful movie that was made with a love for the cinema of old. I give it a solid 4 out of 5 stars. I’m glad that del Toro is getting the artistic attention that he finally deserves. I’ll be watching this year’s Oscars for the sole purpose of seeing how many awards this movie walks away with. It’s a foregone conclusion that del Toro will win Best Director, as he should. And yes, I do hope the film wins Best Picture, so science fiction and fantasy movies recieve more love that they haven’t gotten since “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”. Although, in a fair and just world, Best Picture would be split into Best Artistic Picture and Best Spectacle Picture, but that’s just wishful thinking on my part.
Featured image: Movie poster.