Universal Studios just can’t cut a break, and quite frankly, they don’t deserve one. Being the studio that gave us the golden age of monster flicks, their inability to figure out how to proceed forward in the world without shooting themselves in the foot is unfathomable to me. It makes no sense to want to turn the classic monsters into creature version of Marvel’s Avengers in the name of making a few bucks when talent out there like Guillermo del Toro not only understands and respects these monsters, he proves he can deliver them. The man has made no secret of his love for the material, and he’s wanted to do a Frankenstein film forever. Universal, you should take him up on it. Back the dump truck full of money to his doorstep and give him carte blanche to do whatever he thinks is best. The Shape of Water should be Exhibit A as to why del Toro is the creative mastermind who can bring your Dark Universe to life again in spite of your best attempts to stillbirth it. But then, I say nothing new here. The majority of the internet seems to agree with me.
The idea is most definitely born of The Creature From the Black Lagoon, the last in the pantheon of the Universal Monsters. But it’s more. So much more. Many of the best classic monster tales out there evolved from that tale as old as time, Beauty and the Beast. To walk the fine line between horror, science fiction, and romance requires nothing less than the very best storytellers in the film industry. Guillermo del Toro is one of the few people on this planet who could do it properly, raising the bar on everything we’ve come to know about these characters. Better still, The Shape of Water has a great deal to say in the realm of social commentary without being preachy or condescending. In the tradition of the very best science fiction and fantasy, the messages at the core of the story are as important as the story itself, each elevating the other in perfect symbiosis to a new level.
The story centers around Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor at a top secret scientific research facility in the early days of the Cold War. She has a simple, positive life that reinforces her simple, positive heart while skirting all of the subversive and secret corners of the world of the 1950s. Her best friend outside of work is Giles (Richard Jenkins), a struggling gay artist who lives over a movie theater and fumbles awkwardly through his world despite his obvious intelligence and skill. At work, her companion and support appear in the form of Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), a woman who counterpoints the silent Elisa by never shutting up. If any character in this can be said to be inspired by Shakespeare in terms of a rapier wit, it’s Zelda, and Spencer’s performance is so much fun in the comedic tradition of the Bard.
In counterpoint to these characters is Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the quintessential hard-nosed heavy of the era who personifies the American dream perverted in all the wrong ways: the true monster of the film by any other name. It is he who has captured the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) in the wilds of South America and brought him forcibly to Elisa’s jobsite for study. By study, we mean interrogation and torture with intent of vivisection. On the surface, the idea is to study the creature’s biology for purposes of advancing the technology of the space race, but Strickland makes it clear from the onset that he has personal reasons to hate everything about this creature. As the film goes on, that hatred is given new life and new ways to fester that lead to the climax of the story.
Elisa, being the tenderhearted and sexually frustrated soul that she is, makes the connections between herself and the creature as curiosity overtakes fear, and friendship gives way to possibility. The more she learns of the Amphibian Man, the deeper she cares, and the more she learns about the tortures being inflicted upon him. Wracked with horror, Elisa intends nothing short of a desperate rescue. She’ll have to dodge security and Strickland, but she’s unaware of the presence of a Soviet spy that seeks the creature for his own government’s purpose. Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, real name Dmitri (Michael Stuhlbarg), finds himself in moral conflict between his role as a spy and his role as a scientist. No matter which he chooses, he’ll still be on the wrong end of Strickland’s agenda.
No review of this film would be complete without discussing the Amphibian Man himself. I’ve said before that Doug Jones is the current king when it comes to prosthetic creature effects. He is to this art what Andy Serkis is to CG motion capture, the modern Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, or Lon Chaney, Sr. The performances in this movie are stellar all around, but without the level of verisimilitude that Jones brings to the table, it would otherwise fall apart. But having said that, his is only half of that effort. Sally Hawkins is the other half, giving this picture its heart and soul, the touchstone through whom the audience is immersed in this world.
The score by Alexandre Desplat is as gorgeous as one would expect from him. The only question I have is in regards to the style he chose. It feels very much like a score that should back a film like Amélie. I would think it would pair better with a story set in a French café rather than in a subterranean American laboratory. As I say, it’s a beautiful work. It’s been on my short list for repeat listens since I first acquired the soundtrack album. I just find it an odd choice. That is literally the only remotely negative thing I have to say about this film.
The Shape of Water is a masterclass in filmmaking, in character, in creature effects, in set design, and in good old fashioned storytelling. It is quite easily one of the best films I’ve seen recently, for all of the right reasons. It seems like everywhere I look, people are trying to remake and modernize fairy tales. This is how you do it. I can’t recommend this film enough. Just understand going into it… it’s not for the kids, and it’s not for the ultraconservative types. It’s for those who can and want to accept beauty in the most unlikely of places and are willing to go through dark places to embrace it. That’s what fairy tales are all about. Always have been. To my mind, this is Guillermo del Toro’s finest hour.