Guillermo del Toro’s new movie The Shape of Water fits into a storied tradition of folklore and fantasy from Hans Christian Andersen to Godzilla. It’s an old-fashioned fairy tale and a classic film throwback that clearly enchanted the director. Though Universal tried to revive its classic monster franchise this year with The Mummy, their failed attempt to create a new Dark Universe, del Toro has beaten them at their own game. The key to a new monster, it turns out, is a lighter–not darker–touch.
This creature from the blue lagoon (played by human actor Doug Jones) is basically an old soul. He falls for Elisa, a mute woman who works at the government lab examining the creature, when she sneaks in to feed him eggs and play him jazz from her portable record player. Though he’s a highly dangerous specimen to everyone in charge, Elisa discovers his gentler side by learning to communicate with him. As played by Sally Hawkins, she’s a romantic at heart, a creature of habit herself who longs for something more.
Like in your average 1950s sci-fi flick, the others around Elisa are stock characters: the smart-talking black best friend (Octavia Spencer); the nervous do-gooder scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg); the gay artist down the hall (Richard Jenkins); and the stiff corporate villain (Michael Shannon). All are good, and the movie gives them each a few opportunities to transcend their characters’ two dimensions. Spencer, in particular, supplies her usual comic energy, and gets to show off her dramatic chops at the very end.
There is an obvious, though poignant, message to the creature’s captivity. He’s chosen against his will for study by a hostile government, who wrench him from his natural habitat without care for his environment or the disruption of his species. He’s no more than an other to the starched shirts and nameless white faces populating the lab, just as Hawkins and Spencer are also outsiders in their own way. Elisa bridges the gap between woman and amphibian through kindness and trust; when she teaches him ASL, it’s like a secret code she only shares with the ones closest to her.
You’ll buy into the whimsy of The Shape of Water or you won’t. While I enjoyed taking this ride with del Toro, and heartily admired his craft, I wasn’t entirely swept away. It may be the director’s extreme precision, where everything is so artfully arranged; or maybe it’s all the classic-movie influences pieced together from other films. Compared to another romance I just saw, Call Me By Your Name, which is very conscious of how silly sex can be, Elisa’s love scenes with the rubber-and-CGI creature have this feeling of “did they really go there?”
One moving moment breaks free from the carefully constructed charm. Elisa, awakened to the possibility of real love, opens her mouth and words come out, first whispered, then full out. “You’ll never know just how much I miss you,” she sings, and soon we’ve entered a thirties musical pastiche. But it’s Hawkins that makes it work, with her tremulous delivery that makes it easy to surrender to the movie’s latest flight of fancy.