Who knew Guillermo del Toro was a hopeless romantic? The Mexican filmmaker is a master of creating strange and visionary new worlds that dabble in the horror and science fiction, but The Shape of Water adds a level of emotional complexity and historical perspective that he’s rarely displayed in his genre projects.
This offbeat fable ambitiously juggles disparate elements in a funny and poignant glimpse into two outsiders finding a connection with one another amid the chaos of the world around them.
It takes place in 1962, as Americans are falling behind their Russian counterparts at the height of the space race. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute custodian who works the overnight shift at a top-secret government research facility whose lonely existence includes friendships with an artist neighbor (Richard Jenkins) and a loyal colleague (Octavia Spencer), with whom she communicates via sign language.
Their lives all change with the arrival of the latest experiment at the lab, an amphibious creature kept within a giant water tank under the watchful eye of a government agent (Michael Shannon) committed to protecting secrets. How will this extraterrestrial being help NASA get to the moon? That’s up to a marine biologist (Michael Stuhlbarg) to determine.
Meanwhile, the curious Elisa refuses to be intimidated, instead developing a strange attraction to the newcomer over a mutual sense of isolation.
The visually striking film reflects superior technical craftsmanship throughout, with vibrant colors and powerful imagery along with seamless special and creature effects. It’s also a clever and affectionate ode to classic musicals and monster movies.
The brilliant Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky) doesn’t allow her character’s inability to speak limit her ability to convey emotion primarily through facial expressions and body language. Shannon and Jenkins bring depth to a top-notch supporting cast.
Even if the overall impact is modest and any deeper meaning remains cloudy, the screenplay by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor (Divergent) maintains both a quirky charm and a delightful ambiguity.
As a Cold War spy thriller, the film generates mild intrigue but not much consistent suspense. Still, it’s bolstered by a real-world backdrop that includes breakthroughs in civil rights and scientific discovery.
Not your typical creature feature, The Shape of Water showcases the versatility of a director in top form without drowning in sanctimony or sentiment.