With a seemingly endless array of projects that he seems involved in but never come to fruition for one reason or another, I was caught off guard by the fact that Guillermo Del Toro had a new movie all finished up and ready to go when I first heard about The Shape Of Water. Doing some reading about it lead me to discover that Del Toro’s much talked about Creature From The Black Lagoon film which was ultimately passed on by Universal (as one of their many missteps trying to concoct their failed monster cinematic universe) evolved into The Shape Of Water and while I would have loved to see his take on “Creature”, in the end I feel like this actually worked out for the best.
From the get go there is alot to love about this film, the dreamlike underwater opening title sequence is a thing of beauty and brings you into Del Toro’s latest highly stylized version of the early 60’s during the cold war. The production design on this film is fantastic and is absolutely one of the highlights, but lets first get to the cast and story. We are first introduced to Eliza Esposito played by Sally Hawkins (who will undoubtedly garner some nominations for this role) she is a mute woman who spends her days next door with her neighbor and best friend Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her nights cleaning a research facility with her other best friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Her life is thrown for a loop when one night a strange aquatic creature (Doug Jones) is brought into the facility by the military who want to run experiments on it “before the soviets” do to see if they can utilize it to help them in the war somehow. As you may have guessed or discerned from the trailers or posters, Eliza forms a unique relationship with the creature who has also formed a not so nice relationship with Michael Shannon’s military character Strickland. It was Strickland who is responsible for capturing the creature with the hopes of moving on to bigger and better things once his time with it is complete. The plot itself is straight forward and the love story between Eliza and the creature is a bit predictable yes, but doesn’t make it any less impactful and heartfelt.
While the plot is simple it is the wonderful cast and their commitment to the material that brings everything to life. Hawkins shines and her chemistry with Jenkins and Spencer is a joy to watch, while Michael Shannon is as intense as ever in his villainous role and I always wonder why he isn’t in more films because the guy always delivers 100%. Del Toro picked such a great group of actors to populate his world with and they are a huge reason the film works so well. Of course, if you are like me, your main reason for wanting to watch this is the creature and it does not disappoint. Frequent Del Toro collaborator and all around fantastic actor Doug Jones is the man in the suit and what a suit it is. Easily one of the most beautifully designed creatures I have seen on screen, the work on the amphibian man’s suit and accompanying FX is remarkable. Many comparisons have been made to Abe Sapien from the Hellboy films who was also played by Jones and those comparisons are apt, but this is taking things one step further. It is obviously inspired by the Creature design from Creature From The Black Lagoon while modernizing it with todays technology. Everytime it was on screen Amber and I couldn’t help but say wow thats amazing or remark how beautiful it truly was. You never for one second doubt that this is a living breathing creature thanks to Legacy Effects and of course the masterful (yet sometimes sadly overlooked) work by Doug Jones in the suit. From the way his eyes and gills moved to his colorful patterns, every design element is a work of art. Without him being so perfect the film doesn’t work as this creature is at the heart of it all. Del Toro is said to have told them to design a leading man, not a creature and they nailed it. The spectacle of seeing him on screen never got old, and it never got boring, it for me was the highlight of the film and rightfully so. It is because of this that the romance which is the center of the story never feels forced.
Now while the cast, FX and the visuals are all top notch, The Shape Of Water was not without it’s blemishes. For one thing it runs a bit too long. We felt it could have been trimmed a bit for sure. While the run time is a minor issue the most jarring issue is the inclusion of some scenes which really feel unecessary to the story and just took the film down a notch for me. Now I am no prude, but there is a particular sex scene in the film that comes out of nowhere and felt SO out of place and added nothing to the story. I am sure Del Toro feels otherwise, but we found it to be kind of tasteless in a film that otherwise comes across as an elegant and classy fairytale. I imagine Del Toro felt it was important to show the differences in the two relationships in the film, but again in a movie that feels like a surreal fairytale, it was a weird moment. There is also some instances where Eliza masturbates in the bathtub as part of her daily routine that feels totally out of place. This is not to say sex doesnt belong in this film, as there are other moments that fit with the tone and theme of the story, but these two particular moments were a bit much and even after the film speaking to others who saw it discovered we were not alone in thinking so. I realize the film is rated R, but it should have been left on the cutting room floor and by doing so could have really expanded it’s audience as I feel it will be a turn off for some.
Even with those issues that stood out, The Shape Of Water remains a very solid and entertaining film with some excellent production design, incredible creature FX and wonderful performances from it’s cast. It was nice to see Guillermo Del Toro get to do something completely his own with what is essentially the creature from the black lagoon, and I feel if he had done it with Universal as part of their failed Dark Universe that it would have been hindered by big studio politics and the need to set up other films. What we are treated to instead is a smaller and much more personal film with much heart. Even though it’s about the love story between a woman and an inhuman amphibious being, it still manages to be a very human story and addresses many of the fears we all have as people trying to find our way in life. It is a shame that those gripes were found within because I felt without them this film could have truly been something timeless.