I have been a Guillermo del Toro fan for a long time. Not only are his movies intelligent and fantastic, but I feel like as a director he really gets me, me personally as an individual. Guillermo Del Toro is a modern master of the grotesque fairy tale and he is certainly not afraid to get a little weird and uncomfortable with his vision. His films often focus on escapism and desire, and he’s not a bit concerned with conventional reality – unfortunately, neither are his protagonists and this is what often gets them into trouble.
And here it is again with The Shape of Water. Most of the popular press around this movie reduces it down to an alternate universe where Gill-man from the Black Lagoon finally gets the girl. Voluntarily! I’m already sold. But, as you might expect, there’s a little more to it. Let me help you move past that and into the waters of this stunning, moving film.
The Shape of Water emphasizes love and understanding based on communication. The good guys are firmly established by their ability to understand Elisa, who uses sign language to communicate as she is mute. And because this is the Creature’s love fantasy, she is miraculously able to communicate with him as well. The bad guys either deliberately misunderstand their silence or value it for the wrong reasons. I enjoyed the links to silence and different types of oppression as well.
Since Elisa and the Creature (or “asset”) can’t communicate conventionally, they are reduced to subhuman status. Zelda has a much different relationship with communicating to white people as a black woman who is low on the ladder, and this subjects her to abuse as well. Giles is a closeted gay man that thinks he is managing his world, but his downfall is constant miscues and denial. And then there’s the villain Col. Strickland and misunderstood Dr. Hoffstetler, who are duplicitous to say the least.
Armchair analysis aside, does The Shape of Water stand on its own merits? Yes. When the romance genre is hyphenated as it is in this case into a romance-horror, the romance usually gets left behind. But The Shape of Water works well as a quirky romance, a darkly humorous horror film, and a great throwback to cult science fiction, sympathetic monster and all. But my joy and agony with this movie, though, is that when all is said and done, it’s very… safe.
As a love fantasy, even with the twist of being from the Creature’s perspective, it’s predictable. Del Toro movies often emphasize the need to escape to another world free from oppression, but he also warns about the dangers of living in a bubble detached from reality. The climax comes when the bubble bursts and the real world spills in, usually with dire consequences. Strangely enough, that doesn’t happen here. Neither the Creature nor Elisa really interact with the world outside, which is indicative of their relationship. But their detachment from reality came off unfocused, not romantic.
There are glimpses into 1960s Baltimore that I felt could have been extended. Racial tensions and homophobia abound, but of course that’s just to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. Sigh. And Dr. Hoffstetler was a great foil for Elisa but his whole subplot felt like it belonged in a totally different movie. Does that make the movie bad? No. But it’s surprisingly ordinary, even a little “Hollywood” for a Guillermo del Toro movie. If you’re looking for any twists and revelations, they’re not here.
But maybe that’s not so bad. Is he not allowed to make something beautiful and simple? Does every movie have to be Mimic or Hellboy or The Devil’s Spine? Of course not. Guillermo isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, just tell the wheel’s story from the wheel’s perspective. History is written by the victors and you have no idea how bad I’ve always wanted Gill-man—I mean, the “asset” to win. And that’s what I got! Faults aside, The Shape of Water is a captivating, fantastical movie perfect for the weirdo romantics in your life (be honest, it’s totally you).