Hollywood is going through something of a monster movie revival, which probably pre-empted Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy drama, The Shape of Water. The film takes place at a top secret research facility in the 1960s as a lonely janitor forms a special relationship with an amphibious creature. Modeled on Creature from Black Lagoon, the Pan’s Labyrinth director has created an unofficial and alternative sequel as though the creature had been taken into captivity.
Films tend to imbue the values of society at the time of their encapsulation, which makes the subtext of The Shape of Water quite fascinating in contrast with Creature from Black Lagoon. On the surface, the original genre-defining monster movie of the ’50s was a simplified Moby Dick style expedition and hunt for a dangerous predator. However, taking it from the point of view of fear of the foreign/alien, it takes on a whole new meaning. The othering in The Shape of Water, brings out the true nature of the humans around the creature, exaggerating their desire to harm or protect.
This comedy sci-fi fantasy has some curious parallels with The Help, Hidden Figures, Splice and The X-Files. Engaging on a social level, we have class divisions, discrimination and ethics with a similar beat to The Help and Hidden Figures. In fact, the tone of The Shape of Water is quite similar, embodying a comparative balance of comedy and poignant drama. Octavia Spencer’s presence further entrenches this notion, having starred in both of the aforementioned films. The janitor versus management theme brings some curious civil rights drama to the fore, while the high level research facility methodology is echoed with an interesting space race dynamic.
“Don’t be afraid, you belong here.”
Entering into some contentious ethical territory, The Shape of Water is reminiscent of Frankenstein, or more recently Splice. The ick factor and dark room thrills echo the genetic engineering and weird family dynamics of Splice. The scaly amphibious creature from the depths becomes more familiar with time, but is immediately grotesque and misunderstood. The special friendship takes on new dimensions, which make for some unusual and creepy romantic interludes, despite the best efforts to humanise the creature. Then, the myriad of suits, military, laboratory staff and government personnel make it seem like a sitcom version of The X-Files as written by the Coen brothers and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
The Shape of Water features a stellar cast of some contemporary greats including: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg. Sally Hawkins likes to throw herself into her roles and this serves as a prime example. Playing a mute janitor, may seem like a fairly simple undertaking at a glance, but turns into a noteworthy achievement when you consider that she must have had to learn sign language, performed several scenes underwater, is fully disrobed and had to command a central performance without the power of voice. Supported by a stellar ensemble, the level of performances is high and each of the actors are so full of conviction that major contrivances are downplayed, giving the film its land legs. Shannon is despicable and ghastly, Spencer is full of love, Jenkins is a delight and Stuhlbarg is altruistic to a fault.
This is a beautifully crafted film. You can see that Guillermo del Toro has tried to reach for the same heights and depths as Pan’s Labyrinth. The cinematography glides, the lighting adds to the unsettling mood, the production design immerses us in the time, while the greenish hues give it a calm yet sickly temperament. The Shape of Water is a film of great depth, which will undoubtedly become the subject of many university level film essays.
One is immersed and entertained in this world, coerced into believing that the impossible is seemingly possible. While some of the turns involving laboratory security, interspecies fascination and interstellar expedition could have used a bit more massaging, del Toro makes it so visually compelling and dramatically resonant that the impasses become speed bumps.
The bottom line: Masterful