What is the shape of water? Water takes the shape of the vessel that contains it. When released it flows. It can be beautiful; it can be dangerous. What does “The Shape of Water” say? “Unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me.” Guillermo del Toro’s movie is a beautiful love story that recasts the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” as the leading man in a swoon-worthy love story set to an intoxicating score by Alexandre Desplat.
We’ve had a love story between a man and a fish-woman before. Remember Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks in the 1984 “Splash” or the religious Philip (Sam Claflin) who falls for captive mermaid Syrena (Sam Claflin) in the 2011 “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.” In 1977-1978 there was the short-lived “Man from Atlantis” with Patrick Duffy whose main defining characteristic was his webbed hands and feet. Jason Momoa likewise is a very human looking man from Atlantis as the DC Aquaman. None of them are even half-scaled
Del Toro was inspired by the 1954 black and white creature feature. When seeing the lyrical sequence of Julie Adams swimming above the lurking creature, the seven-year-old Del Toro’s childish mind was sure that they would be locked in a loving embrace by the end of the movie. But the adult Del Toro knows that the movie was “a home invasion.” The melodramatic score was provided by Oscar-winner Henry Mancini (“The Pink Panther Theme” and “Moon River” for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”) with Hans J. Salter, and Herman Stein.
In “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” scientists in the Amazon find the remains of a hand with webbed fingers from the Devonian geological period, 60 million years ago. The leader of that expedition, Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) recruits his friend ichthyologist Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson) to help his investigation. Reed’s boss agrees to fund the expedition to find the rest of the skeleton. Before Maia can return to his expedition campsite, the gill-man emerges and kills both of his assistants. Maia, Reed, Reed’s girlfriend (Julie Adams) and another scientist arrive on a steamboat. The steamboat captain thinks it was a jaguar, but others are not so sure. Further excavations turn up nothing, but Maia suggests they look in the Black Lagoon. The movie ends with the gill-man abducting Reed’s girlfriend and her being rescued with the creature sinking into the lagoon, having been shot several times.
“Creature from the Black Lagoon” was popular enough to span two sequels: “Revenge of the Creature” (1955) and “The Creature Walks Among Us” (1956).
“The Shape of Water” doesn’t approach the Black Lagoon or the Amazon. If “Black Lagoon” was a home invasion, “The Shape of Water” is an alien abduction. Yet that’s not where we begin. The movie begins in the water-filled room of Elisa (Sally Hawkins). This is a dream, but whose, we aren’t sure of at the end. Elisa is a foundling, orphaned as a baby and found near the water with a deeply scarred neck. She cannot speak, but she can hear. Sleeping on an elegant dark wood Victorian sofa, she gets up and boils eggs before taking a bath where she pleasures herself. She makes herself a lunch and a sandwich. Half of the sandwich she takes to her neighbor, a middle-aged balding commercial artist, Giles (Richard Jenkins). Giles and Elisa live above a movie theater and they just go down a long shabby hallway and outside on to what should have been a fire escape to go outside. Together, Giles and Elisa enjoy old movies, notably Shirley Temple doing the staircase dance with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson from the 1935 movie “The Little Colonel.”
Elisa almost dances down the hallway before floating down the rickety metal stairs. The theater owner invites her to see the movies; he has few customers. Elisa boards a bus, going to her job as a night-shift janitor at at Occam Aerospace Research Center. Her good friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), saves her a place at the time punch clock. On this particular day in Baltimore, an “asset” is being moved to the facility.
Our first view of the gill-man is just a webbed and clawed hand emerging from the murky water of a transport capsule as Elisa peers through one of the observation windows. The candy-munching, pill-popping Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) is in charge of the asset which will be studied by one of the center’s scientists, Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg).
The movie allows us to look into the private lives of Strickland who has the perfect wife and kids, the fantasy life of the 1950s, but we’re emerging into the 1960s. The Civil Rights and Women’s Movement is percolating, but the water hasn’t quite yet been brought to a boil. Del Toro’s script allows us to witness the dream and the discontent. The women suppressed by men, the minorities of color and sexual orientation contorted into bitter containment.
Yet there was another threat: Communism. The paranoia of the 1950s gives way to real threats. Hoffstelter is a spy, a Russian posing as an American. What is his interest in the asset?
The narrator, Giles, speaks warmly, nostalgically of Elisa and warns of the monster that threatened to destroy. As we learn just who and what the monster is, Del Toro unravels the truth about the fairy tale of America’s Camelot–the 1950s, washing it clean but not whitewashing the truth about racism, sexism and prejudice.
Here, the gill-man (Doug Jones) is a chittering, chirping creature with beautiful expressive eyes. He is something different to Strickland, Hoffstetler, Elisa and even Giles. As water changes shape, so does a person given the attitudes he or she must face and love as well as hate is also mutable. Elisa slowly becomes friends with the gill-man without uttering a word. Del Toro noted that Elisa and this gill-man are the only two characters who have a clear connection. The other characters might be able to speak, but they fail to truly communicate.
“The Shape of Water” is a beautiful adult fairy tale about communication, about kindness and about the different kinds of love that can touch one’s life if one let’s it. “The Shape of Water” made its premiere at the 74th Venice Film Festival where it won a Golden Lion, a Future Film Festival Digital Award and a C. Smithers Foundation Award – CICT-UNESCO for del Toro and a Soundtrack Stars Award – Best Soundtrack for Desplat. It was a special screening at AFI FEST 2017 on Friday, Nov. 10. “The Shape of Water” opens in the US on December 8.