THE SHAPE OF WATER May Well Be In The Shape Of Several Well-Deserved Oscars

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In Theaters Now

Guillermo del Toro makes moves that no one else in Hollywood would ever even conceive of, and that should be considered high praise. The big blockbusters generally follow a pretty routine formula. Most films so. Very seldom does a director write and execute his own script with the clarity of vision and abundant originality of his latest film, The Shape of Water. It’s a love story, a monster movie, and a unique look at a creature that doesn’t belong in this world…and minor spoiler alert—only one of these three descriptions applies to the “monster.”

I’m going to breeze through the plot, because the less you know the better your experience will be. Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa, a mute porter at a government lab in early 1960s Baltimore. Her friend and colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) serves as her mouthpiece and confidant. Elisa’s life is stuck in a rut of repeated routines until Col. Strickland (Michael Shannon) shows up with the mysterious Asset (Doug Jones). Unbeknownst to anyone a Communist spy is also present in the cover identity of scientist Robert Hoffstettler (Richard Jenkins). Elisa discovers what the Asset really is and gradually befriends without Strickland’s knowledge, but Hoffstettler knows. Elisa puts together a crack team to liberate the Asset: herself, Zelda, and world-beaten starving artist Giles, her next-door neighbor. While not exactly SEAL Team 6, they manage to make off with Strickland’s prize…but for how long?

The plot different enough, but the script is sublime. Having the heroine be mute serves to underline her loneliness without sacrificing her savvy, a bold move on del Toro’s part and superbly acted by Sally Hawkins. The dialogue is crispy and snappy; the characterizations are believable for the time period, and the films textures are exquisite. The apartment where Elisa and Giles live is charming if crumbling a bit, standing above an old regal movie theater that is struggling to attract customers. The rich woods and colorful palette juxtapose the gray on gray concrete and steel of the government facility, which looks pretty much exactly like the kind of mid-century Cold War place where you’d find del Toro’s ode to the Creature of the Black Lagoon. Even Zelda’s house looks the part, and if this took place in Queens, NY, you’d expect the Jeffersons and the Bunkers to be neighbors.

Like I said before, The Shape of Water is, on its surface, a monster movie, and del Toro is an unabashed lover of the old horror films, particularly the Creature. I fully expected the Asset to resemble the old gill-Man from the 1954 classic, but was surprised to find just how much it resembled another amphibious man from del Toro’s earlier works: Abe Sapien, the aquatic ally of Hellboy from Mike Mignola’s comic book universe. He directed both the 2004 and 2008 installments of the heroic demon’s cinematic adventures, and Doug Jones played both “aqua-men.” This isn’t really a problem, per se, as the story is so interesting that in the end I just don’t care, but I can’t help but wonder just a little if del Toro had some unfinished business with Abe Sapien rolling around in that super-creative noggin of his, and he just had to let it out, never mind the uncanny resemblances. Heck, if this in any way ties into the Hellboy universe, explicitly sanctioned or not, I probably love it just a tiny bit more. More importantly, it's a story about being alone, perhaps misunderstood, perhaps a little bi tof a freak, and finding what makes you special at last. For del Toro, the answer must be storytelling, because few today are better at it. 

I hear there’s some new Star Wars movie coming out. It will be formulaic—I bet there’s even a fourth Death Star-type base—and it will make a billion plus worldwide. That’s great, keep up the good work, Disney. If you’re looking for something a little more unconventional, a monster movie without the horror, a stranger in a strange land, and a love story like no other, with a possible wink and nod to the comic book movie fans (of which there are many), go see The Shape of Water. The film, the director and his screenplay, and the majority of the cast just received Golden Globe nominations, so you don’t have to take my word for it (but you should). I expect it will do equally well at the Academy Awards. Note: it’s rated R for several reasons, including nudity, language and, well, it’s too much of a spoiler to say, but you probably don’t want to have to explain this one particular scene later to your kids. Trust me on this. 

5.0 / 5.0