Guillermo Del Toro’s new movie The Shape of Water is what happens when you drop ET, Splash, The Iron Giant, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Pan’s Labyrinth into a blender. This crazy mix of themes and ideas results in a movie that defies genre… I’m not sure if this is a romance, a horror movie, a sci-fi, or a cold war paranoia thriller. Because yes, it’s pretty much all those things. And it’s pretty good, to boot.
The film stars Sally Hawkins as a mute cleaning woman in a 1962 government science lab who meets, and falls in love with, a fish man. Not a merman with the legs of a fish and the torso and head of a man, but a full-on Creature from the Black Lagoon head-to-toe fish man. The fishman has been captured in the Amazon and brought to the lab to study for whatever reason… study and vivisect actually. Sally Hawkins’ character takes pity on the creature and realizes she not only has to rescue him, but maybe he can better understand her “otherness” as a mute person.
This otherness is a core, well-done running theme. Her next door neighbor and friend is an older gay man in 1960s America played by Richard Jenkins. Her best friend and fellow janitor is a black woman played by Octavia Spencer. The fishman is played by Doug Jones (not the new Senator, but the very tall, very thing actor who plays a lot of creatures for Del Toro and is currently the alien on the bridge on the new Star Trek show). These people (and creature) work under the watchful eye of aggressive, uptight, hyper-masculine Michael Shannon who is kind of an over-exaggeration of the Michael Shannon type, but it works in this fantastical movie.
The sense that this IS a fantasy or fairy tale of sorts permeates the movie. It’s similar to Del Toro’s own Pan’s Labyrinth in the way it melds the fantastic with the real world. The real world involving cold war Soviet paranoia in a deeply divided United States. That fantasy extending beyond the fishman and including a wonderful sense of nostalgia for old Hollywood films and aspects of the 1950s/60s.
I enjoyed the movie but there was a core problem keeping me distanced from loving the romantic allure it tries to create. The problem is the human woman falling for a scaly, slimy fishman. I guess that makes me speciesist (I swear some of my best friends are fish) but I wasn’t allowing the allegory to take over. Because this is about love between two very different types of people and that’s great… but one of them still has a fish head and webbed fingers. Maybe if the film had spent more time on them getting to know each other (keeping in mind neither can speak) I would have drawn in more. Or maybe if he was a little less fishy. Either way, kudos to the movie for trying something really different.
And that’s what I can say about this film in general. I’ve seen other movies like it… it’s not too far from Splash, if Splash weren’t a comedy and the mermaid was actually a full-on fishman. I’ve seen creature features like Creature from the Black Lagoon where the monster is always kidnapping a human woman for reasons we are never shown. There’s plenty of films this borrows from but I’ve never seen THIS movie before. A movie so willing to go ‘there’ with its fish-on-human romance in a cold war espionage setting. I can’t imagine any other director besides Del Toro even trying to sell this film to the general public.
So, yeah, I enjoyed the movie throughout – it looks great, the acting is really good, the themes work without being aggressive, and I was reasonably into the characters. I couldn’t get over that last fishy hump to adoring it though. You might. Maybe. Or maybe you’ll be totally turned off completely. Who knows. I doubt Del Toro is sure himself, but he tried anyway.