If Guillermo del Toro's monsters-vs.-battlebot indulgence Pacific Rim (2013) is the film than an eight-year-old version of the director might have wanted to see, then his latest effort, The Shape of Water, is the sort of feature that might have inflamed the imagination of his 14-year-old self. The filmmaker's new work has everything a geeky adolescent with a Frankenstein fixation could want: a freakish yet misunderstood monster; a mad-science laboratory; Cold War espionage; graphic nudity; sex scenes; striking gore; macabre humor; and a giddy, self-reflexive awe for the magic of movies. Underneath these evocative genre elements, however, The Shape of Water is a swooning, star-crossed romance at heart, presented without a trace of ironic waggle.
Initially, this might seem surprising. The closest thing to a love story that del Toro has ever presented in his work is the fraught relationship between a demon and a pyrokineticist in his Hellboy films (2004; 2008). The director's films have repeatedly demonstrated — up to and including Crimson Peak (2015), his opulent homage to Walpole, Poe, and the Brontës — that he has the black bile of the gothic pumping in his veins. However, if one scratches the surface of the gothic, one often uncovers a glint of the wistfully romantic. Nowhere in his filmography is this more apparent than in The Shape of Water, a dark fairy tale about the irresistible, purifying power of True Love. In this instance, it just happens to be the love between a woman and a fish-monster.
The film's unlikely heroine is Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a night-shift janitor at the (fictional) Occam Aerospace Research Center in early 1960s Baltimore. Elisa, who is mute, is a creature of comfy and exacting habits. Each evening she irons her clothes, shines her shoes, and makes hard-boiled eggs for her brown-bag lunch. As the water boils, she masturbates in her bathtub for the exact duration of the egg timer. She's tidy and polite, but her expressive brown eyes reveal a devil-may-care mischievousness. Her preference for sleeping on a plush divan rather than a bed hints at her romantic side. Her best friends are Giles (Richard Jenkins), an acerbic commercial illustrator who lives across the hall, and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her affable co-worker on the research center's cleaning crew. The scars on Elisa's throat suggest a dark secret or two, but her unfocused longing is all too apparent when her gaze drifts to some unseen, faraway vista.
Elisa's routine is disrupted by the appearance of the humorless Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who arrives at the Occam Center with a curious prisoner, transported stateside in chains from the South American river where it was found. This "Asset" (Doug Jones) is an amphibious humanoid straight from the Black Lagoon, his green-brown scales strikingly adorned with stripes of azure blue. Strickland's superiors believe that an understanding of the creature's mysterious physiology could be valuable to the U.S. space program. Wielding an electric cattle prod, the impatient Strickland would prefer to simply have the aggressive, razor-clawed monster dissected, but researcher Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) pleads for more time to study the Asset while it is still alive. In truth, the scientist is a Soviet spy, but his motives are complex, and Hoffstetler soon grows to question the judgment of his Kremlin masters.
Into this beastly drama wanders a beauty in the form of Elisa. Stealing intrigued glances at the Asset while he is sealed within a massive metal-and-glass tank, she later sneaks into the laboratory to find him manacled in an inky pool covered in green nutrient scum. She is immediately spellbound by the creature's restiveness, sensitivity, and alien magnetism, to which she seems uniquely attuned. Elisa gains his trust with gifts of hard-boiled eggs, and eventually she spends several illicit lunch hours with him, playing records on a portable turntable and teaching him rudimentary American Sign Language.
It is in these languid passages that The Shape of Water is at its most self-assured and defiantly strange, impressing on the viewer the perplexing depths of Elisa's infatuation with the Asset, whose piscine anatomy is not remotely erotic in any conventional sense. Still, with a tilt of the head, one can discern what Elisa sees in this outsider to end all outsiders. For a mute woman, accustomed to men who feel obliged to fill silence with their own chatter, the Asset's inability to articulate human languages seems like a substantial plus. He's attentive but not clingy, devoted but not tiresome, with just enough untamed fierceness to get a girl's fish oil flowing, so to speak. As for the fins, spines, and whatnot, del Toro's film accepts Emily Dickinson's observation with an amused shrug: The heart wants what it wants -- or else it does not care.
Once Elisa overhears Strickland's plan to euthanize the Asset, however, the film's plot shifts from a woozy secret romance to a suitably paranoiac Cold War heist. Elisa devises a perilous scheme to smuggle the Asset out of the Occam Center, enlisting the aid of the reluctant Giles by appealing to his compassion and latent romanticism. Zelda eventually tumbles to the plan after observing her co-worker's suspicious behavior, but she too is won over by the righteousness of this bizarre prison break. Later still, the film changes gears again to a slower, more despondent ticking-clock scenario. Elisa reckons the number of rainy days until the water level in a nearby egress to the Patapsco River and Chesapeake Bay is high enough for a getaway, while Strickland searches for the escaped monster with a violent remorselessness that steadily slides into deranged obsession. The Colonel's state of mind is not improved by the distressing fact that two of his fingers — amputated by a swipe of the Asset's talons and then uncertainly reattached — are gradually growing black with gangrene.
As one might expect with a del Toro picture, The Shape of Water is bolstered by a characteristically deep bench of accomplished artists and craftspeople working at the top of their game. Notable among these is composer Alexandre Desplat, whose score gracefully juggles the film's numerous tonal changes. However, the dominant mood of the music is unsurprisingly a romantic one. The prevalence of flutes, harp, glockenspiel, and glass harmonica lend the core a distinct undersea character, while Desplat employs accordion and whistling to add an unexpected touch of Parisian whimsy.
The clear standouts among the crew's contributions, however, are the one-two punch of Dan Laustsen's cinematography and Paul D. Austerberry's production design, which conjure a vision of a greenish, rain-slicked Baltimore that never was. As in Hellboy, the look of The Shape of Water is a rich amalgam of urban urban hyper-realism, vibrant nostalgia, institutional Brutalism, and quasi-steampunk fantasy, suggesting an unlikely marriage of Edward Hopper and comic artist's Kevin O'Neill's work on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Meanwhile, the conspicuous Kennedy-era analog technology of the government lab not only connects the story to the kitschy mid-century B movies that del Toro reveres, but also paradoxically lends the film an air of mythic timelessness. From the vantage point of 2017, the mammoth computers of the Occam Center might as well be contraptions in the Expressionist robotics lab of Metropolis' Rotwang.
An affectionate awareness of cinematic history has always been a vital part of del Toro's filmography, but previously it was expressed primarily through allusion: Inferno (1980) in Cronos (1993); The Searchers (1956) in The Devil's Backbone (2001); and The Innocents (1961) in Crimson Peak, to name a few. With The Shape of Water, the director allows a genuine, gooey adoration for cinema's transportive power to cut through the film's gloom, mirroring the warmth of the story's unconventional romance.
This is most conspicuous in the film's central conceit, which decisively shifts the eroticism in The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) from implicit to explicit. However, one can also discern it in the way that characters savor the joy elicited by the movies. At one point, Elisa and Giles watch as Shirley Temple and Bill Robinson tap-dance along a staircase in The Little Colonel (1935), prompting Giles to marvel, "That's so hard!" The subtext to this awestruck comment is the fact that Temple and Robinson's performance was the first on-screen interracial dance number, a detail that resonates ironically with Giles' privileged distaste for all the "ugly business" on the news (i.e., civil rights protests and police brutality).
Elisa and Giles also happen to live above a movie theater, where the biblical romance The Story of Ruth (1960) and the musical comedy Mardi Gras (1958) are showing — an unlikely and slightly anachronistic double-bill that Elisa nonetheless enjoys. Crucially, the theater locale allows for what is The Shape of Water's most indelible image among many worthy contenders: The Asset, having slipped the confines of Elisa's bathtub, stands staring in amazement as The Story of Ruth plays to an empty house. In this moment, del Toro captures not only the ecstatic reverie of a cinematic virgin's "first time", but also a striking metatextual uncanniness. It is as though Black Lagoon's Gill-Man has stumbled upon the silver screen that birthed him, and all he can do in response is gape in humbled wonder.
Broadly speaking, there's little in The Shape of Water that hasn't been done before. The genre components work in part because of their familiarity, and the story ultimately proffers a stock "Man Is the Real Monster" moral. No filmmaker does this theme quite like del Toro, however, and the pleasures of this features are those of seeing something recognizable executed with luscious style, fulsome sincerity, and a half-twist of gleefully perverse weirdness. Most conspicuously, that perversity is evident in the fact that, yes, the monster screws the girl. Or, more accurately, the girl screws the monster. The Shape of Water's intoxicating aura is attributable to the earnestness that del Toro brings to its Paleolithic-meets-Camelot love affair, as well as the fierce profundity of feeling that Hawkins conveys. It's quite a trick: Elisa's eyes sparkle with such unvarnished adoration and desire at the sight of the Asset's lanky, scaled body, one never questions the genuineness of what she feels, no matter how incomprehensible it might seem.
The fairy tale lineage of The Shape of Water is evident in its characters, who often seem more akin to archetypes than fully realized people. Naturally, as an older "confirmed bachelor" in the 1960s, Giles is erudite, neurotic, and lily-livered. Naturally, as a working-class Black woman, Zelda is sassy, meddling, and perpetually fed up with these damn foolish white people. (Lamentably, Spencer is essentially portraying another minor variation on the Octavia Spencer Character; it's long past time for casting directors to give this Oscar-winning actress an opportunity to play against type.)
Strickland, meanwhile, is a repellent brute through and through, a clean-cut caricature of aggressive, mid-century American masculinity. He feverishly screws his obliging Stepford wife (Lauren Lee Smith) — missionary position, of course — without a whiff of amorousness. At one point, he is seen with his nose in Norman Vincent Peale's crypto-puritanical self-help book, The Power of Positive Thinking. Feeling that he deserves a reward for his professional accomplishments, he buys himself a Cadillac, but he recoils at the dealer's suggestion of a teal paint job rather than button-down black. It's no coincidence that the film's heroic troika — a disabled Latina, a gay man, and a Black woman — all represent demographics that have felt the end of the proverbial cattle prod from Strickland and other men of his ilk.
The main ensemble might be a tad cartoonish, but this being a del Toro film, these characters are regarded with a generosity that reveals the director's sincere affection for their humanity. Despite the clear focus on Elisa, the film (mostly) makes time to flesh out the lives of its supporting characters, and it's an immense credit to del Toro's direction and the script — co-written with Vanessa Taylor — that these subplots never feel extraneous or momentum-busting.
The film thus observes Giles' sublimated anger over his homophobic dismissal from an advertising firm, and his aching crush on a slab of All-American beefcake behind the counter at the local diner. Likewise, non-trivial screen time is given to Hoffstetler's emergent empathy for the Asset, and his creeping terror at the possibly murderous intentions of his Soviet handlers. Even the fascistic Strickland is afforded a measure of consideration. Shannon and the director might portray him as unrelentingly vile, but in allowing glimpsed of the Colonel's anxiety under the boot of his superiors' (and society's) expectations, they guide the viewer to an understanding of his villainy without requiring outright sympathy. Only Spencer's Zelda receives comparatively short shrift: The third act glimpses of her life with her churlish, craven husband (Martin Roach) hint at a subplot that del Toro leaves unfortunately undernourished.
Like the director's Grimm nightmare Pan's Labyrinth (2006), his latest film is a densely layered fairy tale, but The Shape of Water differs from that earlier feature in small but fundamental ways. Pan's Labyrinth is a film for adults, but it is firmly embedded in the sorcery of childhood, illustrating the bittersweet triumph of innocence and selfless virtue over the evils of authoritarianism. Del Toro's new film, meanwhile, is primarily concerned with grown-up feelings and situations: love and lust, of course, but also failure, regret, despair, and an explicitly adult strain of loneliness. (In a strange sense, this is del Toro's mythical re-imagining of Todd Haynes' quietly subversive 2015 romance, Carol.)
None of this is remotely original, thematically speaking, but what del Toro achieves with The Shape of Water — as he does in all his best features — is a crystallization of timeless themes with exhilarating emotional frankness, spacious humanism, and extravagant style. In contrast with Pacific Rim, where the visceral toybox pleasures never compensated for the film's shallowness and frequently irritating triteness, Water finds the director back in his enchanted groove. He elegantly assembles a genre-spanning array of tropes to serve as the bedrock for a profoundly heartfelt story, which in turn bestows those familiar elements with a fresh dramatic resonance. This heady feedback loop of the old and new is what distinguishes del Toro's lush brand of cinematic magic from virtually every other director working in the horror, fantasy, and science-fiction genres.