The Shape of Water, the latest fantasy from director Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth), is essentially a children’s movie for adults, inspiring a sense of wonder but also of passivity. It looks marvelous—one can easily get caught up in the lavish production design and inventive special effects, and the graceful camera movements carry one through the meticulously designed environments. The storytelling is fantastic and straightforward, like that of a fairy tale. Yet The Shape of Water is also a patronizing film; del Toro and his cowriter, Vanessa Taylor, tell viewers what to think and feel at every turn, then congratulate them for responding appropriately. Set in the early 1960s, the film depicts the social mores of that era in simple, black-and-white terms to make contemporary audiences feel good about their modern, liberal values. Its primary aim is to reassure.
Del Toro sets the tone with the opening sequence, which shows the heroine, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), asleep in a room filled with water. A narrator—later revealed to be her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins)—describes Elisa as a princess, framing the story as a modern-day fairy tale. The room is filled with vivid period details—worn modernist furniture, tall windows that open onto a bustling cityscape—and the camera moves fluidly about them. Even after del Toro reveals this sequence to be a dream, the camera continues to track balletically through Elisa’s apartment, and Alexandre Desplat’s fanciful score maintains an ambience of wonderment. This is a child’s view of adulthood, complete with storybook imagery and language.
The next scenes show Elisa embarking on her nightly routine, as structured as a child’s activities. She wakes in the middle of the evening, takes a bath, prepares hard-boiled eggs, then visits Giles in the apartment next door before leaving for her job at an aeronautical research institute, where she works the night shift as a cleaning woman. She uses an egg timer to monitor the duration of each task, and they proceed like clockwork. Elisa seems a bit like an overgrown child: because she can’t speak, she communicates with sign language and uses broad gestures and facial expressions. She’s also friendly and trusting, displaying goodwill toward not only Giles but also the immigrant who owns her apartment building and her coworkers at the institute. Del Toro presents Elisa in such idealized terms that one can’t help but sympathize with her, and Hawkins’s winning performance sweetens the deal.
Elisa’s warm nature is thrown into relief by the gloominess of her workplace. The institute, defined by concrete floors and giant, ugly machines, is a cross between an ogre’s dungeon and a mad scientist’s lab, and sure enough, both a monster and a madman soon enter the story. The madman is Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the new overseer of the institute, whom del Toro and Taylor depict as a bully from the start. Strickland displays his bigotry when he introduces himself to Elisa and a black coworker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer); since Elisa can’t speak, he presumes that she can’t understand what he’s talking about. He’s humorless, stern, and intimidating—a personification of repressive values.
The monster is a humanoid aquatic creature that a group of U.S. scientists have recovered from the Amazon. Looking like a more complex version of the Creature From the Black Lagoon, the Amphibian Man (as he’s billed in the credits) is as tall as a person and covered with scales. Strickland and his cohorts keep it chained inside a water tank at the institute and plan to launch it into outer space as part of a secret mission. Cleaning the lab where the creature is being held, Elisa takes pity on it and feeds it one of her hard-boiled eggs. Over the next several nights, she communicates with the creature, teaching it sign language, and before long she decides to free it.
The hair-raising rescue mission is one of the most impressive sequences in The Shape of Water, as Elisa, Giles, and Zelda race to smuggle the creature out of the institute before Strickland and his men can spot them. Afterward, Elisa hides the Amphibian Man in her bathtub, waiting for the next high tide to release it into the ocean. Strickland, pressured to recover the creature by his superior (an army general who’s even meaner than he is), investigates the disappearance, eventually landing on Elisa’s trail. The remainder of the film alternates between her friendship with the creature (which blossoms, improbably, into romance) and Strickand’s dogged efforts to find it.
Strickland becomes increasingly monstrous as the movie proceeds, spewing bigoted language toward anyone who isn’t a white man (he’s particularly cruel toward Zelda, making ugly generalizations about her race when he interrogates her about the creature’s disappearance) and behaving sadistically toward anyone who stands in his way. He even starts to look like a monster: when the creature was being transported to the lab, it used its claws to slash off two of Strickland’s fingers, and over the course of the film, his reattached fingers turn gangrenous and drip with pus. By making Strickland physically hideous, del Toro emphasizes his malign nature, but it’s an unnecessary detail, since the character was already awful.
Del Toro also overplays his hand in characterizing the heroes. Midway into the film, he reveals that Giles is gay when the character makes a pass at a friendly restaurant owner; the latter promptly kicks Giles out of the restaurant, along with a black couple who want to eat there. Though superfluous to the story, the scene reflects the movie’s mission, to inspire sympathy with outsiders and anger toward anyone who would prevent them from experiencing love. This simplistic reduction of cold war-era society divides people into open-minded dreamers and narrow-minded villains. The movie’s worldview is as easy to like as the protagonist and her friends, but del Toro lays it on so thick that there’s no room for counterargument or even independent thought. Ultimately his perspective is every bit as confining as the giant tank housing the creature at the lab, and this makes The Shape of Water, for all its good intentions and visual imagination, a limited experience. v