Thursday , 1 October 2020

del Toro de Force Creature Feature – The Shape of Water – review

Guillermo del Toro is unquestionably one of the most imaginative filmmakers working today. Whether it’s large-scale, f/x-laden blockbusters like Hellboy and Pacific Rim, or smaller, more atmospheric gems like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro’s films never fail to deliver a sense of wonder and awe. Now, with his latest work, the acclaimed new The Shape of Water, he has managed to create a monster movie, love story and environmental film (with a musical number thrown in!) all wrapped together in one.

It’s the early 60’s, the age of Camelot, during the ongoing struggle for civil and women’s rights, and at the height of the Cold War and the U.S./Russian space race. At the Occam Aerospace Research Center in Baltimore, Maryland, a creature (Doug Jones) that has been captured from the rivers of South America has been brought to be studied and prodded and dissected to see if it might offer any advantage that can be used against the Soviets. At the very least, it and its secrets must be kept away from the enemy. Heading this operation is Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a mean-spirited soul who considers this gill-man nothing but an asset, and an affront to humanity. Working at the facility as cleaners are Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who is mute, and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who more than makes up for Elisa’s lack of vocalization. Also on hand are biologist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is keen on learning from the creature, and head of security, Fleming (David Hewlitt). Elisa, whose only friend other than Zelda seems to be her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), takes an immediate interest and liking to this unusual being, spending her spare time with it and feeding it hard-boiled eggs. In time, the two begin to form an unlikely bond that’s put to the test when the the creature’s very life is threatened.

No doubt inspired by Universal’s 1954 3-D classic, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Guillermo del Toro takes things a bit further in crafting this magical tale of loneliness and love. But don’t let that scare you away – this is unequivocally a horror film, an adult, R-rated one at that, with spurts of graphic violence and nudity. del Toro is an unabashed lover of monster movies. In addition to The Creature, the film reminds one of another treasured classic, King Kong, with its misunderstood beast that can only find solace with a spirited young woman, while nefarious forces look to exploit it. Generally, such stories inevitably end in pain and sadness, though it would be unfair to the readers of this review, and to the gill-man himself (see, not an ‘it’), to divulge this film’s many secrets, including its conclusion, of course.

In addition to the wonderful script concocted by del Toro and his co-writer, Vanessa Taylor, The Shape of Water features a superb A-list cast loaded with previous Oscar nominees. Sally Hawkins is amazing as Elisa. Her unorthodox look and demeanor seem to come from another era, which works perfectly here. Her frail appearance is offset by a strength of character as she defends not only the creature, but herself as well. It’s interesting that the two characters who communicate with each other best do so without speaking. Doug Jones, as the amphibian man, must be commended for adding so much pathos and intelligence under all that latex. No stranger to strange, bizarre creatures, Jones is del Toro’s go to man, or rather, monster, having previously played another gill-man, Abe Sabien in the Hellboy films, and the eerie-looking Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth, among his multitude of credits.

The rest of the cast that del Toro has assembled are all admirably up to the task in this fantastical tale. Richard Jenkins goes from confused and understanding without missing a beat as Elisa’s lonely friend. Octavia Spencer is fantastic as Elisa’s co-worker, not only dealing with the double-whammy of being a woman and African American in the 60’s, but the events in the film that she gets caught up in, all while maintaining a sense of dignity in a lower echelon, underappreciated profession. Michael Shannon does scary/dangerous like no one else can, ready to erupt at any time, but with a depth that goes beyond his military status. Lastly, let’s give a huge shout-out to the incredible actor, Michael Stuhlbarg, here playing a scientist with a heart and a whole lot more. He’s had an incredible 2017, not only co-starring in three award-winning films – The Shape of Water, The Post and Call Me by Your Name – but the successful third season of FX’s Fargo. He is a chameleon-like performer who elevates every project he is in. Check him out in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire or Men in Black III to see the full extent of his range.

Aside from the superlative cast, the technical merits are also outstanding, from the period costume and production design to the cinematography, both underwater and ashore, by Dan Lausten (the mysteriously creepy Silent Hill, the Gore 4 favorite, Brotherhood of the Wolf) and the whimsical, romantic, yet foreboding score by Alexandre Desplat, whose last two film compositions (The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel) both scored Academy Award nominations in 2015, for which he won for the latter. Last but not least is the fantastic creature brought to life by Doug Jones. Using primarily practical f/x, this otherworldly being from our own planet is a wonder to behold, from it’s blinking reptilian-like eyes to its scaly sheen. Director del Toro (who designed the creature), the f/x team and Jones have combined to give us something that is both terrifying and sympathetic.

As for del Toro, this inspired filmmaker looks to be continuing the current award-winning tradition of Mexican filmmakers. Over the last four years, with Alfonso Cuaron winning for Gravity, and Alejandro Inarritu nabbing back-to-back wins for Birdman and The Revenant (with only last year, Princeton, New Jersey’s Damien Chazelle winning for La La Land ending an impressive Mexican streak), our North American neighbors are not sending us murderers and rapists, as one unenlightened soul would suggest, but rather, the best filmmakers on the planet. (Maybe it’s something in the water?) As if an answer to those backwards-thinking remarks and policies of this current administration, The Shape of Water is a story of love, compassion, understanding and inclusion, and a warning not to mess with and exploit nature, or destroy anything we don’t understand or take the time to do so. As Elisa explains her relationship with the gill-man to Giles, “He sees me for what I am, as I am.” Unfortunately, the old adage, “don’t judge a book by its cover” still isn’t adhered to by many today.

Guillermo del Toro has charmed audiences before with his astounding stories of vengeful spirits, gigantic robots and good-hearted demons. He does so again here with his most personal film to date. The Shape of Water is destined to become a timeless classic that is currently timely in its themes. Its fish-out-of-water, woman-in-water story will touch anyone with a heart or a soul. Hopefully, it will also inspire us all to treat each other with a little more kindness, respect and dignity.

[Keep your fish eyes peeled at the Gore 4 for an upcoming, exclusive look at a recent Q&A with writer/director Guillermo del Toro and his cast.]

— review by Brian de Castro


  1. Very comprehensive and informative, without giving anything away. I guess the next step is to SEE THIS FILM!

  2. I always try to just reveal enough of the film to give you an idea of what it may be about. Too often, too much is given away, in reviews, trailers, TV spots, etc. Movies are more compelling and fun when you’re allowed to discovery its developments and surprises as it unfolds. And yes, you need to see this film YESTERDAY! And with a whopping 13 Academy Award nominations, it should finally be expanding to more theaters, so now’s your chance!

  3. Hey GORE4, great review! I am a GORE4, del Toro, and “The Shape of Water” fan. I really enjoyed your review and, while you touched upon it, I would like to emphasize further how this film, through it’s look, mood, and music, beautifully and enchantingly transports you to another time and real, yet mythical, place where we can believe this creature lives and this love story unfolds. This movie is truly magical and is undeniably a reason TO GO TO THE MOVIES.

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