The elevator pitch for The Shape of Water is “a fairytale for adults,” and the movie doubles down on this concept from the very beginning. The opening shot, a graceful long take, sweeps through an underwater home as if the viewer is swimming in it. The image is surreal, especially combined with Alexandre Desplat’s enchanting score and Richard Jenkins’ narration about the “princess without a voice.” Within the first minute, we’ve been transported into director Guillermo Del Toro’s fantasy.
Del Toro’s vivid imagination brings to life the story of a mute woman, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), in the 1960s who works as a janitor in a secret government laboratory in Baltimore. The science facility has captured an aquatic, humanoid amphibian, referred to as The Asset. Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a clearly sadistic psychopath, repeatedly tortures the creature and wants to dissect it to possibly gain an advantage over the Soviets in the Cold War. Or something.
The movie kicks into action when Elisa begins to develop a connection with the creature, which could be a little weird, for sure, but the relationship is handled with the maturity of one between two humans. Somehow, this unlikely love story feels realistic. Perhaps the attachment arises because Elisa, a mute orphan, and the creature, an inhuman, intimidating, blue being, are quickly dismissed by society as “others.” This theme permeates the script, particularly with the character of Elisa’s lonely, gay neighbor, Giles, played by Richard Jenkins, who adds a lot of gravitas to the movie through a number of heartfelt conversations with Elisa.
In addition to universally fantastic performances, there’s a reason The Shape of Water received a near-record 13 Oscar nominations, including in almost every technical category: the movie is one hell of a production. Paul D. Austerberry’s lavish sets are particularly noteworthy — we can practically reach out and touch the slime in the basement of the laboratory — and Dan Lausten’s camera allows us to soak it all in.
The colors in this movie are vibrant. The deep sea teals of the facility are complemented by the cinnamon hue of Giles’s apartment, both of which allow some of Elisa’s red clothing to pop off the screen.
The film excels during the sequences in the facility when it’s riffing off classics like King Kong, ET and Beauty and the Beast. Sally Hawkins gives a charming performance as Elisa, who brings lunch for the aquatic being and feeds him, plays records for him and teaches him sign language. The work done by the filmmakers to bring the beast to life is remarkable, and Del Toro manages to depict him as both imposing and human-like. These scenes of love between Elisa and the beast, which I didn’t really expect to work, are some of the strongest in the movie.
The third act hits a lot of predictable beats, however, with corny antics like villain monologuing and “shocking” twists. As Elisa tries to protect the creature from the baddies who are after him, the story abruptly turns into a classic Hollywood thriller. Maybe this familiarity and simplicity are appropriate for what is in essence a fairy tale, but some of the emotional heft dissipates in the finale. Still, Del Toro manages to fittingly cap off the film with a memorable, ethereal closing shot.
The Shape of Water isn’t an especially thought-provoking experience, but oh man is it visually sumptuous. The film delivers on its promise of being an otherworldly fairytale so thoroughly that we hardly even realize we’ve just watched a film about beastiality, fish-human sex scene included.
Lev Akabas is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.