We are introduced to the daily clockwork routine of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who lives with a closeted gay illustrator named Giles (Richard Jenkins) and resides in Baltimore, circa 1962. She is a Custodian Engineer for a secret government laboratory and is best friends with Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer). Under the guidance of Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a huge water tank arrives, which cages an amphibian man (Doug Jones) from South America.
Because Strickland antagonizes the man and is mean to him, the mute woman develops a relationship with him. She cooks him hard boiled eggs and they communicate with each other through sign language. When Strickland’s supervisor orders the dissection of her new friend, Elisa recruits Giles and Zelda to hatch a rescue plan.
If you have seen Splash and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, you can easily figure out the rest of the narrative of The Shape of Water. Writer/Director Guillermo del Toro knows this and he takes many of these cliches and adds his own spin to audience expectations. Being a fellow Monster Maven, del Toro acknowledges the debt from the original King Kong, The Bride of Frankenstein and the Creature From the Black Lagoon trilogy, the latter being the most obvious homage.
With the financial success of Marvel Comics and Legendary Pictures, Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla, Universal Productions has sought to reboot their Universal Monsters franchise. A part of a proposed series of movies, The Mummy was released and crashed at the box office. While Universal spent millions of dollars on celebrity salaries (Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, Javier Bardem, Johnny Depp), less money was spent on script writing.
One wonders how good the Universal Monster franchise would have been if Guillermo del Toro had taken over.
Given his filmography with films like The Devil’s Backbone, the two Hellboy movies and Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro understands that character motivation trumps a scriptwriting formula that pieces together scenes emphasizing computer-generated special effects. For all of its fantastic elements, an award-winning musical score and beautiful cinematography, The Shape of Water succeeds as a movie about humanity.
Given my high expectations, The Shape of Water was a disappointment. Yet, as I was given time to reflect about the visual imagery combined with Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones’ empathetic performances, I can say that the film is a movie that stays with you. Given his love of Lon Chaney movies from the silent era, I cannot wait to see what del Toro does next on the big screen!