“The Shape of Water” takes place in 1960’s Baltimore during the Cold War era. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a timid, mute woman, working as a janitor in a top secret government facility. With only her best friend and co-worker Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) as a source of company there, Elisa goes through her daily drudgery of cleaning floors, restocking restrooms, and other menial tasks. All that changes, however, when Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the government official in command of the facility, brings in a large tank containing something he captured from the Amazon.Elisa eventually finds Strickland’s discovery to be a strange amphibious creature— credited as the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones); though the movie never gives it an official name. Elisa begins to form a close bond with the Amphibian Man—bringing him food, music, and communicating with him through sign language. But as Strickland’s wayward methods and cruel torture of the creature become too much for her to bear, Elisa takes matters into her own hands. With the help of Zelda, and Elisa’s friend and neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), the mute custodian hatches a plot to free the Amphibian Man and hide him in her apartment until she can find the right time to release him. But such a decision might prove too difficult for Elisa as she soon develops strong feelings for the Amphibian Man.
I’m going to say it up front. I do not care for romance films, although, I’m not against movies using romance in storytelling. After all, there are plenty of great films outside of the romance genre that feature well written and memorable romantic relationships between characters, without them taking up the entire story. My problem with romance movies, however, is that most of them start to blend together. Character A loves Character B, but because of fill in the blank plot point, Character A leaves Character B. Then some plot happens until finally, they reunite at the end for marriage or death.
If a romance movie truly wants to stand out from the long lineup of love stories saturating the genre, then it’s going to need its own niche to attract new viewers, which I’m happy to say, “The Shape of Water” does just that. The movie is “Edward Scissorhands” meets “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” with small elements borrowed from the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and placed in the Cold War era of the Red Scare. “The Shape of War” takes all of those ideas and blends them together into a fine mixture of romance, drama, and science fiction that becomes a treat for audiences and critics alike, thanks in part to the directing of Guillermo del Toro—the creative mind behind “Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and “Pacific Rim.”
While the story and directing are well put together, the cinematography itself is also worthy of praise. It doesn’t rely on quick cuts or close-ups like most mainstream movies in the Sci-Fi genre. Instead, the overall film is shot from a wide enough angle that even when your eyes are only on the actors and action on screen, the audience is still able to drink in the sets and scenery; and it looks beautiful on the big screen. As for the sets themselves, “The Shape of Water” is up there with “Darkest Hour” for the best set design I’ve seen in recent films. If there’s one thing both movies have in common, they made me forget I was looking at a manufactured set that was produced in a studio workshop, and instead, seeing something that looks authentic and real. The movie feels like 1960’s America—a time of mom and pop diners, sleazy car dealers, spies and espionage, racism, and segregation. Okay, it wasn’t the best of times, but I applaud the movie for capturing the authenticity of the era.
If there’s one thing that outmatches the set design, however, it’s the special effects. While the director and crew behind them all deserve praise, I have to give credit to actor Doug Jones for his role as the Amphibian Man. In an age where most modern Sci-Fi and Fantasy movies rely on CGI for their creations, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a movie where the onscreen creature is physically there, rather than something that was spliced in later during production. That’s right, the monster is not computer generated—the actor is actually there, in costume. The effects on the creature are beautiful and worthy of an Academy Award. In fact, by the time of this review, “The Shape of Water” has already been nominated for over 13 Oscars, one of which being “Best Achievement in Costume Design,” and it’s well deserved
Finally, there are the actors. Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, all give a fantastic performance that I wish I could delve into further, but due to the risk of spoilers and this review reading longer than usual, I’m going to instead focus on the protagonist and antagonist of the story: Elisa Esposito and Richard Strickland. While Elisa Esposito is not the first mute character portrayed in fiction, she is among the few to be put in a leading role. Even without uttering a word, Sally Hawkins brings the character to life through her facial expressions and movement. This makes for some fascinating scenes when you’re watching her interact with the creature through sign language. Which makes this one of the few romance films that doesn’t rely on the characters expressing their relationship through verbal dialogue, but through actions and movement. Then there’s Michael Shannon for his portrayal of Colonel Richard Strickland, a man who represents the crisp picture of an American who loves his country and tries to live in his own perfect world of the American Dream. Except through the film’s vision, and Michael Shannon’s acting, the concept takes a dark twist, showing that even with everything he has, Strickland is nothing more than a callous, cold, individual who vies for control and dominance through his job and cruel treatment of the creature.
“The Shape of Water” is rated R for violence, language, and sexual content with graphic nudity. If you long for a romance film that breaks from the drudgery of the usual cheesy filler brought out from Hollywood, or maybe you’re just looking for a Sci-Fi film with a new, weird, but fascinating story, then “The Shape of Water” is the one for you. With a strong cast, powerful acting, great direction and writing, along with grand special effects and authentic looking sets, I’m proud to give “The Shape of Water” an 8.5 out of 10.
Marco Island resident and avid moviegoer, Matthew Mendisana is a Lynn University alumnus. While he possesses a bachelor’s degree in science, it’s the arts that attracted his attention. In his four years at Lynn, Matthew managed to achieve Magna Cum Laude status, earn three publications in the Lynn University magazine, make a short documentary featured in the university’s Film Festival, and created a radio PSA that was later broadcasted overseas.