'The Shape of Water' Review

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“The Shape of Water” is director Guillermo del Toro’s latest visionary…

Well, I wanted to end that sentence with the word masterpiece. I can’t say I’m disappointed by this film. In fact, I genuinely enjoyed it. The acting is strong, the look is stunning, and the musical choices are smart. I just wasn’t blown out of the water.

The setting is 1960s Baltimore. The Space Race with the Soviets is in full swing. Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a cleaning woman at an aeronautic research facility. She’s mute, using sign language to communicate with others, including friend and coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).

Elisa lives alone in an apartment above a movie theater. Her only other friend is next door neighbor and father figure Giles (Richard Jenkins) and his cats. That is, until a strange creature from South America arrives at the facility.

Elisa immediately becomes emotionally attached to this “Amphibian Man” (who we get a full look at early in the film – so there’s no mystery there). When she sees him being treated poorly by the military security chief in charge of this top-secret case (played by Michael Shannon), Elisa decides she needs to save her new soulmate.

Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins
Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins

The plot of “The Shape of Water” is basically a mashup of “Frankenstein”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “ET: The Extra-Terrestrial”, “King Kong” and a variety of other films about “alien” creatures and the people who love them. Recognizable elements from classic tales are incorporated throughout. Does del Toro’s distinctive style provide enough of a new spin to make this basic story seem fresh? In some ways Yes, but ultimately No.

The strengths here are the visuals and the performances. Hawkins is getting plenty of Best Actress nomination buzz, and it’s well-deserved. Spencer, Jenkins and the always reliable Michael Stuhlbarg (as the scientist in charge of studying “Amphibian Man”) all fit nicely into this traditional good vs. evil fantasy universe. And Shannon is as vicious as ever.

This is an elegantly shot and meticulously choreographed effort, with a very old-fashioned, melodramatic vibe. Examples of del Toro’s love of classic movies and TV, as well as vintage songs, is everywhere, the latter nicely complementing the fine score by Alexandre Desplat.

“The Shape of Water” is mystical, spiritual, and certainly “out there”. I just wish del Toro went even further, bringing something new to this genre instead of treading in the same, old waters.

Jackson Murphy: Emmy Award-winning Film Critic / Entertainment Reporter. Broadcast Film Critics Assoc. (@CriticsChoice), SAG-AFTRA (@SAGAwards)