Earlier this year, Universal Pictures unveiled their plans for a “Dark Universe”. This entailed a series of reboots of classic Universal Monster films like The Mummy, Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Like The Marvel Universe, all of these characters would interact with each other in various ways in a shared continuity.
I was intrigued by the “Dark Universe”, but reluctant. Reluctant, because I didn’t think it was possible for a studio to recapture the gothic fairy-tale feel of those original films and repackage them for a modern audience. With the release of Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy, it would appear I was right to feel that way. What should have been a slow burn morality tale turned out to be Mission Impossible with mummies. Word has it the Dark Universe is already dead and good riddance with rumors of where it was headed.
I preface my review of The Shape of Water with this because The Shape of Water feels like a Universal Monster movie. This despite the fact that it’s a cold war era romantic thriller released by Fox Searchlight… or Disney or whoever they are now. It comes as no surprise that a film that feels like the love child of The Bride of Frankenstein and The Creature from the Black Lagoon would come from Guillermo del Toro.
Guillermo del Toro recognizes monsters not just as monsters, but as misunderstood beings who have the same desires as the rest of us. In addition to being a great monster story, The Shape of Water is also a great love story with all of del Toro’s trademark flights of fancy. Few, if any filmmakers capture the beauty of horror like del Toro.
The plot is simple; girl longing for love falls for a fish-man, fights to be with fish-man, true love conquers all. Also, there’s the occasional decapitated cat. It’s familiar territory for del Toro drawing from his love of old-school monster movies like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, King Kong and gothic fairy tales i.e. anything with a princess. Richard Jenkins’ character Giles even refers to our heroine Elisa (Sally Hawkins) as “the princess without voice”.
Where Elisa differs from your typical princess is her fearlessness. It would have been easy to make Elisa a meek character, stunted by her disability. Instead, Elisa is a bad ass, unafraid to express herself in front of others, particularly her hard-edged superior, Mr. Strickland (Michael Shannon). It’s refreshing to see a character who isn’t deterred by what makes her different. Elisa’s disability is a reason for other characters to doubt her, but she never doubts herself.
Elisa’s arc is instead the search for a kindred spirit. Another endeavor she pursues with unflinching determination. Who is this kindred spirit? Why it’s none other than an Amphibian fish man aka “The Asset” (Doug Jones) who’s one part Abe Sapien from Hellboy and another The Creature from the Black Lagoon. They even go as far as making the Asset from the Amazon like the Creature.
On a side note, I appreciate that we know just enough about the creature to where we feel like we know him while still maintaining an aura of mystery. Why does he have healing powers? Why does he glow? You want to know, but you don’t because too much explanation would lessen the magic.
Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon and Michael Stuhlbarg fill out the remaining cast of colorful characters. On the good guy side, it’s interesting to note that most of the film’s dialogue is delivered by characters who wouldn’t have had a voice in a time of great prejudice. We have a closeted gay man, a black woman, and a Russian immigrant as our heroes standing beside a middle-aged woman who can’t speak. The cast is diverse but doesn’t feel forced. These characters band together because they don’t fit in with the rest of society.
Then there’s Strickland. A character who in any other monster movie would be far less interesting. It would have been easy to make Strickland a cold, uncaring, authority figure and nothing. I mean, he is all those but we also get a glimpse of the man in the suit. With scenes devoted to Strickland buying a Cadillac and spending time with his family, we get a sense that part of his flawed personality is simply being a product of his time. There is no denying he is cruel, but he also feels the pressure to be a provider for his family. He’s blinded by ignorance, as were many conservative white men in his time. Hell, we still have that problem with conservative white men.
Guillermo del Toro’s characters are without a doubt lively, but nothing can match the world he’s created. On one hand, we have the sterile industrial environment of early 1960s Baltimore. On the other hand, we have the world between Elisa and the Asset. A world of ethereal underwater scenes–not actually filmed underwater, but with old-school special effects—and one of the best dream sequences in any film period.
Of course, I am referring to the musical dance number between Elisa and the Asset. Set in a ballroom and shot in beautiful black and white. It actually made me tear up. One reason, because I felt for these characters, another because it had an even deeper meaning for me.
This scene reminded me how much dad would have enjoyed this movie. A fan of both the classic Universal films and the Golden Age of Hollywood it made me think of him. Anytime a film can tap into some kind of memory or transport you somewhere outside the realm of the movie you know it’s made an impact on you. For that, I am forever in this film’s debt.
The Shape of Water is a surprise favorite going into awards seasons. It leads the pack in Golden Globe nominations and has struck a chord with critics for its awe and beauty. Of course, there has been criticism. The most common complaint I see is that the film doesn’t know what it wants to be. Is it about prejudice? Is it just a love story? Is the Asset an allegory for the mistreatment of immigrants?
Any of those could or could not be the case, but I think most importantly this is a fairy tale. And what is a fairy tale, but an escape from the mundane? To me, The Shape of Water is about escapism and the personal pursuit of love in a time and place where such a love would seem unobtainable. It’s about following dreams against all adversity. Or maybe it’s just about a woman who wants to get it on with a fish. That’s good too. Whatever it is, it made an impact on me and that’s the most amazing thing a film can accomplish.