Del Toro's "The Shape Of Water" Ornate But Only Ankle-Deep

Universal Pictures has long been at work reimagining their iconic 1954 monster movie “Creature From The Black Lagoon” for modern audiences. So long has it been that directors once attached to the project have died; once modern audiences have aged out of key demos. In the wake of this past summer’s disastrous “Mummy” reboot, “Black Lagoon” for the twenty-first century will have to wait in the wings for years if not decades more. But one of the filmmakers once linked to the project, Guillermo del Toro (“Crimson Peak”), has circumvented both development hell and copyright law to deliver an updated vision of a wild amphibious humanoid colliding with the developed world.

Fox Searchlight’s romantic fantasy-drama “The Shape Of Water” is set in 1960s Baltimore and stars Sally Hawkins (“Happy-Go-Lucky”) as Elisa, a single woman who works as a janitor at a top-secret government laboratory. As she was rendered mute by a childhood neck injury and can only speak in sign language, her social circle is limited to her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a commercial artist and closeted gay man, and her best friend and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Apart, the trio might be defined as loners, but together they’re loners with purpose, sharing the burden of their solitude with one another.

Elisa’s world is as impeccably lit and period accurate as del Toro’s name would suggest, with the auteur’s copper patina visuals boasting no expense spared on art design. No matter the effect of his screenplay, his visual eye remains one of the best in the business. He directs his heroine’s daily routine with energy but not excitement, an important delineation when it comes to the relative doldrums of bathtub masturbation.

When Elisa and Zelda’s place of employment receives an exotic fish-man (actor Doug Jones, in a getup highly reminiscent of what he donned for del Toro in “Hellboy”) for scientific experimentation, Elisa and the creature become close. Very close. A la “Beauty And The Beast,” she becomes infatuated with her monster to the point of romantic interest, only here del Toro – and Elisa and her fish-man – go all the way. Elisa manages to steal the creature away from the malevolent Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), stowing the man-phibian away in her bathroom and having lots of sex with it.

Hawkins sells the duo’s curious physical relationship as best she can, aided by Dan Laustsen’s dreamy photography. But del Toro attempts to seize both wistfulness and raw sexuality at once. He can’t have it. Del Toro’s typically lusty visuals and the impressive mix of practical and computer-enhanced effects that comprise his fish-man smother the would-be intricacies of his drama. All that’s left to stand up next to to his crew’s significant technical accomplishments is some interminably loud symbolism, echoing noisily over an innately small story.

“Crimson Peak” was perhaps del Toro’s most immersive film since “The Devil’s Backbone,” drawing on but not imitating films and genres gone by. “The Shape Of Water” is too concerned with homage and sentiment to ever envelop on its own terms; when it comes close it jerks itself back in fits of awkwardness. (The film’s left-field dance sequence works in a vacuum but in reality it’s twee and pointless.) Strong performances from Hawkins and the rest of the cast (Michael Stuhlbarg is excellent as a mysterious scientist) do little to assuage the feeling of thin characters orbiting a thin romance, and the pic’s intoxicating final image is just that – another intoxicating image bereft of verisimilitude.

Universal was wise to see that del Toro was not the person to shepherd “The Creature From The Black Lagoon” back into the spotlight. Even at their best, his films are ornamental instead of elemental; “Black Lagoon” requires the latter. The most lasting thing the filmmaker finds in “In The Shape Of Water” is accidental irony – irony in a tale of inner beauty coming off so superficially.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: December 1, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenwriters: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg
MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language)