Tim Burton. Terry Gilliam. George Lucas. Steven Spielberg. Regardless of how you feel about any of these directors, their names alone evoke fantastic visions that have entertained and moved the world for decades. Edward Scissorhands. Brazil. Star Wars. Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Yet the 21st century master of fantasy is the man whose name has become synonymous with the genre: Guillermo del Toro. And while his tenth film, The Shape of Water, is the type of dark fable we’ve come to expect and cherish from the Mexico-born auteur, it’s also sublimely romantic, slyly political, and — well, fancy that — LGBTQ inclusive.
During the Cold War America of the early 1960s, a government operative brings a mysterious “asset” to a high-security laboratory for observation and experimentation. That operative, Richard Strickland, is played by Michael Shannon, so you already know he’s the bad guy (or, in del Toro’s world, one of them), and the “asset” is an amphibian-based lifeform that’s part merman, part Creature from the Black Lagoon (played, beneath the prosthetics, by longtime del Toro mainstay Doug Jones). The creature may be useful to the United States government for warfare.
Enter the remaining cast of characters, both major and minor: the janitorial staff of the classified underground wing of the compound, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer in a role written for her by del Toro) and the mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins, radiant in a star-making role); the attending government scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), also a Russian double-agent; and, of course, Elisa’s next door neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins, deserving of a Supporting Actor nomination), who frets about growing older and his hair loss, pines for love with a local pie shop employee and shares his passion for musicals with the equally besotted Elisa (they sit side-by-side on the sofa performing a quick soft shoe).
Oh, did we mention that the neighbor’s apartments are atop the local cinema, The Orpheum, wherein the Cinemascope epics of the day seem to be on constant rotation?
It’s no secret that del Toro, like Burton and Spielberg and many others before him, is steeped in the history of cinema, and that he’s never met an homage he didn’t like. You can spot the influences throughout The Shape of Water, which keep piling up from genres that should mix like oil and, well, water. But he hooks you in with the primary narrative — a play on Beauty and the Beast wherein the mute and the “asset” communicate wordlessly towards a deeper understanding of each other and the world in general — and he elevates his source material until the entire film coheres with an operatic swagger.
I’m not going to lie here: If you are not in the mood for a fable or even a darkly whimsical love story, then you should avoid the movie. When I first saw it, I struggled with the suspension of disbelief necessary for the film to work. In a cynical mind, The Shape of Water is basically the story of a girl who falls in love with a fish-man and, well, what the hell?! The Cold War stuff is a MacGuffin that happens around the main event. Yet I left the theater with admiration for all those elements that make a movie worth seeing: the lush cinematography (Dan Laustsen), the makeup and special effects that bring the creature to vivid life, the vibrant score by Alexandre Desplat and the performances (especially Hawkins, Jenkins, Spencer and Jones).
But so much of the movie stuck with me. The way that both U.S. and Soviet government characters are blinded by their violent ambitions for supremacy. What satisfaction there is in watching underserved character-types function as everyday heroes — a mute woman, an archetypal old-school gay man and a black cleaning woman. How lighthearted the film was, on one hand, and how bloody it was, on the other, with neither throwing the balance of the film.
And when I had the chance to watch it again, disbelief was fully suspended, and not only did magic happen, but something more. “The beast doesn’t have to transform into a prince to be loved,” del Toro has said, “because the whole point of the movie is that love is not transformation but understanding.”
Guillermo del Toro understands, alright. He can transform his influences into his own cinematic language to the point where his work is unmistakable from any others. (It’s long overdue for us critics to describe a younger director’s vision as del Toro-esque in much the same way del Toro was probably labelled Spielbergian.) And though he’s a master of fantasy, he’s also got something to tell us about the world we live in today.
When asked why he set The Shape of Water in 1962, he has said, “Because when people say ‘let’s Make America Great Again,’ they’re dreaming of that era. It’s an era where the cars had jet fins, the kitchens were automatic. Everything was super great if you were white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, but if you were anything else, you were fucked. It hasn’t changed that much.”
The Shape of Water is in theaters starting tomorrow, Dec. 1.