AFI Fest Review: The Shape of Water – The real Aquaman

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water is Guillermo del Toro’s Free Willy, and all that entails. That’s a compliment. Del Toro means it and he probably has even more affection for fictional creatures than actual animals. This may be his most passionate film.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a janitor in a laboratory that is holding an amphibian man (Doug Jones). When she cleans his tank, she’s kind to him. When Strickland (Michael Shannon) plans to vivisect the creature, Elisa and her friends plan to free him.

The Shape of Water
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) feeds the amphibian hard boiled eggs in The Shape of Water.

The relationship between Elisa and the amphibian is heartwarming. Both are vulnerable. He’s an actual prisoner but she is mute and only trusts her partner Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and roommate Giles (Richard Jenkins). Feeding the creature eggs and communicating with sign language is a compassionate bond, but being Guillermo del Toro the relationship goes beyond a kid and her pet. Also remember this isn’t an animal. He’s a man, perhaps a god, just with scales and gills.

Their relationship is seriously risqué. It’s bold to go there with a non human creature but that’s how seriously del Toro treats his monsters. They are capable of love and it’s not a joke or taboo. Elisa is sexual from the beginning, a facet many female protagonists are denied in Hollywood too.

Shape of Water love scene
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and the amphibian (Doug Jones) are more than just friends.

So much of The Shape of Water is unspoken but understood. The danger of keeping a wild animal in a domestic setting is palpable. It’s not his fault but it’s not easy. He experiences the wonder of discovering the human world, even in confined settings. He’s better than E.T. because he has the power to not only heal, but grow hair. That’s what the government should’ve been researching!

It seems like the amphibian running away could’ve been more dangerous. An amphibian God could’ve gone anywhere. If you think the escape was dangerous, imagine how much harder he’d be to find in the open, but the movie doesn’t go there.

Michael Shannon, Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer
Strickland (Michael Shannon) questions Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer)

Set in 1962, the paranoia of men in suits about anything different is as relevant as ever. Themes of racism and homophobia are included subtly, so it’s not a polemic but del Toro trusts you to understand the forces of oppression. These things were metaphorical in the ’50s and ’60s monster movies anyway. They only need to be a tad more overt to be clear.

There’s a good dose of squirmy body stuff that del Toro is good at too, and a whimsical fantasy sequence that’s totally appropriate. The Shape of Water is an old fashioned creature story with the modern sensibilities to explore it in a deeper way.

The Shape of Water opens December 1 in select theaters and everywhere December 8.

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