For most Americans, writer/director Guillermo del Toro burst onto the Hollywood scene in 2006 with Pan’s Labyrinth. This stunningly visual epic fairy tale marked its creator as a master of the trade. In the 11 years that followed, del Toro created just three more films: 2008’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army , 2013’s Pacific Rim and 2015’s Crimson Peak. Each had their moments, but none approached the pure fascination that Pan’s Labyrinth so expertly evoked.
His latest attempt to match the mystical magic of his earlier work is as close as he’s come. The Shape of Water is an adorable, oddball fantasy that effectively weaves a captivating tale of longing and love. Its main character, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), lives the simple life of an unassuming janitor. She and her friend Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) both work nights at a high-tech aerospace facility. Elisa also struggles with a quiet loneliness made all the more profound by an old injury that left her mute.
Late one evening, the facility receives a new “asset” — a strange amphibious creature captured by a coldhearted colonel (Michael Shannon). Elisa finds herself drawn inexorably closer to the creature, and it is equally drawn to her. When events finally take an ominous turn, Elisa hatches a risky plot to save her newfound companion and, with it, her own future.
This uniquely curious tale of romance and rescue often feels as if del Toro borrowed and updated a campy 1950s sci-fi thriller. Its strange alien is a near-dead ringer for the titular Creature from the Black Lagoon, while its sets embody the style and tone of every “high tech” film of that era. The performances are stark, bold and generally unambiguous, and nearly every shot is draped in deep shadows that keep us continually off-balance. The result is a perpetual feeling of having one foot rooted firmly in the past while still watching safely from the present.
Hawkins is the unquestioned star of the show. Her portrayal of the innocent, downcast heroine is undeniably hypnotic. Her character’s lack of dialogue adds the perfect dose of mystery and charm, allowing the audience to paint her with any brush that they desire.
It all adds up to a compelling concept with a treasure trove of potential. Much of it is realized, but not where the plot is concerned. The story is at times so patently predictable that it often doesn’t need us to bother paying attention. Aside from that single but significant misstep, this is one body of water well worth wading in.