• Jules-Pierre Malartre

The Shape of Water: Guillermo del Toro at his best


If you’re as unconditional a fan of Guillermo del Toro as I am, it’s hard to dislike any of his films – not that he’s put out some stinkers, but some of his work, including the recent Crimson Peak and his venture into television, The Strain, received mixed reviews among both fans and critics. However, when it comes to The Shape of Water, I don’t have to make an effort to like the result. It is by far del Toro’s best work to date.

While a lot of moviegoers would confine del Toro to the realm of fantasy and science fiction, The Shape of Water clearly shows that he can also flex some serious drama muscle. This comes as no surprise to his long-time fans who witnessed his skills at transposing elements of fantasy into serious drama territory in his earlier film, Pan’s Labyrinth, which has a lot of elements in common with The Shape of Water. Not unlike Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water is also a period piece, blending socially or historically relevant issues with elements of fantasy. In that light, and in the wake of his more mainstream movies (like Crimson Peak and Pacific Rim), The Shape of Water is a return to del Toro’s source. There is a definite evolution in del Toro’s style from Pan’s Labyrinth, to Hellboy and then finally to The Shape of Water, which shows him at the peak of his art.

Del Toro is a ‘brand’ all by himself. There are too many formulaic directors coming out of Hollywood who will pander to production houses and that inevitably leads to the current slew of generic genre films hitting theatres. Del Toro does not compromise. He is known for leaving a project if he is not free to maintain his creative integrity, and it shows. He leaves his personal touch even on movies he did not get to finish. A good example is the Hobbit trilogy; even though he was only briefly associated with the series in pre-production and scriptwriting, you can still see his mark on the finished films, the same way you can tell that Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth and now The Shape of Water are his works.

It’s interesting to note that Doug Jones played a somewhat similar role in three of del Toro’s films; Jones’ Amphibian Man in the Shape of Water is strongly reminiscent of his aquatic Abe Sapien in Hellboy and of the gaunt Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth. Adding Jones’ current television stint on Star Trek: Discovery playing Commander Saru, a lanky alien from a race called Kelpien, makes you think that Jones does not like to stray from his comfort zone. However, his role in The Shape of Water is far more challenging, and Jones shows well-honed acting skills, being able to emote and move audiences despite the lack of dialogue and having to wear a full-body prosthetic suit.

Del Toro is a total fanboy who collects comic book art and loves creature movies. Pacific Rim is really homage to the Mecha movies (think Ultraman, Grendizer, etc.) of his youth, and there is much of the Creature from the Black Lagoon from the 1950s in all of the characters played by Jones in del Toro’s movies. However, the Amphibian Man is not a creature; he’s the leading man in a socially relevant drama. Del Toro’s approach and Jones’ earnest performance are what move The Shape of Water from the realm of creature movies to the ranks of serious drama.

Sally Hawkins also shines as the Amphibian Man’s love interest. She brings much gravitas to the social commentary of the movie and helps make Jones’ character (and her relationship with him) more believable. It’s not surprising that she’s been nominated for best actress by both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes for her role in The Shape of Water.

While many consider sci-fi and fantasy to be children’s fare, of all literary genres, it actually has the strongest capacity for social criticism and for driving social change. Some of the most influential and socially relevant writers of the 19th Century were sci-fi authors (Heinlein, Herbert, Clarke, and Asimov). In cinema, directors such as del Toro prove the genre can also be used as a vehicle for socially relevant messages, not awkwardly like the slew of formulaic sci-fi hitting movie screens for the past decades, but so eloquently that you leave the theatre not only having been entertained, but also feeling your views were challenged or emboldened.

In The Shape of Water, del Toro applies everything he’s learned from his previous movies to present a sci-fi theme strongly rooted in reality. The social commentary is not subtle, but neither is it presented clumsily, and the timing couldn’t be better. If you’re looking for something different, The Shape of Water will not disappoint.

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