The man-fish hybrid of The Shape of Water looks quite a bit like the eponymous man-fish of Creature from the Back Lagoon, and knowing director Guillermo del Toro’s love for vintage cinema, the similarity was certainly intentional. In many respects, The Shape of Water is an homage to the monster movie of the ‘50s, but its tone and execution make it so much more than a run-of-the-mill B-movie.
Sally Hawkins shines in the lead role of Elisa, a mute custodian who befriends the amphibious creature, and she delivers a stunning performance while hardly speaking at all on screen. The Shape of Water is filled with striking performances like these; Richard Jenkins steals the movie as Giles, Elisa’s neighbor and closet friend, and Michael Shannon chews the scenery to spectacular, attention-grabbing effect as the sadistic colonel who has captured the creature. While Shannon’s performance borders at times on caricature, his villain is only further realizing the heightened, just-beyond-real world of Cold War America in which the film is set.
The world of The Shape of Water is the perfect one for a movie of this sort to inhabit and, in another time and another place, the story of a secret government laboratory, Russian spies, and a creature straight out of the Amazon would have been more than enough material for a B-movie, but The Shape of Water adds depth and weight to this time-tested scenario and character types who we have seen play out countless times on the silver screen of old. The Shape of Water is therefore a unique enough retelling of the Beauty and the Beast archetype to not only separate it from Creature from the Black Lagoon, but make it stand on its own as quite an accomplishment of fantastical movie-making.