Director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro puts a lot of winning elements from successful films into a blender and delivers “The Shape of Water” (2017), now in theatrical wide release. Mixing familiar substance with loads of style, this Oscar-y yet accessible movie carves off bits of “E.T.,” “Splash,” “Splice,” “The Help,” “Big Fish” and “Beauty and the Beast,” and throws in Michael Shannon’s skill at playing a villain and Octavia Spencer’s specialty as the chatty best friend to create a foundation for a sweet love story.
The prospective couple is mute woman Eliza (Sally Hawkins) and a sea monster (Doug Jones, “Star Trek Discovery”) whose look falls somewhere between monsters from the “Buffy” Season 2 episodes “Reptile Boy” and “Go Fish.” (Jones himself played the lead Gentleman in Season 4’s “Hush.”) Despite having animalistic traits, he’s not a monster: He’s an intelligent creature who has been captured by U.S. military officer Richard Strickland (Shannon, Zod from “Man of Steel”) as part of Cold War operations in the 1960s.
But Del Toro, coming off four seasons of producing “The Strain,” first lets us into the simple life of sweetheart Eliza, whose voicebox was damaged as a baby, when she was found abandoned on a riverbank. Her friendships with artist Giles (Richard Jenkins) and colleague Zelda (Spencer) are rich, but something about the water tugs her mind away from shore-bound life in Baltimore.
The script, co-written by Vanessa Taylor (“Divergent”), is filled with tropes, including the top-secret government facility where the military is studying/torturing the creature. An undercover Russian agent, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, unrecognizable from “Fargo” Season 3), joins the slimy Strickland in putting the archetypes in place.
“The Shape of Water” isn’t interested in delving deeply into the evil that governments do; that’s just a jumping-off point. It also peppers in brief moments about life in the 1960s for gay (Giles), black (Zelda) and disabled (Eliza) people, but doesn’t preach.
Del Toro and Taylor let us directly into the flow of the romance by employing a clever conceit: No one ever notices the cleaning crew. As such, Eliza easily gets into the chamber where the merman is chained up and they jump right into an interspecies courtship. She brings him eggs and plays records for him. Neither has the spoken word at their disposal, but their bond is clear through sign language and adoring looks.
“The Shape of Water” is unusual among romance films in that neither of the leads is Hollywood good-looking (particularly the creature, obviously, who doesn’t fall into that ugly-cute sweet spot like E.T.; he really does look like a freak of the deep). But the story transpires in the most traditional way possible, even with the end-of-Act-2 misunderstanding (let’s just say the merman doesn’t grasp the line between pets and food). As such, we’re challenged to see the beauty beneath the surface of these two beings.
The film’s combination of a familiar arc and beautiful sights and sounds helps us feel OK about embracing the romance. Someday, “The Shape of Water” might be a rallying point when the first human-alien relationships happen. Because that’s so far in the future, the film escapes modern-day controversy.
Cinematographer Dan Lausten delivers beautiful/bleak green and blue tunnels at the facility, visually rich/economically poor wood-laden apartments, and a generally rainy film-noir palette. Cadillacs and other trappings take us back to 1962. Combined with a gentle score from Alexandre Desplat, “The Shape of Water” becomes somewhat of a fantasy world, which prepares us to forgive/applaud the climax.
No one is too old to cry at “E.T.,” but if you want something slightly more grounded and adult (and R-rated), you now have your movie.