HomeMoviesThe Shape of Water: A Film That Sinks Under the Hype

The Shape of Water: A Film That Sinks Under the Hype

Shape of Water Poster

Plot: Set in the early sixties, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor at a research facility where they hold an unruly creature (Doug Jones) that lives in the water. After Elisa develops an infatuation with the monster, she becomes protective when the facility’s head honcho (Michael Shannon) has other nefarious agendas.

This is going to be one of those reviews where I have to throw out a bunch of preambles and prefaces.  

I want to be very clear here: I enjoyed this movie. I’m going to give it a positive rating.  As you read this though, it’s going to sound like I hated the film. It’s one of those movies where the hype train needs to stop. As I watched The Shape of Water, I couldn’t decide whether or not I liked it a lot, or just okay. I knew the end was going to cement how I felt about it. While I enjoyed the film, it simply left me underwhelmed.

Like most Guillermo del Toro movies, there’s a lot to admire here. Yeah, yeah. Visually stunning! OMG, the imagination! That’s so clever! Blah. Blah. Blah. I get it. Everyone loves Guillermo del Toro. And to be fair, this is one of his better movies. It goes without saying that the technical aspects are pristine. Everything is set up perfectly. Alexandre Desplat’s score immediately pulls you in. There are moments of fantastic cinematography. But to be honest, I was never blown away. While there are a few incredible sequences in the water, it actually looked bland at times. It even had a Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them feel. I went there.

The real problem for me though was the monster. I’m sorry, but I wasn’t impressed. As a character, he works okay. While the special effects are obviously flawless, there was nothing about this creature that took my breath away like you would expect. He looks like one of many CGI characters I’ve seen over the last twenty years. He looks like a Gungan who went to the gym with vastly improved special effects. That’s it. They also give him random special powers we’ve seen a million times.

What del Toro does succeed with, and something he’s bumbled with at times, are the characters. At first, the movie is hard to get into. The opening 20 minutes are too cryptic. It takes a while to get to know these people. Del Toro also has a habit of jumping into a scene mid conversation to the point where it’s so easy to tune out. What are we doing here? Once he finally settles into the story though, we’re off and running.

The movie works because of the bond between Sally Hawkins and the monster, but mostly Sally Hawkins. The fact she can’t speak instantly endears you to Elisa, but Hawkins doesn’t rest on those laurels. She draws you into this character like a tractor beam. She certainly does so with the monster. The way they communicate is simple, but effective. With a couple quick scenes, you already get the emotional impact you need to sell this story. I’m not sure Hawkins gives an Oscar level performance, but there’s one elaborate sequence towards the end that is extremely well lit and edited, and Hawkins tries her hardest to take the statue. It almost felt like Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables.

Del Toro does his best to assemble the most likable cast ever. Richard Jenkins plays Giles, Elisa’s roommate. He’s the crowd pleaser. Everything that came out of his mouth, the audience ate right up. It was almost too much at times. Then you have Elisa’s fellow janitor buddy, Octavia Spencer. I don’t think it’s possible to dislike Octavia Spencer.

It’s good del Toro balances these likable people out with Michael Shannon, who plays Richard Strickland, who’s just a horrible human being, but damn it if Michael Shannon isn’t really entertaining at it. He can be funny playing the jackass, like when he makes his assistant (David Hewlett) go outside to knock on the door. It’s when he goes to that special “I will find him!” Michael Shannon place and becomes threatening as all hell. There’s one bone chilling scene where he gets real slimy with Octavia Spencer. Only Michael Shannon could do that.

The only other actor who matches Shannon’s intensity was Nick Searcy, who plays General Hoyt, Shannon’s superior. He actually makes Shannon squirm at one point. It was great to see this complete and utter scum bag get the crap scared out of him.

As much as del Toro improves as a director here, there’s still a lot of frustrating moments where he can’t help himself. One of the highlights is when Strickland completely dismisses the help as being able to fool him, when in fact, they already did. As Strickland dismisses them from his office, Elisa gives him this perfect smirk. It was great. But del Toro keeps going.  Of course, he has to have Elisa make obscene sign language gestures. The smirk was all you needed!  It completely takes the wind out of that scene in favor of a cheap gag.

Del Toro even sacrifices character consistency for a line of dialogue. One of the subplots involves Doctor Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who studies the monster. Strickland and he have a big moment at the end, but the doctor does something completely out of character just so he can give a good “We got you!” type line. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

This movie felt like a live action Pixar film. I mean that as a compliment and criticism. It’s almost too clever for its own good to the point where it got obnoxious.

This is a movie you will like a lot more than me. Like I said, I enjoyed the film. I just couldn’t embrace it. The end desperately wants to leave an impact on you, and while touching, it felt a bit cheap.

This is one of those movies that makes me nervous. I’ve already declared Christopher Nolan for Best Director, and Roger Deakins for Best Cinematography (Blade Runner 2049).  I fear this movie could ruin both those predictions. Del Toro does a solid job here, but if he beats out Nolan for Dunkirk, I’m going to lose my damn mind.

Rating: 7 out of 10 (Good)

The Shape of Water is currently in select theaters, it premieres nationwide on December 22

Daniel Cohen
Daniel Cohen
Daniel Cohen likes movies and bagels, and that’s pretty much it. Aside from writing Box Office predictions, Daniel hosts the monthly Batman by the Numbers Podcast on the Breakcast feed. Speaking of Batman, If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.


  1. I saw “The Shape of Water” last night… and hated it. I understand that you, as a critic, have to be careful not to be a complete outlier on something everyone else seems to like, but, IMO, you are being WAY too apologetic about this film.

    “Visually stunning”? I say, “Ugly”. Everything is dark, dank, and color-timed with a dingy hue that oppresses (and not just the evil government facility).

    Further, there are MASSIVE logic flaws. There are security cameras all over this super secret “science” bunker… except, you know, in the room where the Creature From The Black Lagoon is being kept, and anyone, like, the cleaning lady, for instance, can just bring in a record player and have lunch with one of the most startling discoveries of the 20th century, UNGUARDED and UNWATCHED.

    Yes, I realize this is a fable, but even fairy tales have to have some sort of internal logic.

    But the single biggest problem, for me, is the lack of “buy” when it comes to the movie’s central premise: That this woman would fall in love – instantly – with the creature. Let’s recap: She sees a foreboding-looking tank being wheeled in, then places her hand on the glass, whereupon something scaly suddenly reaches out from the other side. Wouldn’t most of us be startled? Unsettled? Not this girl. Next, she sees the full creature upright in the the tank and he/it swims away. Finally, she sees the bad guy (and OH, what a bad guy, missing only the proverbial mustache to twirl – this character was an outright cartoon – but that’s another story) stagger out of the tank area, bleeding profusely, two fingers bitten off by the creature. Her next move?

    Why, cozying up to the creature, of course!

    That’s what YOU would do, isn’t it?

    Didn’t buy it. And I guess that’s the bottom line. I couldn’t buy ANY of this.

    Look, I like Sally Hawkins. I’ve been a fan ever since “Persuasion”. She’s a fine actress…

    …but even she couldn’t put this water-logged movie into “shape”.

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