Imagine the Universal Pictures’ horror classic “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954) revamped as a romantic escapade, and you’ll have some idea what to expect from “Hellboy” helmer Guillermo del Toro’s supernatural saga “The Shape of Water” (*** OUT OF *****), starring Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, and Michael Shannon. Doug Jones plays an enigmatic humanoid amphibian from the Amazon who walks upright on two legs. Equipped with gills and face like C3P0, he lands in the hands of the U.S. Government. “The Shape of Water” takes place in 1961 during the early years of the Space Race between Uncle Sam and the Soviet Union. Unlike the reptilian “Black Lagoon Creature,” this gill guy wouldn’t frighten a fly, though he does use his large, webbed hands with claws to tear a couple of fingers off his sadistic human curator. Later, he munches on the head of a contentious cat. Scrambling to launch a man into space, the U.S. Government believes this creature will provide them with answers to questions about human survival in space. Basically, this fable concerns an oversized lab specimen and the heartless abuse that his captors inflict on him with Nazi-like relish for their research. Mind you, Hollywood has made movies comparable to “The Shape of Water,” such as “Splice” (2009), about a lab specimen that unscrupulous researchers concocted from a genetic crucible and then learned they couldn’t control it. The humanoid amphibian here isn’t as treacherous as the feminine hybrid in “Splice” or the “Species” (1995) franchise.
Indeed, “The Shape of Water” creature is altogether sympathetic, and del Toro’s relies on imagery designed to win our sympathy—particularly when it is chained up in a way reminiscent of the “Frankenstein” monster. A huge metal shackle surrounds its neck while a spider-web of chain links hold it down to a huge circular pad. Nevertheless, despite a few scenes where the villain gouges it with an electric cattle prod, “The Shape of Water” focuses on a mute cleaning lady at the top-secret complex who falls in love with it and yearns to free it. When it doesn’t remind you of “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” del Toro’s winsome yarn evokes memories of “Beauty and the Beast.” Mind you, occasionally things happen that may confound audiences, but “The Shape of Water” is ostensibly a love story that indulges in surrealism without rubbing your face in its less savory moments. No, it isn’t surprising that del Toro co-wrote and directed this fanciful epic. After all, he was responsible for “Hellboy” (2004) and “Hellboy: The Golden Army.”
Korean War veteran Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon of “Man of Steel”) has captured an anonymous amphibian during a South American safari, and General Hoyt (Nick Searcy of “The Fugitive”) wants a team of scientists to slice it up to see if they can duplicate its ability to live in different environments. Strickland serves as a sadistic jailor who terrorizes the amphibian with an electric cattle prod. He enjoys wreaking pain on it, especially after it rips off two of his fingers. This amphibian is imprisoned at a top-secret government research facility where Elisa Esposito (British actress Sally Hawkins of “Blue Jasmine”) works as a cleaning lady. Elisa’s best friend, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer of “The Help”), does her talking for her, because Elisa is mute and can only communicate with sign language. Elisa feels sad about the way the creature is mistreated. She displays compassion for it, feeding it hard-boiled eggs and playing music for it on her portable record player. The amphibian reciprocates her kindness. Moreover, the creature seems to fathom sign language, and the two become friends. Eventually, the scientists realize the only way to exact the secrets of the gill man’s mysterious corporeal being is to perform an autopsy on it. Predictably, Elisa cannot let this unspeakable act transpire so she exploits her knowledge of the security measures, and plots an escape plan. She finds an unlikely ally in the form of another scientist, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg of “Doctor Strange”), who argues killing the amphibian is the worst thing that they can do for their research. While he is sympathetic to the plight of the creature, Hoffstetler has his own subversive reasons for not destroying it. Meantime, Zelda has no idea that Elisa has become so inextricably enamored of the creature. Initially, Elisa doesn’t want to involve Zelda in the escape. Instead, she enlists her next-door neighbor, a lonely artist, Giles (Richard Jenkins of “Me, Myself & Irene”), to help her undertake this spine-tingling caper. Hoffstetler throws in with them and furnishes a vital distraction guaranteed to make the escape a surefire success.
Guillermo del Toro orchestrates several white-knuckled sequences during the breakout that will put you on the edge of your seat. However, it isn’t so much the way he stages “The Shape of Water” that makes it memorable, but the gallery of characters that he spends a little more than two hours creating until we either love them or hate them. Elisa lives in her own fantasy world above a movie theater, and she has a dull, drab existence until she encounters this strange amphibian and tenders her love to it. Shrewdly, del Toro and “Divergent” scenarist Vanessa Taylor make the characters as strong a story element as the predicament in which the amphibian finds itself. All good adventure outings require a dangerous antagonist, and Mike Shannon does a fantastic job making Richard Strickland a thoroughly obnoxious dastard. Nevertheless, they don’t skimp on his character. The subplots involving Strickland’s purchase of a 1962 Cadillac and his marriage are hilarious. Even peripheral characters, like General Hoyt, stand out. Unfortunately, gifted as she is, Oscar-winning Octavia Spencer appears to have been cast primarily because she played in “The Help,” and del Toro and Taylor exploit this advantage in amusing little ways. Unquestionably, “The Shape of Water” is as implausibly preposterous, but entertaining as the 2006 M. Night Shyamalan fantasy “The Lady in the Water.”