Before seeing this film, a friend of mine challenged me to consider how The Asset in The Shape of Water is different from Abe Sapien from Hellboy. My best guess was a lack of refined taste and an ability to speak English, but there's much more to it than that. Audiences expecting something like Hellboy 3 will be disappointed. Those expecting a gorgeous movie will not be.
The Shape of Water is a Cold War thriller set during the Civil Rights Movement about an amphibious man, which opens with a song and ends with a poem. Sally Hawkins stars as a mute janitor working the overnight shift at a research facility that captures an anthropomorphic sea creature thanks to the efforts of the terrifying new head of security played by Michael Shannon. Her closest friends are her coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay man trying to get back into advertising when he's not trying to ignore the injustices of the 1960s. The three main characters are scorned by society and caught up by forces outside their control, all while discovering beauty at their fingertips.
The Shape of Water is as much about the transformative power of art as it is about a sea creature. The Amphibian Man is reminiscent of Abe Sapien in del Toro's adaptations of Mike Mignola's comics, just as the setting evokes the inspiration for. The main character is an orphan (which recalls The Devil's Backbone) named Elisa, and the secretive government facility she works at is called Occam (which might be a reference to Contact. and people consume the color green in several forms (a more obvious homage to Soylent Green). Television, music, and dance all play roles in helping people see the world outside of themselves.
Guillermo del Toro is one of the most distinctive visual stylists in film right now, and here he proves that he can create touching drama in addition to the spectacle with which he's usually associated. The way people relate to each other is explored in unexpected ways. Hawkins does a commendable job portraying a character who is more than a condescending portrayal of disability that would might have occurred to lesser actors. Michael Shannon's borderline cartoonish villain is given a wife and children, and Giles has hints of a more complicated backstory.
Performance and performativity are recurring motifs, not just actors in films but ordinary people filling everyday roles. Giles wears a toupee and talks about being butch. A restaurateur fakes a regional accent to make his pies appear more authentic. A general invites a scientist to count the stars on his uniform as a way of asserting their power dynamic. People succumb to advertising tropes even as they acknowledge how shallow they are. The cruel underbelly of art is referenced throughout the film. The characters' various yearnings for substance mirror our own, and thankfully, The Shape of Water fulfills it.