**Warning: this review contains spoilers!**
The Shape of Water (2017), directed by Guillermo del Toro, is a fantastic monster movie set during the time of the Cold War and the civil rights movement in Baltimore, USA. It follows the journey of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a cleaning lady who is mute and uses sign language to communicate with her artist neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Del Toro drew inspiration from vintage horror film The Creature from the Black Lagoon(1954), which had fascinated him as a child.
After being sucked into the story from the beginning with a narration about monsters while we explore an underwater apartment, we are introduced to the monotony of Elisa’s routine of night shifts in a high-security government facility. When a new “asset” is brought into one of the labs Elisa is assigned to clean, it is revealed that this asset is a humanoid amphibian played by Doug Jones.
The mysterious creature, once worshipped by local tribes, was captured in the Amazon and taken from its habitat by military man and truly awful Bible-bashing racist/misogynistic garbage person, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Jones brings the amphibian man to life in a foam-latex suit; his wordless performance is enthralling and the personality he portrays through his interactions with the world around him and with Elisa is one of the many things that make this film a joy to watch.
Although The Shape of Water contains less gore than some of Del Toro’s other films, when it is present it is very deliberate and purposeful. Consider Strickland’s severed fingers: as the movie progresses and his character escalates from someone who is merely a bit of a creepy and gross man to the true monster of the film, his fingers eventually turn necrotic and are filled with pus, in a reflection of his horrific personality. Perhaps one of the most satisfying scenes in cinematic history is when Strickland rudely dismisses Zelda and Elisa after questioning and Elisa smugly finger spells “F-U-C-K Y-O-U” at him, angering Strickland as he is unaware what she is saying.
An interesting point in the film was the plans that both the Russian and US superpowers had for the creature. Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, a scientist and an undercover operative for the USSR, is a man who sees beauty in the natural world, and especially so in the amphibian man. As always, the research done at a certain time and place often depends on the political atmosphere. Both Russia and the US want to get ahead of each other in military research, and are willing to choose short-term solutions (the death of the creature for experimentation or sabotage) instead of learning more from its behaviour and physiology while it is alive. Dr. Hoffstetler wants the asset to remain alive, as far more can be learned from its behaviour than from its death; he notices how Elisa has secretly struck up a friendship with the creature and has taught it to communicate using sign language it learns from her.
The most interesting thing about this narrative is the prominence of characters who were not all straight, white, male, and able-bodied people, and how these traits were addressed in the film. Elisa and her friends are able to pull off a rescue plan together and remain unsuspected for a while, even under interrogation, because Strickland assumes that people he considers inferior (those who are not white, disabled, working class, and women) are incapable of such strategy.
The Shape of Water seems to celebrate unconventional relationships; although Giles’ crush ended poorly, it was because the pie boy of his affections turned out to be both intensely homophobic and racist. We feel sorry for Giles, yet we do not have to see him suffer and die, which is still an unsettlingly common media trope regarding same-sex-attracted characters. Elisa’s eventual love for the amphibian man would probably be unconvincing and even repulsive if less thoughtful creators had brought a similar project to life. This romantic storyline is also interesting as people with disabilities can often be desexualised entirely by society and in media, and presenting Elisa as an obviously sexual woman to the audience is something others may not have done.
This is a film in which visually pops with vibrant and often symbolic colour, with reds representing love, life, and the cinema; and greens, the future. The film exploits visuals in an artistic way that greatly lends itself to the story. As Elisa’s relationship with the mysterious monster grows stronger, she wears more and more red clothing and accessories. Even in the black and white daydream scene where Elisa dances with the creature, the theatrical use of black and white hearkening back to the golden age of American cinema is dazzling.
At face value, it may be difficult for some to see why a film about a lady and fish man who bang was nominated for so many awards, but upon seeing The Shape of Water it is not hard to see why it has received such high praise. This fish man romance is definitely not one to miss out on.
– Jasmin Hoadley