“Oh it’s about this girl working for the CIA that falls in love with a water monster.” This was the hook that my friend used to summarise Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-nominated film, The Shape of Water. Albeit only being half-right (the “girl” in question instead works for Occam, an aerospace research facility in Baltimore), the assumptions and premises in this summary accurately reflect the beauty and complexity of a multi-layered film that only del Toro could have created.
When one thinks about a “girl working for the CIA” being the main character of a movie, one does not immediately assume that her job consists of scrubbing mould from the floors of a hangar, or mopping up bodily fluids from a dank, algae-green toilet, or doing piles of laundry for American scientists. The focus on the underdogs of society is classic del Toro, and an orientation that is freshly needed in the monopoly of superheroes and extensive weapons in sci-fi movies today. The Shape of Water, set in the 1962/1963 backdrop of the space race between the Soviets and the US, is about a mute cleaner Elisa, played by the enigmatic Sally Hawkins, who falls in love with a water monster, played by Doug Jones. She devises a plan with her two best friends — another cleaner, Zelda, played by the ever-witty Octavia Spencer, and an in-the-closet artist neighbour Giles, played by Richard Jenkins — to save Amphibian Man (to use its name in the end-credits). Its credentials are impressive: it’s one of the American Film Institute’s top 10 movies of the year; received 13 nominations at the 90th Academy Awards and won four, including Best Picture and Best Director; was awarded the Golden Lion for Best Film in the 74th Venice International Film Festival; and led the Best Picture race at the Oscars.
The understated power of the underdog is what makes this film fresh amidst its backdrop of the traditional, perhaps a bit overused backdrop of the space race. The pointedly ignored, oppressed and sneered-at silent underdogs of society are contrasted with the big dogs — the glorified military and scientists furiously researching ways to overtake the Russians. The unconventional heroes take power in their weaknesses, and it is this power that brings them to triumph in the end. Elisa’s power is the complete opposite of the power that is celebrated in movies like Wonder Woman — she doesn’t need to be a literal Amazonian to be a strong female character. Rather, her powerful refusal in allowing her muteness to define her allows her passion and empathy to ring loudest in the film. Even the characterisation of Elisa being a “princess without a voice” completely subverts the fairy-tale tradition of what a princess is. She openly reclaims her sexual agency through her daily masturbation routine, her initiation of intercourse with the monster, and through the fact that she is the one doing the saving, instead of being the damsel in distress.
Her fellow underdogs, Zelda and Giles, similarly show their power by subtly rejecting the oppression placed on them by society. Zelda, a black female, is subjected to downgrading by her racist and misogynistic boss, Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), as well as to subtly sexist remarks by her husband. However, she stares down the face of oppression with humour and strength, and becomes one of the leading reasons for the triumph of the monster and Elisa. Giles also represents hope in an otherwise hopeless world. A struggling gay artist in a world where photography replaces paintings, and where efficiency replaces hard work, Giles is constantly rejected and isolated, his balding head symbolising the loss of his identity. However, he is still unabashedly himself. The scene where Giles attempts to find romantic love with the diner waiter, who puts on a fake accent and rattles off corporate stock phrases to customers, provides a juxtaposition between the inherent homophobia of society and its incessant obsession with false facades, and the dignity and unapologetic humility with which Giles takes this. The Russian spy/scientist, Robert Hoffstetler, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, portrays one of the most compassionate characters in the movie, brilliantly showing his dilemma between listening to the government(s) that he works for and giving into his empathy by allowing the creature to live. The audience roots for Hoffstetler as his humanity shines through, giving him one last hurrah as he achieves the last laugh against his emotionally-abusive boss Strickland. Del Toro’s tribute to the underdogs is poignant and touching and that in itself deserves an award, in my opinion.
The colour scheme of the film took my breath away ,being both as seamless and as outstanding as its cinematography. The film begins in a mossy, green watery world, reminiscent of the tomb-like Titanic peacefully resting at the bottom of the ocean. Different shades of green are the dominant colours in the film. To me, it represents two sides of the same coin — the future and the past; hope and despair; companionship and loneliness. The research facility, a place where technological advances are being made, is primarily green. It is a way to push America into the future, to gain an edge in the space race, yet it is also a place where humanity is being pushed back as Strickland cruelly tortures the water monster without regard for its pain, all for the sake of America’s (and his career’s) advancement. The uniforms of the cleaners are green, symbolising the unity of its marginalised members. Elisa’s house is also dominantly green, and is the place where she is most lonely, but is also the place where she provides love and shelter for the water monster. The soothing teal shade of the Cadillac that Strickland purchases signifies his pursuit of the American Dream, yet the sickening, vivid green of his childhood candy signifies his inability to evolve and change with the times. (This is only my interpretation, and there are countless other scenes, people and perspectives that I have not touched upon.)
However, despite its beauty, I am currently undecided about whether I liked the film or not. Before watching, I read claims that The Shape of Water is a contender to surpass Pan’s Labyrinth as del Toro’s best work. Going into the theatre thinking, “There’s no way in hell that’s possible,” I came out of it with my suspicions confirmed — The Shape of Water definitely does not hold a candle to Pan’s Labyrinth. I was a little confused by the movie, feeling as if there were too many issues and themes that del Toro wanted to incorporate that they all felt a bit too underdeveloped. The issues of racism, sexism, toxic masculinity, homophobia, human arrogance, the pointlessness of war etc. were squeezed into a 120-minute movie, leaving their development rather stunted. Only a few characters received closure, but there were a lot of loose ends and unanswered questions, such as how Giles’ and Zelda’s lives were changed or were unchanged from the point of the ending.
The genre of the movie was also unclear. Yes, it’s a monster movie, with del Toro’s shout-out to classic monster movies such as Frankenstein and Creature from the Black Lagoon. It is also a love story, reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast, if we can excuse the interspecies intercourse going on. But I also saw semblances of it being a superhero movie, a musical, a war movie and a parody of pop culture. The ending of the film showed the monster’s convenient power to regenerate, allowing him to defeat the stereotypical villain at the last minute, which was nicely accompanied by a typical superhero soundtrack. The two or three scenes of tap-dancing and one song-and-dance routine seemed like a venture into a musical, yet their purpose was not clear. Some of the script seemed a bit satirical to me, such as Strickland dropping the line, “Did I stutter?,” leaving me awkwardly chuckling at this meme reference, yet also being very unsure of its symbolism.
However, perhaps I am being too inflexible in my expectations and assumptions. Being a die-hard fan of del Toro, I sometimes strive to pigeon-hole his works into a fixed genre, but being a die-hard fan of del Toro, I also realise that he doesn’t have a fixed style and can be very experimental, giving meaning to the meaningless. With society’s obsession with labels and genre, it is reasonable to be focused on one’s pre-conceived notions of what a specific genre of movie should consist. Hence, the blend of so many different types of genres in The Shape of Water transcends the idea of following a standard rule-book.