Last weekend I went to see Guillermo del Toro’s new film, The Shape of Water. I didn’t know what to expect going into it. Trailers made it look like a slightly spooky story — perhaps a conspiracy tale? — about a mysterious alien creature. That is the basis of the movie, but what the trailers failed to capture is the film’s whimsical tone, romantic characters, and earnest lessons. (Minor spoilers to follow!)
The Shape of Water is a genre-bender that reminds me most of magical realism. Set during the Cold War, its star is Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a woman with a refreshingly simple life. She wakes up, goes to chat with her rather shy artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), and then heads in to work.
Her job, seemingly mundane at first, turns out to be the spark for the story. Elisa works the night shift as a cleaner at a government lab, the Occam Aerospace Research Center. Together with her coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), she mops floors and cleans toilets. But while Zelda gabs away about her husband, Elisa is silent. A mysterious accident when she was a baby left her mute, and she carries the scars on her neck. She uses sign language to talk to Zelda, who translates for her when she needs to converse with others — such as the army colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who also works at the lab.
It turns out the Occam Aerospace Research Center is conducting research on an alien creature they found in the Amazon River. Elisa discovers the creature when it’s wheeled into the lab while she’s cleaning. Curiosity later brings her back to visit the creature when no one else is around. Strickland is especially invested in the creature, as he wants to use him for military research. His cruelty and view of the creature as a mindless beast is evident right away; he even carries around a cattle prod to keep the creature in line. Meanwhile, the scientist working with the creature, Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), has a scientific eye and caring heart that make him much more gentle.
As for the alien creature, he becomes one of the most interesting characters in the movie. A humanoid amphibian (played by Doug Jones), he lives mostly underwater but surfaces when forced by the lab staff — or when curiosity about Elisa gets the better of him. Because neither Elisa nor the Amphibian Man can speak, they communicate through gestures, music, dancing, and expressions. Elisa teaches him some sign language. Though at first he seems fearful of her — no doubt due to his prodding by the menacing Strickland — he clearly comes to care for Elisa, who is perhaps his only friend so far from his home.
The story is sweet and magical as we get to know Elisa and the Amphibian Man, but it turns much more sinister when Strickland and his team decide to kill the Amphibian to study him. Elisa enlists the help of her neighbor Giles to break into the facility and free the Amphibian Man. The plan is for Giles to pretend to be a delivery driver, so he can pull his van up just as Elisa wheels the Amphibian Man over in her cleaning cart. Everything has to be precise down to the minute — and both Elisa and Giles are scared.
When it all goes down, Zelda and Hoffstetler are swept up in the crime of freeing the Amphibian Man too — though Zelda is much less happy about it, as she doesn’t want to get in trouble. Both are forced to lie for Elisa, but they do it out of the goodness of their hearts, as much for their friend as for the Amphibian Man their friend is so eager to free.
In fact, my favorite part of the movie is when Elisa tries to convince Giles to help her in the first place. Giles thinks it’s none of their business, and that there’s no way they can pull it off or change anything. It’s the stance a lot of us would probably have, if asked to do something as crazy as breaking into a government facility. But Elisa, in American Sign Language, gets Giles to look at her and really listen to her, explaining how the Amphibian Man can see her in a way no one else does, and how she can’t just do nothing. Her determination is inspiring, and it’s something we need more of in the world.
The standout actor of this movie to me was Strickland, who is scary in his determination to impress his superiors with his research of the Amphibian Man. When the Amphibian bites off two of his fingers, he has them sewed back on and spends the rest of the film with them in bandages, rotting and blackening along with his heart. Those fingers, along with his cattle prod and the candies he constantly sucks no, help characterize him visually and psychologically.
I also loved the genres that felt represented here, in different proportions, to make this film truly unique. It opens with a dream — Elisa’s apartment underwater — and then combines elements from noir, Cold War thrillers, and heists. There’s even a musical number, and Elisa’s conversation with the Amphibian Man made me think of silent films since they communicate without spoken word. All of this combines into a world that feels like it started out as reality as we know it, but somehow levitated beyond that, through some strange magic. Its strange depiction of the world reminds me of Big Fish. And it’s why I would call it magical realism, which I love.
Besides that, the film is surprisingly romantic. I mean that not just in terms of an actual romance, but in the style of the movie. The friendship between Elisa and Giles is particularly moving, and Zelda’s loyalty to Elisa gives her the resolve to stand up to authority even when she’s terrified. These are the moments that feel romantic to me. This is a story about everyday people in extraordinary circumstances, and they show real courage and heart through it all. This is a film with a moral to the story, and while I appreciate that it’s never shoved in your face, it’s definitely noticeable and inspiring.
I think this film also worked for me because I love a good alien story. The exploration of what it would be like to try to communicate with another humanoid creature, and the friendship that could develop from that, felt both realistic and idealistic — Elisa’s relationship with the Amphibian Man is a romantic ideal of how we should approach aliens, should we ever encounter them. And more importantly, it’s how we should all treat each other today, despite our differences.
The ending of the film is ambiguous, in a way that reminds me of the sentimentalized storytelling of Atonement. I don’t know if the ending is what really happened, or if it’s just what the narrator wanted to happen. After all, he begins the story by calling Elisa a princess, indicating that this is a fairytale. Real or not, the ending is enchanting all the same.