Communication often muddles our view of the world and makes things complicated. People often say more with their bodies than with their words, and sometimes looking into another person’s eyes can tell you all you need to know about them. The Shape of Water explores multiple concepts throughout its 123 minute run, but the concept of communication and expression remain at the heart of the film. There is also an amphibian god creature reflecting the struggles of the rest of the human characters throughout the film.
The Shape of Water is set during the Cold War, a time when rigid authority reigned supreme and creativity and expression are suppressed. The main character, Elisa works as a night custodian at a top secret government research base. She epitomizes the struggle between authority and expression because she is mute and must use sign language in order to communicate. The military personnel provide contrast to her quiet persona with a strict regimen and constantly bark orders at other staff members in a vain attempt to gain control.
Soon Elisa meets an amphibian god creature that the military found from the swamps of South America. The creature is unable to speak, but shows intelligence through its communication with Elisa. Soon they form a connection and Elisa becomes determined to save the creature and further develop their bond.
On the surface, The Shape of Water, is a classic creature feature. However, Guillermo del Toro is able to turn the tropes and expectations of the audience on its head for a thrilling existential journey throughout the film. Classic creature features embody the creature as an invader from another world coming to wreak havoc and cause destruction to humanity. The creature in The Shape of Water reverses this expectation. Rather than destroy, the creature has the power to heal. In this film the rigid authority embody the need to destroy, for once they can no longer learn anything from the creature they intend to kill it and move on.
By muting the main character the film invites the audience to empathize with her inability to communicate. She lives in a world that is alien to her, and only another outsider (the amphibian creature) make her feel truly alive. Likewise the character Giles, played by the excellent Richard Jenkins, expresses his distaste for the current status quo lamenting that he often feels like he was born too early or too late. As a struggling painter, he also finds difficulty expressing himself to those around him. He longs for companionship, but is rejected by an industry that has moved on to the next big thing.
By the end of the film, The Shape of Water is no longer a creature feature about hidden monstrosities coming to terrorize the world. The film morphs fluidly into a fable that details the terror one feels inside oneself. Elisa struggles to be understood by the world around her, Giles struggles to be accepted for who he is, the head of the secret government base Colonel Strickland struggles to appease his chain of command and fulfill the role of hierarchy which he feels gives his life purpose, Dr. Bob Hoffstetler struggles to be true to his Russian commander while also being true to his love of science and research, and finally the amphibian creature struggles to be understood by the world around him. This internal struggle finds constant flux as each party is led to believe they will be satisfied by the world around them, until the society betrays them with rejection or death.
Ultimately only Elisa and the amphibian creature find their true self by escaping the surrounding world and swimming off into the ocean. Leaving those behind to deal with the mess of societal acceptance and rejection.
The Shape of Water has been nominated for numerous best picture, best director, and best actress and actor categories. The film recently won the Best Picture Award from the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards. The Academy Awards nominated the film for a whopping 13 categories including, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Costume Design.
This film comes highly recommended and is currently one of my favorite films of the year.
Jake “prettyboyplaid” Fredericks