Guillermo del Toro’s latest creature feature stars Sally Hawkins as Eliza Esposito, a mute janitor in a Cold War-era government facility who discovers the facility’s best-kept secret: a humanoid fish creature snatched from deep within the Amazon rainforest. The fish-man (referred to as the Asset) played by Doug Jones, is tortured by Michael Shannon’s character, Colonel Strickland, who plans to vivisect it soon, prompting Eliza to try to set it free.
The film received thirteen Oscar nominations – more than any other film this year – taking home awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Score, and Best Production Design. Though an internationally acclaimed director with such films as Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, and Crimson Peak under his belt, these are del Toro’s first Academy Award wins in any category (iMDB.com).
It is also worth noting the film is only the second in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre to win Best Picture – the first was Lord of the Rings: The Return of The King (TVTropes.org). Not that an Academy Award is the sole indicator of a film’s excellence, but with several other “Oscar-bait” films nominated – Dunkirk, The Post, Phantom Thread, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Lady Bird, to name a few – what made The Shape of Water escape the “Sci-Fi Ghetto?”
According to del Toro, this film may stand out because, “This is the first time I speak as an adult. I speak about trust, otherness, sex, love, where we’re going. These are not concerns that I had when I was nine or seven.” A particularly relatable adult concern, which is heavily featured in the film, is loneliness.
It is an unavoidable, universal condition; even those who seem to have it all yearn for more. Viewers have probably attempted to ward off loneliness using a couple of methods shown in the film and have found themselves as disappointed as its characters.
It’s worth noting, though, that the film portrays some of these coping mechanisms as not inherently problematic, such as certain sexual and romantic endeavors. At least, some endeavors are more problematic than others, which I’ll address a bit later.
Though the film’s definition of true love and fulfillment differs - often greatly - from a Christian understanding of these themes, it makes an interesting analogy: like water, true, satisfying love completely fills up whatever container – or heart – it is poured into. It cannot help but spread; depriving oneself or others of it can prove fatal.
Which brings us back to Eliza. Considering all the other ways the characters attempt to find fulfillment, her romantic relationship with the Asset does not seem as absurd as, say, asserting one’s masculinity with a teal (not green) Cadillac. They both crave validation, only Eliza’s pursuit takes others and their needs into account, while most of Strickland’s validation comes directly from making others powerless and miserable.
Selfishness, then, is the capital sin the film warns us against. Technically, both Eliza and Strickland - as well as some other characters - are guilty of lust, slander, deceit, greed, and more. The difference is that the “good guys” aren’t in it for themselves, not entirely. They are, however, a lot more self-serving than they ought to be for their own good.
As for why the love interest had to be a fish-man, del Toro has a longtime fascination with monsters and the macabre in general, with a particular fondness for fairytales, as evidenced by pretty much all of his films. “Monsters,” he said, “are the patron saints of imperfection” (birthmoviesdeath.com).
In his adaptation of Hellboy, a character who also happens to be a fish-man played by Doug Jones quips, “If there’s trouble, all us freaks have is each other.” Creature from the Black Lagoon was a particular favorite of del Toro’s, and his original pitch for The Shape of Water was supposed to be a reboot of the 1950s classic (hollywoodreporter.com).
“I loved that the creature was in love with [the lead actress, Julie Adams],” he said, in an interview, “and I felt an almost existential desire for them to end up together. Of course, it didn’t happen.” Del Toro, of course, made it happen. “[To] everyone that is dreaming” said del Toro, in his acceptance speech for Best Film “of using [fantasy] to tell the stories about the things that are real in the world today, you can do it. This is a door. Kick it open and come in” (latimes.com)