Mainly, I hate sci-fi, fantasy, and horror movies. The Shape of Water is all of the above–sort of. I have never seen any Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings movies. None. I know that this is an ignorant prejudice, but it is there and it is real. Frankly, the only reason I went to see this move is that I am trying to see all 9 movies that have been nominated this year for Academy Awards Best Picture. I have enough confidence in the Awards to believe that any film nominated for Best Picture will be reasonably good.
Much to my surprise I really loved this movie. The movie was directed by Guillermo del Toro and written by him and Vanessa Taylor. They have crafted a fine story. It is a love story. In addition to sci-fi, fantasy, or horror, we get love. A very strange love story, of course.
The love connection is between a mute cleaning lady at a top-secret government facility in 1962 at the height of the cold war and a humanoid swamp creature. The first time we see the creature is with a sudden shock that is typical of horror movies. Soon we realize that the only horror in the movie comes from the humans. They are the menacing creatures.
The creature, played by Doug Jones, cannot talk but sure can understand. It understands that the villain is a monster and the mute is something to be loved. The villains are General Frank Hoyt (played by Nick Searcy) and a squared-jawed Colonel Richard Strickland, (played by Michael Shannon). They decide to vivisect the creature as soon as its usefulness disappears. To them the creature is referred to as “the asset;” a label as cold and merciless as “resource.”
To the Colonel even love is brutal. Sex with his wife is an act of brutality with missionary position zeal. It is more of an assault than an act of love. Strickland is a cold and cruel representative of that unattractive part of our species that is quick to torture that which we do not know or understand. Rather than trying to respect it as a fellow creature, we immediately chose to poke it, prod it, hurt it, and when done, kill it. We kill for no good reason. We kill just because we lack the empathy to see the other as a fellow traveller on our meandering journey. Humans are the true purveyors of horror. (Of course we have some good points too).
An unlikely squad of misfits protects the creature. A reluctant Russian spy/scientist, Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who has pangs of conscience, an African-American cleaning lady, Zelda, (Octavia Spencer), and a hapless artist Giles (Richard Jenkins).
The most important of the rebels is of course Eliza (Sally Hawkins), the mute cleaning lady who comes to identify with the creature–who might be a green god, because he bleeds, he suffers, and like her, he is mute. They are both strange. In more than one way they are one. As she says, “I move my mouth like him, I make no sound, like him, all that I am, all that I’ve ever been, brought me here to him. When he looks at me he does not know what I lack or how I am incomplete. He sees me for what I am as I am.”
Eliza not only identifies with the creature, but also comes to love it. Reading an ancient Persian poem, Giles says of her, as one might say of God, green or otherwise, “Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find You all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with Your love, It humbles my heart, For You are everywhere.”