'Shape of Water' Is Wonder and Nostalgia Done Right

The beasts inhabiting Guillermo del Toro's imagined worlds never cease to raise his awe while inviting our own.
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Wonder is no stranger to the work of Guillermo del Toro. Even at their most phantasmagorical, their most horrific, wonder is infused in his films, as if from behind the camera del Toro cannot help marveling at the supernatural creations wrought before him by his FX crew: Whether eldritch, bizarre, grotesque, kooky, or oftentimes plain old monstrous, the beasts inhabiting del Toro’s imagined worlds never cease to raise his awe while inviting our own.

So take The Shape of Water, his latest film (now expanding after opening in New York last weekend), as a capstone statement on his entire career: It’s rife for interpretation, being a characteristically del Toro adult fairy tale about institutional evil, the plight of the “other,” cultural taboos and an abiding fondness for monsters (to say nothing of its exquisite set decoration and cinematography), but more than anything the film best captures the experience of observing the otherworldly through lenses of curiosity and amazement. Most horror movies position the monster as a being to dread, something we react to with revulsion rather than with fascination. Del Toro takes the reverse tack. Through his eyes, monsters, no matter how wild or dangerous, demand reverence.

Take Jack Arnold’s 1954 film Creature From the Black Lagoon, the most obvious antecedent to The Shape of Water: Here, the Gill-man is the heavy, inspiring shrieks of terror rather than charmed affection. In The Shape of Water, that terror is subverted. When del Toro’s protagonist, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), first encounters the film’s Gill-man surrogate, referred to as “The Asset” and credited as “Amphibian Man,” she recoils more out of surprise than fear: The Asset introduces himself with frenzied clawing at the pressurized tank he’s ostensibly lived in since being dragged out of the Amazon by his captor, the utterly barbaric Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon).

Strickland engages the Asset (played by Doug Jones) through disgust blended with sadistic joy and xenophobic superiority. He taunts the Asset, bloodying him on a plinth while striking him with a cattle prod, leaving him out to dry and suffer and stagger on the edge of death. Strickland’s relationship with the creature is opposite to the relationships the movie’s other major characters develop with him: Giles (Richard Jenkins), Elisa’s closeted friend and neighbor, is immediately taken by the Asset’s ichthyoid pulchritude, while Zelda (Octavia Spencer), Elisa's co-worker and bestie, accepts the Asset in light of the bond he creates with Elisa. (You get the feeling that Zelda doesn’t fully understand Elisa’s relationship with the Asset, but she doesn’t judge, either. She takes their budding love for what it is.)

Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a scientist working under Strickland and, secretly, for the Russians (remember, this story is set in the 1960s), sees the Asset’s intellect, its communicative capabilities, as proof of its humanity, and refuses both of his masters’ orders to kill the fish man: Strickland wants to vivisect it for study, the Russians want it euthanized for the sole purpose of denying the Americans a chance to learn from its unique biology. And of course there’s Elisa, who sees in the Asset a being that reflects her own isolation and loneliness and desperate need for connection; if the idea of a human falling in love with the aquatic humanoid makes you feel icky, it’s the substance of that love that matters more than the image. Do keep that in mind and hold your aversions in reserve.

As this group of like-minded individuals rallies around the Asset and Elisa, del Toro watches with compassionate spirit plus a healthy dose of veneration. Even if the script he co-wrote with Vanessa Taylor didn’t openly broach the question of the Asset’s possible godhood, we might detect traces of the divine on him anyways. Partly, that’s because he’s a near-unkillable entity capable of recovering from mortal wounds and sparing others from death. (He’s also top-notch at undoing baldness, for what that’s worth.) Chiefly, though, it’s because del Toro’s camera regards him as godlike: The Asset, when first seen in full, unobscured view, towers over Elisa, filling the frame with his scaly, bioluminescent musculature as he sizes her up, unsure whether she’s friend or foe. Later, when he cures Giles (partially, anyways) of his hair loss, he becomes nearly Christlike, laying his hand on Giles in a pose that’s both supplicative and commanding. And he glows. Oh, does the Asset glow. “He’s beautiful,” Giles breathes as he and Elisa break the Asset out of the research lab where he’s held captive. He isn’t kidding. The effect of the Asset’s glimmering skin is mesmerizing.

That’s the wonder of del Toro: The wonder of bearing witness to the forest god in Hellboy II: The Golden Army, of seeing Ofelia flee from the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth, of touring the crumbling Allerdale Hall in Crimson Peak, and of realizing the entwined relationship between wonder and horror, bewilderment, and even straight-up disbelief. Strickland spends The Shape of Water attempting to tame the Asset like an animal. Del Toro’s wonder is his form of honesty; it gives The Shape of Water’s nostalgia element, borne out by the Creature From the Black Lagoon homage and Elisa's and Giles’ soft spot for classic musicals, ballast. (The film’s multiple musical interludes, culminating in a gorgeous black- and-white number with Hawkins and Jones, feel more authentic to their sources than the whole of last year’s La La Land, a nostalgia piece built with top-down design.)

When we reach the end of the film, as the Asset rises from the dead, Strickland is struck by the dawning realization that the Asset may have been a god all along (and then immediately struck by the Asset’s razor-sharp claws). Even he is forced to accede to the wonder everyone else feels for the Asset, albeit from a completely different point of view. But perhaps it’s better to know del Toro’s wonder at the very end than to never know it at all.