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[Warning: This story contains spoilers for the film The Shape of Water.]
Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) is one of the most quietly fascinating characters in The Shape of Water. A Russian spy and laboratory scientist — and therefore arguably someone movies have taught us to fear as much as humanoid creatures from the deep — he is an outsider, like every member of the “team” that helps break the Amphibious Man (Doug Jones) out of the Occam Aerospace Research Center.
Of the four people who participate in this risky rescue, it is arguably Dr. Hoffstetler who is in the most precarious position, being a spy, and the one with the weakest personal connection to compel him to participate. He has no special relationship with the creature, unlike Elisa (Sally Hawkins), nor any particular connection to Elisa, like Giles (Richard Jenkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), but he helps rescue the creature anyway and ends up paying for this good deed with his life.
Yes, Hoffstetler does admit Elisa and Zelda’s role in the Amphibious Man’s escape to Strickland (Michael Shannon) after being tortured, shot and left for dead, but he is nonetheless a hero. Despite not even knowing the lovable Giles, Hoffstetler saves him from an almost certain death at the hands of a spooked security guard, gives Elisa the key she needs to free the Amphibious Man, and shares with her information and materials necessary to keep the Amphibious Man alive. Even if everything had gone off without a hitch and Elisa, Giles and Zelda had managed to rescue the Amphibious Man from the lab without Hoffstetler, they would have almost certainly have ended up accidentally suffocating the creature without his expertise.
There are a lot of similarities in how cinema portrays the dedicated scientist and dedicated artist, a connection that The Shape of Water itself acknowledges, but it does not mention the key difference: that the artist is allowed to be an oddball, with their deeper, relatable humanity made evident through their work, while the humanity of the empathetic scientist character is almost always established in not-science (such as a scientist’s personal dedication to family). But then again, it doesn’t have to, because Dr. Hoffstetler is one of the few empathetic movie scientists not shaped in this way.
Scientific reasoning, even when not seen as evil, is almost always portrayed as “other.” Just think of Dr. Spock and what marks him as clearly non-human apart from the pointy ears. Though human scientists lack pointy ears, cinema has established other visual identifiers for the scientist — white lab coats and especially glasses. Almost every time an actor not typically typecast in intellectual roles plays a scientist, they throw a pair of glasses on him — Jeremy Renner in last year’s Arrival, for example. Physical sight and therefore the eyes have a long history of being connected with various forms of foresight and insight, whether emotional or interpersonal. And sure enough, the stereotypical cinematic scientist is clearly marked by a lack of foresight, insight or both (otherwise, why would they need glasses?). No matter what scientific stereotype you look at — the absent-minded professor, the socially inept nerd, the hubristic megalomaniac — that thread of lack of sight runs through them all.
These tropes are not just old and tired, they have no actual relation to the realities of scientific thinking, which is based on observation. That’s literally the first part of the scientific method. Observe. Question. Form hypotheses. Being observant is arguably one of the most fundamentally important traits a scientist can have. In a sense, science is arguably about seeing things. Meanwhile, many a cinematic scientist is defined by a lack of sight. It doesn’t add up.
So what about Dr. Hoffstetler? To look at him, he checks all the boxes. He’s got the glasses and the lab coat. To position him as far away from what is normally considered sympathetic as possible, he’s even a Russian spy. But what The Shape of Water tells us about the content of his character is, looking at the history of cinema, unique.
First, however, it is important to stop and consider some of the defining characteristics of actual scientific reasoning. Scientific thought fundamentally requires leaving room for doubt and change. Even as an undergraduate studying the sciences, words like “prove” are stripped from your vocabulary. Experimental results suggest. You can’t get too attached to your ideas. Trying to keep them when they are not fully supported by all evidence, or when another explanation supports the evidence better, is just bad science.
With the principles of scientific reasoning and the scientific method in mind, it becomes evident that it is because of his scientific mind-set that Hoffstetler evolves in his attitude toward the Amphibious Man so quickly. He picks up on Elisa’s connection to the creature and modifies his thinking accordingly. He knowingly puts his life on the line to aid the rescue mission because he is first and foremost a scientist — his moral compass is also grounded in scientific reasoning.
Dr. Hoffstetler is not just a scientist and a good man; his scientific mentality and dedication to science above all else actively contribute to what makes him a good man. In this, The Shape of Water deviates from the cinematic “normal” in yet one more wonderful way.
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