The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro may not be a familiar name to many moviegoers, but this Mexican director has built a fascinating portfolio of cinematic cult classics. With the occasional blockbuster like Pacific Rim and the Blade trilogy, the majority of his films have been embraced by fans of this unique storyteller. From Hellboy to Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro has proven that he has an unconventional view of the world that allows him to take audiences through storylines that touch on the darker side of the human experience. One aspect of his writing has been to humanise the ‘monster’ of his films and make them the star, which he continues with The Shape of Water.

This aquatic journey began deep in the recesses of a government facility during the heat of the Cold War in 1962. The American space programme is trying to figure out how they can capitalise on a discovery from deep within the Amazon river of South America. An amphibious creature (played by Doug Jones) may be the key to the government learning how they can assist astronauts ability to breathe in outer space. This leads to an internal battle between government officials and the scientists who have different intentions on how to gain this information from this newly discovered life form.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) serves as a janitor at the hidden government facility and develops a relationship with the creature. Due to an accident at birth, she was rendered mute and reliant on sign language to communicate. During her regular cleaning sessions within the facility, Elisa connects with the water-based humanoid through sign language, food and music. As she is made aware of the danger that her new friend is experiencing, she makes a choice that will have a ripple effect on the agency and all that know her.

To say that Guillermo del Toro has an idiosyncratic view on life would be an understatement. There is beauty in his ability to communicate his perspective that is being hailed by critics and audiences, but woven into this artistry is a dark thread that is unsettling. Where del Toro proves that he is a master craftsman is with his visual effects and ability to get the best from his cast. Everything from the detail of Elisa’s apartment to capturing the era of the government facility to the disconcerting elegance of Jones’ costuming, the seasoned director shows he has an eye for detail and cinematic flair. The immersive atmosphere that he creates provides a surreal, but a magical world that sits between reality and fantasy. This visionary filmmaking is complemented by the exceptional cast who embody each character with depth and precision. Not enough can be said about Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Octavia Spencer who take del Toro’s screenplay into the desired fantastical realm.

Even with these winsome qualities, the mature and sombre tone makes this film inaccessible to the audience that this film sees best suited, the younger graphic novel crowd. Due to the unconventional sexual content, the surprising amount of nudity and the violent elements this screenplay gets placed into the adults-only category. The majority of these features make sense within the screenplay, but add a level of confusion to determining the target audience for this fantasy adventure.

With the groundbreaking style of filmmaking and the underlying message that rails against human prejudice, it is no wonder that The Shape of Water is gaining worldwide critical acclaim. Despite the celebration of the craft, everything that is enjoyable and entertaining about this acclaimed film is tainted with a murkiness that makes it difficult to recommend to anyone besides devout fans of the director.

REEL DIALOGUE: What are some of the bigger questions to consider from this film? 

“God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” – 1 Samuel 16:7b

With the central characters of the film being a mute cleaning woman and a creature from the deep recesses of the Amazon, one of the critical themes of the film is seeing value in the characters despite their outward appearances. This is not only at the heart of the story, but it is central to the passage in the Old Testament.

Within the film, Guillermo del Toro attempts to correct society’s biases by showing the vicious side of prejudice. While within the Bible God shows that the issue is not just to merely look at the heart of others, but to change our own hearts responses to others. Unlike God who can see the hearts of man, we must learn not to prejudge based on externals, but to strive to love others despite past experiences or learnt biases.

Other verses to consider: Matthew 6:17, Romans 12:2 and 1 Corinthians 11: 2-16

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Russell Matthews

Russell loves film and enjoys engaging in discussions about the latest cinema offerings and then connecting this with the Gospel. He has worked for City Bible Forum for over 10 years, is a reviewer for Insights Magazine and Entertainment Fuse and has a blog called Russelling Reviews. He moderates events for Reel Dialogue which connect the film industry with the general public.