The Shape of Water: A great film comes from The Black Lagoon

A Horror thriller
Written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
Directed by Guillermo del Toro

Only Guillermo del Toro could make a grand, romantic, suspenseful, and horrifying sequel to The Creature from the Black Lagoon. And in doing so, The Shape of Water brings up issues concerning military overreach, the abuse of science, and what defines a human being. It’s also a hell of a ride.

Sally Hawkins stars as Eliza, a cleaning woman – one of many – in a huge, highly secure research center in Baltimore circa 1960. She’s mute, but not deaf, and talks only in American Sign Language. Her only two friends, an older man struggling to get his advertising career back on track (Richard Jenkins) and another cleaning woman (Octavia Spencer), can understand Sign.

Government researchers bring in a strange animal – half man, half fish. And yes, it looks very much like the Creature from the 1950s movies, but he’s far more expressive (we all somehow understand that it’s male). He’s clearly an intelligent being, captured and treated like a laboratory specimen. Your heart goes out to him immediately.

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So does Eliza’s heart. She sets out to befriend the Creature, and eventually to rescue him.

Michael Shannon gets to chew the scenery as the movie’s heavy. He plays a military man studying the Creature in the cruelest ways possible. He’s evil through and through. He’s racist, sexist, and egotistical. When he states that people are created in God’s image (an excuse to torture and eventually kill the Creature), he makes it clear that as a white male, he’s closer to God than others.

Michael Stuhlbarg plays a more complicated hero/villain. A scientist studying the Creature, he wants to keep it alive. But then we discover that he’s also a Soviet agent, and unlike the heroine and her friends, he’s willing to commit murder to get his way. But when he discovers that the Russians also want the Creature dead, his own motives waver.

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The cold war trope is only one part of the film’s early 60s atmosphere. People watch Dobbie Gillis and Mr. Ed on TV, and the villain’s kids are not allowed to watch Bonanza because it’s too violent. A nearby movie theater is showing The Story of Ruth – one of those dreadful Bible movies of the period. You can find connections between Eliza and the Biblical Ruth, but don’t take them too seriously.

The bigotry of the time also pops up, and not only in how the villain treats Spencer’s character. A small restaurant refuses to seat a black couple.

But I did catch one historical flaw. Eliza gives the Creature hard-boiled eggs, and they have brown shells. But in 1960, commercially-sold eggs were always white.

This is a Guillermo del Toro movie, so you must expect some gruesome moments. You should also expect inter-species sex, and the Creature eating a cat.

creature and hawkins

With its lonely heroine and reprehensible villain, The Shape of Water takes a myth from an older Hollywood, turns it around, and asks us to think about the other animals with which we share our planet. But it’s also a wild entertainment, and a sexy one.

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