“The fictional heroes of the past, while still retaining all of their charm and power and magic, have had some of their credibility stripped away forever as a result of the new sophistication in their audience. . . .our political and social consciousness continues to evolve. . . . Whether most of us would prefer to enjoy the above-mentioned . . . adventures without spoiling things by considering the social implications is beside the point. The fact remains that we have changed, along with our society, and that were such characters created today they would be subject to the most extreme suspicion and criticism.”
-Alan Moore, The Mark of Batman
As I went into The Shape of Water, without seeing any trailers but knowing the director’s previous work, I had a reasonable confidence that Guillermo del Toro would present us with some cool monsters. As it happens this is very much a monster movie; it’s a monster movie for monster movies. The Shape of Water gives us a retrospective of this genre, shifting the lens ever so slightly and adding just enough absurdity to bring something new to the table. It is both a critical re-evaluation of the nativist and Freudian undertones present in 1950’s sci-fi and a colorful pastiche used to celebrate the power of American cinema and storytelling.
It Came From. . . uh, Somewhere Else
It’s no secret that stories about monsters easily parallel with real life. Take Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, taught in high school classrooms around the country as a contemplation on man’s relationship with his maker, a “Modern Prometheus” that is almost Biblical in it’s plotting. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is another fine example, using a physical manifestation of the titular character’s subconscious violence so that the audience may reject such vice. And then there’s the good old H.P. Lovecraft who is, arguably, the most influential writer in the genre. His stories of Eldritch invaders terrorizing the small towns of New England have given rise to hundreds of imitations and allusions throughout the years. Lovecraft, however, used his stories as a commentary on immigration in the United States (and it’s not the peace/love/everything’s-good kind of commentary either). The exotic and deadly aliens that made their way into his fiction were, at their core, a fearful view of mass immigration that ultimately equates the “other” in these works to frightening migrants from across the sea.
Guillermo del Toro cited Creature From the Black Lagoon as his primary influence for this film, as many would expect. He also mentions that when he first saw it in 1954, he misinterpreted the movie as a love story between Julie Adams’ character and The Monster. Of course, as a 6-year-old child, he would not have been conditioned to be anxious about his masculinity when a foreign male threatens a pretty white woman. Maybe this monster from foreign shores has good intentions! This innocent misinterpretation brings me to Harold Bloom, whose book The Anxiety of Influence I would highly recommend to any author, artist or fan. In this work, Bloom talks about different levels of adapting one’s own artistic work to the work of others; how to create something new in a climate where it feels like everything has been done before. In the highest level, known as “Apophrades” or “Return from the Dead”, the author is able to resurrect the best forms of the format, and even outperform the greats at it. The new work shines bright enough, in fact, that in reading the older we are reminded of the newer, but rarely vice-versa. In addition, Bloom also states that Apophrades is usually based in a misreading of the original texts, using one’s own interpretation (in this case that of an innocent child) as the basis for furtherance of the narrative. This misreading by del Toro helps set up this “adult fairy-tale” as something unconventional but immediately lovable.
A Tidal Wave of Terror!
I also want to talk about how del Toro strips Richard Strickland down. The world of The Shape of Water is very Freudian, with it’s antagonist typifying a religious, hypermasculine xenophobe. Strickland hates the fish creature because it is foreign and represents The Other and it immediately shows it is physically superior to him. Gradually, the monster begins to sexually frustrate Strickland as he woos Elisa. Strickland’s sexual advances on Elisa confirm his desire to “conquer” but his worst enemy has already beaten him to it. He hates the Russians, too, another foreign entity that he suspects is at the root of his problems. These are all ideas that helped shape this genre of film since they were passed down from Lovecraft: white women in the clutches of some foreign monster, and a white man coming to save her, winning this sexual conquest against The Other because he is the more righteous and they are the invasive monsters who don’t belong here. In this way, our antagonist’s situation represents the old-fashioned film industry, capitalizing on the fear, excitement and hatred that had a grasp on the God-fearing macho-men of yesteryear.
The other side of the coin are the protagonists. Every single one of them is in a minority class of some sort, but the nice part is that they all feel three-dimensional. It’s far too common that a gay supporting character is simply written as “the gay supporting character” and nothing else. With Giles, we get to see his home life, his work life, his aspirations and his flaws. He’s a fully-formed support role that helps make things entertaining when they would otherwise be trivial. This is a movie about outcasts, and they’re so wonderfully developed that the outcasts feel like people, instead of just tokens. Instead of the “black sidekick” we are presented with Mrs. Zelda Fuller, a superstitious but kind-hearted woman who feels very fleshed-out. Instead of being the typical evil-to-the-core Russian spy, Dr. Hofstetler certainly cares about his native country, but cares about science and a compassionate pursuit of knowledge above that. And then of course we have Elisa, who hardly needs to be spoken for. She has a very romantic imagination, ideas about love that Zelda lost a long time ago still survive in her mind. Elisa is the child; she has no voice nor seat at the table when the adults are talking, but her perception is innocent and valuable and she speaks with her actions.
To conclude, I think that this movie is brilliant. Whether or not you agree with what it is saying about modern politics and culture aside, it certainly uses its genre to its advantage. This is a movie that is hyper-aware of the 20th century and it’s psycho-political undertones. This is a movie that celebrates how unique all of these monsters were, how they are a lot like the marginalized people that live on our soil. And this is a movie that celebrates other movies and film icons like Cecil B. Demille, Shirley Temple and many more. It pays homage to its roots without worshiping them or smothering the audience. It feels, to me, like something Alan Moore would write.
And I suppose that’s why I’m posting these thoughts here, because this movie reminded me a lot of Swamp Thing and Watchmen and how the monster genre was explored in comics in a similar way. Alas, both superhero comic books and monster movies are deeply-rooted in the 20th century, and a re-evaluation and “misreading”, as Bloom puts it, are essential to any pioneer attempting to bring the genre back from the dead. I think there are things in The Shape of Water that every writer and reader can learn from, and I wish the film and everyone involved in it the best of luck at the Oscars.