Guillermo del Toro’s latest film is inspired by iconic monster movie Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). In that film, scientists discover the evolutionary ‘missing link’ between fish and humans – a gill-man who is attracted to the female lead, in the tradition of King Kong (1933). But del Toro has twisted the story into a clumsy vehicle for his personal views on religion and love.
Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute janitor at a top secret US research facility. Richard Jenkins plays her neighbour Giles, a gay man isolated by the prejudices of society. The amphibious creature (Doug Jones) is brought from South America for military study, and Elisa learns to communicate with it through sign language, forming a romantic bond. Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) is the brute in charge who treats the captive fish-man with cruelty and disdain – but is supposedly a Christian.
The name Elisa means ‘consecrated to God’, and in the Amazon the creature was worshipped as one. Its touch has healing powers. Their relationship soon becomes physical – can the filmmakers really be condoning bestiality? The film is also unnecessarily explicit. Creature from the Black Lagoon may have had risqué undertones, but The Shape of Water shows everything.
Michael Stuhlbarg plays Dr Hoffstetler, an open-minded scientist. With this character del Toro seems to suggest that logic and reason are all you need to forge a moral compass. The philosophy of the story is pure humanism. “If we do nothing, so are we”, Elisa says to Giles, who then realises his obligation to support her forbidden love, after being thrown out of a restaurant for being gay.
The discrimination Giles suffers is of course despicable, but the film deceptively compares it to the ‘Christian’ villain’s treatment of the creature. Strickland is nothing but a cartoon bad guy. Del Toro didn’t need to make him a Christian – the script is too puerile to disguise the preachy message.
Del Toro has said: “It’s really urgent that we do not fear the other, do not believe the ideology that they’re feeding you to reduce a person to one word.” But all the film does is offer a different ideology. The villains – who flinch at the sound of blasphemy – argue that man is made in the image of God and that the fish-man is ‘an affront’, while the heroes blindly pursue a false ideal of ‘love’.
In one scene Elisa and the creature find themselves in an old-fashioned cinema, as The Story of Ruth (1960) plays on the big screen. Christians often hold Ruth as an ideal of godly romance – is the director positing his characters as a new model of love, for the modern world? Later the characters are in a fantasy song and dance sequence so silly and out of place, that even those with a taste for the surreal might think del Toro has lost the plot.
Stylistically The Shape of Water oozes with affection for a bygone golden age of cinema, executed with technical excellence and visual panache. But sadly, the man behind the camera is misusing his considerable skills to promote immorality. The prophet Isaiah said: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” – but this year it seems they get Oscars instead.
★★★☆☆ Beautifully made, but dangerously misguided.