By M.K Sullivan
Last Valentine’s day was something I was going to forget, provided my art teacher didn’t remind me to “treat myself”. I took it to heart, ironically, and decided to do just that. I went to the store and bought myself a VERY fancy frozen pizza and planned for a yummy evening watching cartoons and not actually thinking about the holiday I was celebrating. That was until I walked past the popcorn.
Winner of the Academy’s Best Picture, Best Original Music, and Best Director awards, “The Shape of Water” had a lot to live up to. Director Guillermo del Toro, who directed the Hellboy movies and Pacific Rim, takes a more serious tone with this film compared to his prior imaginative movies. He doesn’t lose that imagination in this work, but he managed to add a bit of political commentary through the representation of minorities.
So, why does this movie get so much praise? It’s because it takes the typical “monster movie” and turns it on its head. A pretty woman falls in love with the monster, rather than the man. But this is not the only aspect that makes this film special. The social commentary it offers on the standard roles in this genre and the minorities within it create a compelling message about the worldview during the 50’s and how the monsters in these films can be empathised with because they too are being oppressed by the overarching societal standards of the time.
Our main character, Elisa Esposito played by Sally Hawkins, is a janitor for a secret science facility in the 1960s. She is mute and uses sign language to communicate with the few people she can. One of them is her next-door neighbor, Giles played by Richard Jenkins. He is a homosexual artist who can’t seem to reclaim his youth or career despite his efforts throughout the movie.
Another character is Zelda Fuller who is an African American working women who always saves a spot for Elisa at the punch-in clock before they start their shift. Zelda often helps Elisa at work be it speaking for her or clocking in to work for her if she is late. And then, of course, our unexpected love interest, the mysterious sea monster being held at the facility. The man behind the mask is Doug Jones who played a similar fish-man in the first Hellboy movie.
All of these characters can identify with each other because they are being oppressed by the man! “The man” being a racist white male named Richard Strickland, played by Michael Shannon, the main antagonist in the film. He is a secret service man that is in charge at the facility and is the main “observer” of the fish man. When I say observer, I mean torturer, interrogator despite the fact he can’t speak, and big ol’ misogynistic jerk.
Strickland represents the ideal, white American man at the time. In monster movies long ago, he would have been our hero, but now he is quite the opposite. Throughout the movie, Elisa falls in love with the creature, not the man, because they both are similar in that they can’t speak and are oppressed by the system that holds them.
All of these lovely individuals, except the racist government man, come together to try and save our aquatic friend from the scary science facility. This is in contrast with most monster movies in the past where the innocent woman would have been our “victim”.
This movie tackles the concept of internal vs external villainy in a similar way Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” does. “Who is the monster and who is the man?” was something chanting in my head throughout the movie. It uses the tropes found in classic monster flics to make an effective statement on those who, in the past, had not had a voice like the monsters in these films.
Overall, if you like Sci-Fi, romance, monster movies, and social justice, this movie might be worth a watch. My Valentine’s Day pizza party by myself was certainly extra special because of this movie’s charm and heart. If you haven’t seen it already, I highly recommend it.
Director: Guillermo del Toro