Warning: this is not a spoiler-free review. Read at your own risk.
Western contemporary culture is filled with binaries: human vs animal, good vs evil, etc. The truth is, reality is more convoluted than that and our world is filled with gray. What if I told you there’s no such thing as a dichotomy of good vs evil? What if I told you humans and animals can live in perfect harmony, and that we don’t have to exploit non-human species as commodities and convenience? Shape of Water challenges these binaries in an artistic way, looking at politics, science, and speciesism in a fictional lens while telling a compelling story between five protagonists.
Shape of Water is a wonderful film, and I’m really glad that it got nominated for several Oscars. Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece tells (arguably) 5 different stories in one motion picture, but all the protagonists can be connected by their loneliness. Each character has a tragic, yet beautiful, story that connects them to one another, yet their emotions and experiences are distinct and can be told as a separate story. With beautiful music, aesthetics, and storytelling, Guillermo del Toro manages to string together these separate experiences into one beautiful love story with very detailed world building.
The beauty of Shape of Water doesn’t just lie in its wonderful story structure or cinematic aesthetic. The movie isn’t afraid to challenge our comfort zones and our ideologies (what we perceive as “normal”). Eliza’s and Amphibian Man’s friendship and eventual romance is designed to push our limits and question our perception of the normal and abnormal. The film challenges ethical issues: when is it okay to use non-humans for experiments and when is it okay to call out authorities for their wrongdoings? Guillermo also challenges speciesism by designing a character that can think, move, and talk like a human; the only difference is their physical appearance and structure. If humanity and the “human essence” are characterised by rational thought and language, does that make Amphibian Man human? Why do we blur this line when it comes to non-human animals, who are sentient as announced in the Declaration of Consciousness? Is using non-human animals for science and bettering the human race ever justified?
While Shape of Water can be characterised as romance, Guillermo isn’t afraid to show raw (and often grizzly) scenes. Sex is normal very explicit. Violence isn’t censored. It’s these kinds of raw and unfiltered scenes that captures my attention. It’s liberating, in a sense, to be able to see these kinds of images on the silver screen.
Every good movie, however, isn’t devoid of criticism. There are scenes that seem out of place and unnecessary. One scene that comes to mind is the part when Richard calls Eliza in to clean up a puddle of water, only to sexually harass her seconds later. It’s a disturbing scene that can be left out entirely: we all know Richard is the antagonist, and even though this scene recognises Richard’s disgusting behaviour, it didn’t add to the plot whatsoever. The part where Eliza lipsyncs to portray her love for Amphibian Man was extremely awkward and out of place. I didn’t know how to put my finger on that scene, it was confusing, at best.
If you haven’t watched Shape of Water yet, I highly recommend it for the plotline alone. If you’re like me and like to link cultural artifacts to social science theory, then go see it and tell me what you think. I will enthusiastically give this film a 4.5/5.