The Shape of Water is… Something

I think of myself as someone who is open change and accepting of differences. I thought I opposed any sort discrimination. Whether it’s based on a person’s sexual orientation, or skin color, or disability, or whatever, I’m against it. But The Shape of Water has exposed my hidden flaw. Guillermo del Toro’s newest film forced me to introspectively re-exam my beliefs. In doing so, I realized I was clutching to an old-world bias against… bestiality? No, that can’t be right.

I understand the message The Shape of Water wants to share. It’s more blunt than Kevin Smith’s morning routine. A gay man is rebuffed. A black man and woman are rebuked for sitting at a “white’s only” counter. Only strong, white, Christian men are in power. I get it. Humans have awful prejudices and we should celebrate differences. But without sounding too much like my parents, we gotta draw a line somewhere, right?

I definitely draw a line at bestiality.

The Shape of Water is not a new story. If you’ve seen Beauty and the Beast or Free Willy, you’ve seen this movie. Except the kid in Free Willy didn’t have sex with the whale. And Belle waited until the beast regained human form before, presumably, consummating their love. But even if Belle and Beast hooked up before the transformation, I’d be cool with that. What a fun twist to the story that would have been. Disney missed out.

My main issue with The Shape of Water stems from the portrayal of the amphibian man. Swap him out for a mute version of Abe Sapian (from Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy) and I’ve got no issue. Or even a (more) speechless Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy. Both show empathy. Both show emotional depth. I saw very little of that in The Shape of Water.

This movie presents an amphibious man who displays less emotional intelligence than a dolphin at SeaWorld. The movie even goes so far as to show the amphibian man be trained like a dolphin at SeaWorld. Elisa gets his attention by placing eggs on the edge of the pool. Then she teaches him sign language. And then she has sex with him. There are some massive steps missing from that relationship and  it ruined an otherwise wonderful movie.

And even taking a step back from the creature aspect, there is no time given to even let the relationship develop. Imagining two very normal, boring human beings in a generic rom-com, I don’t buy the relationship between the two characters.

The Shape of Water is trying to share a beautiful message. But characterization decisions made a mess of it. The movie did so many things well. It’s beautiful to see. It’s beautiful to hear. It’s impeccably performed by an impeccable cast. But my goodness, I just could not get over the fact that a human woman makes love to an amphibious creature that shrieks wildly at cats before devouring them whole.

If you’re able to overcome that plot point. Good on you. You’re more woke than me.

Michael Shannon

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