Fear is the starting point for The Shape of Water, the latest film from director Guillermo del Toro. The story takes place in Baltimore during the 1950s, and draws on the reality and the fantasy of that era – the headlines and the movies, one could say – to craft a fable about love.
When I was a kid, I spent Saturdays watching science fiction movies with my father. He sat me and my brother down to show us all the classics of the genre: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man. Truly he raised us up in the light of the Lord.
Many of the movies we watched together were from the 1950s. It was familiar to me, in many ways. I also watched plenty of Nick at Nite as a child, delighting in classic sitcoms like The Dick Van Dyke Show and Leave it to Beaver, the innocence and optimism of that decade becoming a default setting for my expectations of what entertainment could be. But even if I recognized the appearance of those sci-fi movies, from the tight haircuts to the tidy suburban houses, the mood was entirely different. They weren’t optimistic; they were anxious, paranoid. Invasion of the Body Snatchers exemplifies this mood. An ordinary man begins to suspect that his neighbours are up to something nefarious, and he’s right. They’re “pod people,” facsimiles of the people he knows and loves made by malevolent aliens.
Though I certainly picked up on the paranoid mood, I couldn’t identify its cause. When I was in high school and started cobbling together an understanding of U.S. history through textbooks, PBS and Time magazine, I started seeing how omnipresent the fear of Communism was during this era. The Red Scare, it was called. Joseph McCarthy was saying that communists were everywhere in the country, pretending to be regular Americans while secretly plotting the downfall of the capitalist west. In the midst of all this distrust and paranoia, science fiction films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers acted like a release valve. All that fear had to go somewhere.
This fear is the starting point for The Shape of Water, the latest film from director Guillermo del Toro. The story takes place in Baltimore during the 1950s, and draws on the reality and the fantasy of that era – the headlines and the movies, one could say – to craft a fable about love.
Elisa Esposito (played by Sally Hawkins) is a mute woman who works as a janitor in a high-security government research facility. A field agent named Strickland (Michael Shannon) returns from a trip to the South American jungle with an astonishing specimen: the Creature (Doug Jones), a half-human, half-amphibian being captured in the Amazon river. A military scientist, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), starts examining the Creature, particularly its ability to breathe underwater. The aim is to use this ability to develop a technology that will help astronauts survive in outer space. The space race is on, and America has to get there before the Soviets.
There’s a collision going on here. The Creature is effectively lifted straight from The Creature of the Black Lagoon, a B movie about an aquatic monster. Monster movies from the 1950s—“creature features,” they were often called—served as metaphors for the dread and fear endemic to Americans during the Cold War. But the film also brings in Cold War themes on a far more literal level. Strickland frequently evokes the fear of the godless Commies as justification for their cruel treatment of the Creature. It even turns out that one of the characters (I won’t say which) is a Soviet sleeper agent, here to infiltrate the American military industrial complex and abscond with the Creature’s secrets. It’s an unusual mixing of the metaphorical and the real.
But it’s not even the main story. For all its genre-bending, this is ultimately a love story. A rapport, then a relationship, then a full-on emotional and physical romance develops between Elisa and the Creature. An outcast her entire life, Elisa is immediately drawn to the not-quite human, not-quite animal Creature. Their romance adds yet another genre into the mix: the fairy tale. It’s almost like Beauty and the Beast, if Belle were also marginalized by society.
It’s clear that this fairy tale romance is the core of the film, the center of gravity that holds all the other plot elements in place. It’s also in keeping with del Toro’s penchant for placing fairy tale characters in more historical settings. Pan’s Labyrinth is perhaps the best example of this. A story about an evil stepfather and a courageous young girl visiting a magical land, it’s all set against the rise of fascism in 1930s Spain. With that film, and with this one too, it’s the fantastical elements that receive the most attention, the magical fauns and the bizarre water creatures. But perhaps because of all that Cold War paranoia I soaked up as a kid, what jumped out at me the most in The Shape of Water is the history.
For all the skepticism found in films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, they still subscribed to the prevalent Cold War belief that there was capital-B Bad Side out there, looking to wreak havoc on our way of life, whether it was the Commies or outer space pod people. The Shape of Water, however, has little patience for those geopolitical binaries. The capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union are presented as bureaucracies each looking to serve their own ends. Historical and political categories will only get you so far, the film implies. The only thing worth believing in, the only thing that can save you, is love, particularly the love that develops between outcasts.
Is that corny? Depends on how generous you’re feeling, I suppose. But for someone who’s often allergic to unabashed earnestness, I found myself surprisingly receptive to the film’s message. The historical background had everything to do with it. The fact that Elisa and the Creature’s romance took place against a real historical setting, rather than in some far-off fantasy land, made it striking how much people want and need to escape from the restrictions of their historical moment. The vessel that allows them to achieve that escape velocity is love – something that doesn’t come from the grocery store or the courthouse, but only exists between two people who meet each other after finding no other place to go.
“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” Stephen Dedalus says in Ulysses. Maybe he was going about it the wrong way. It can’t be accomplished on one’s own, trying to jostle oneself out of sleep. Only with the help of someone can you hope to evade the grasp of history and live your lives on your own terms.