With 13 Oscar nominations, The Shape of Water, directed by Guillermo del Toro, has been getting lots of buzz this year. I’ve been on a bit of a roll lately in terms of going to the movies lately (my favorite film so far being The Square), and encouraged by the effusive reviews went to see it.
I wasn’t as enchanted by it by most critics and I have to admit I’m not sure I totally got it. However, I was intrigued by some of the themes that came up which connected to animal rights issues, although I’m certain it was not the director’s conscious intention. When considered in company with Okja, another 2017 film relating to animal captivity, it’s clear that as a society our suppressed feelings of discomfort around our abusive treatment of other species have been percolating in the collective unconscious and are finding their way into films like this.
Spoiler alert: I will dish on some plot details that appear later in the film, so if you were planning on seeing the film you may want to hold off on reading this review.
Early 1960’s, Baltimore. A government agency feeling pressure to compete with Russia for cutting-edge discoveries has captured an exotic underwater seacreature from South America that has the same physical proportions of a human, but is covered in blue scales and looks kind of like an alien. The creature is kept chained to a tank and is subjected to beatings and vivisection by the director of the facility, a sadistic man named Colonel Richard Strickland (played by Michael Shannon). Meanwhile, a mute Chilean woman named Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins) working as a janitor at the facility becomes aware of the creature’s presence, and unbeknownst to the officials in the building, develops a rapport with him and begins plotting a way to liberate him. We eventually learn that the creature, credited as “Amphibian Man” on iMDB has supernatural abilities, and the film seems to imply that he either is a god or possesses God-like characteristics.
The film is highly stylized, whimsical, and romantic. In interviews, the writer and director Guillermo del Toro said that he intended for the film to be reminiscent of fairytales such as Beauty and the Beast, with sex, and be also wanted it to have the feel of a musical, with old-school Hollywood undertones.
Animal rights themes
As aforementioned, I picked up on several themes that I found relevant to the animal rights cause. I’m fairly certain these were unintentional, but to me they indicated that our society is grappling with repressed feelings of unease around our current treatment of animals for food, clothing, entertainment, and testing. Although as a society it’s considered taboo to discuss these issues, they nonetheless find their way into culture and art as a manifestation of what psychoanalyst Carl Jung would call “the shadow” – the disowned and denied aspect of our consciousness we are too frightened to confront because of the feelings of fear and guilt they might elicit.
The sea creature, credited on iMDB as “Amphibian Man” is confined in an indoor aquarium / swimming pool. I was reminded of the documentary Blackfish, about the orca Tilikum who was abducted from his family off of Puget sound in the early 80s, and for decades was kept in inhumane and unnatural conditions at SeaWorld. As a documentary, Blackfish was a resounding success in that it raised the public’s consciousness about the cruel circumstances involved in keeping orcas in captivity, and has been the lead catalyst behind SeaWorld’s downward spiral.
The aquarium in the film also called to mind one my favorite quotes, which is by William Blake: “A Robin Redbreast in a Cage Puts all Heaven in a Rage.” It is my personal belief that cages or any sort of container meant to constrain animals, or humans for that matter (unless they truly are a danger to themselves or others) is one of the most heinous creations ever devised by humans.
The dark reality is that in our culture it’s accepted as a given that animals don’t have a right to be free, but that we on the other hand, have every right to hold them captive, exploit them, and eventually kill them if we so choose.
In The Shape of Water, we see through Elisa’s eyes that imprisoning members of other species is cruel and inhumane. However, the filmmakers clearly didn’t make the connection between the wrongness of keeping anthropomorphous sea creatures in captivity and the wrongness of confining animals on factory farms, because animal products are eaten without any compunction, and eggs in particular feature as a salient motif. Elisa uses hard-boiled eggs to connect the with Amphibian Man, placing them on the edge of his tank to draw him to the surface. This I found ironic because egg-laying hens are perhaps the most abused and intensely-confined animals on the planet. Kept in small battery cages, with barely enough room to move around, egg-laying hens are brought into the world only to be exploited and killed; and yet, in the film, the eggs seem to be a benign metaphor for friendship and connection. But because most people aren’t aware of the atrocious conditions in egg production and the immorality of factory farming, it’s not surprising that del Toro and his crew wouldn’t be aware of the hypocrisy here.
To a certain extent, the film takes issue with the idea that we’re a favored species, made in God’s image, and that this somehow makes it okay to exclude other species from our circle of compassion. Colonel Strickland, the cruel villain who abuses Amphibian Man, rationalizes to Elisa and her friend Zelda (played by Octavia Spencer) the captivity of Amphibian Man by presupposing that he is inferior because of his different appearance: “You may think that thing looks human. It stands on two legs, right? But we’re created in the Lord’s image. You don’t think that’s what the Lord looks like, do you?”
Of particular note here is the differentiation between “it” and “he” – by calling Amphibian Man “it,” Strickland reduces Amphibian Man to an object that has no inner emotional experience and no ability to feel pain, sorrow, happiness, comfort, etc.
Elisa would never refer to Amphibian Man as an “it” – to her, he is a kindred spirit, a friend, someone with an interest in being free. We come to understand that Colonel Strickland, because of his myopia and narcissism, is unable to truly see Amphibian Man for the complex creature he is. Whereas Strickland’s view is portrayed as bigoted and elitist, Elisa’s understanding of Amphibian Man is deeper and more perceptive.
However, our compassion for non-human creatures is apparently meant to stop at Amphibian Man, because the film fails to relate the oppression of Amphibian Man to that of other animals we actually do share the planet with in real life.
In addition to not addressing the issue of our treatment of animals in real life, the association to animal captivity is made even more tenuous by the fact that Amphibian Man is a fantastical creature with human proportions and God-like capabilities. Del Toro said in interviews that he didn’t see the creature as an animal, but as a mythical creature, and he also made references to Jesus, saying that “[it’s] not exactly a secret that a fish is a Christian symbol.”
Towards the end of the film Amphibian Man unleashes his magical powers, and Colonel Strickland has a 180 degree change of perspective, exclaiming: “Fuck. You are a god!”
Strickland’s realization seems to imply that there was no gray area: creatures that are different from us are either all good or all bad, nothing or everything, beneath us or above us. They are either inferior to humans or have supernatural abilities that put us mere mortals to shame.
The animals we confine, exploit, and kill in real life don’t have supernatural powers that we are aware of. But most of them do have capabilities we don’t appreciate and they have rich emotional lives that we have no way of truly grasping. And because they are sentient and have an interest in not suffering, it is not for us to decide whether or not they belong in a cage or an aquarium.
Abuse of power
We learn through Elisa’s point of view, that Colonel Strickland has been beating Amphibian Man with a large taser, as well as experimenting on him. This is conveyed as self-evidently inhumane, but most people when viewing the film, probably did not connect the dots to the numerous ways in which we abuse animals and perform cruel experiments on them.
Even though the film didn’t show the connection between the abuse of Amphibian Man and how we abuse real-life animals, the allusions to Strickland’s mistreatment of Amphibian Man reminded me of the scenes in Okja where Dr. Johnny Walker (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) cuts out small portions of flesh from the “super-pig” Okja when she’s in their experimentation facility. The device he uses to extract samples seemed to mirror the taser Colonel Strickland uses to harm Amphibian Man.
In both cases, the implements used by the villain serve to emphasize their dominance over the more vulnerable being.
In an interview, del Toro said “this movie is about connecting with the ‘other.’” I do think del Toro succeeded in conveying this idea rather eloquently, with a few caveats – one being that our relationship with real-life animals is left out of the picture, and another being that the villain, Strickland, is completely two-dimensional and therefore not someone we can relate to.
For those who aren’t familiar with the term the “other,” here is a definition from Wikipedia:
The condition and quality of Otherness, the characteristics of the Other, is the state of being different from and alien to the social identity of a person and to the identity of the Self…the imposition of Otherness alienates the labelled person from the centre of society, and places him or her at the margins of society, for being the Other.
Also, from Wikipedia, a definition of what is referred to as “othering.”:
The term Othering describes the reductive action of labelling a person as someone who belongs to a subordinate social category defined as the Other. The practice of Othering is the exclusion of persons who do not fit the norm of the social group, which is a version of the Self.
Essentially, according to these definitions, the “other” is something or someone we identify as alien and unfamiliar, with “othering” being the practice of marginalizing people who appear to be different from us.
On a more meta level you could also say that the “other” is also the repressed parts of the unconscious mind, which we avoid looking at because we’re afraid of what we might find there. In the process of “othering others,” people can have the tendency to project onto other individuals the disowned aspects of their own psyches.
In the film, aside from Strickland, the main cast of characters in The Shape of Water is composed by people who are “otherized” for one reason or another. Amphibian Man is an exotic, strange-looking creature and Elisa is a mute immigrant. Her best friend and neighbor Giles is gay and her coworker and friend Zelda is black. In a sense, it is their marginalization that connects them.
During a pivotal scene in the film, where she’s trying to convince Giles to help her liberate Amphibian Man, Elisa says, “When he looks at me he does not know how I am incomplete. He sees me as I am.”
Here, Elisa explains the crux of her attraction to Amphibian Man – that he sees her essence, not her shortcomings or perceived defects, which come into sharp relief when she’s around other humans.
This scene demonstrates how friendship can transcend apparent differences, when we see through another person’s exterior to who they are at their core – beings who want to be free, to explore, to express themselves creatively, to love and be loved.
But yet again, the film failed to address how this concept relates to our treatment of other animals.
In real life, there are no sentient beings that are more “otherized,” dominated, and excluded than the animals. Because they are different from us, helpless and vulnerable, and because they cannot speak up for themselves, they are easy targets, and it is all too convenient for us to ignore their interests. In our culture, it is considered normal to make animals the punchline of our jokes, to laugh derisively at them, to dismiss their pain, to decide whether or not they deserve to be free, to determine what their value is according to our personal gratification, to play God with their lives.
As we otherize animals, we also come to fear and even hate them because we are incredibly violent to them. It’s well-established in the fields of sociology and psychology that we tend to like people we treat well and do nice things for, whereas we come to dislike those we treat poorly.
Another shortcoming I perceived with regards to how the film invoked the concept of the “other” was that Strickland was completely evil, and therefore not accessible as a character. We couldn’t relate our own experiences to his, and see ways in which we ourselves could potentially be “othering others.”
Towards the end of the film, Strickland as antagonist becomes increasingly grotesque. His fingers which were bitten off by Amphibian Man earlier in the film and then sewn back on, are rotting and have now turned black. His resentment towards Amphibian Man has boiled over into an all-consuming hatred and rage which contorts his face and compels him to act erratically. We see that if anyone is a monster in this scenario, it’s him. Far from being made “in the image of God,” he instead resembles the antichrist.
But the truth is that most people aren’t 100% good or 100% bad. We’re “both / and.” Racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic people usually aren’t monsters. They are human beings that are fearful, and are likely projecting the qualities of themselves that they don’t like onto those they hold a prejudice against. Furthermore, they themselves probably have been marginalized, bullied, or otherwise mistreated at some point in their own lives, which could have normalized for them the behavior of acting mean and judgmental towards others.
Had Strickland been a more complex character, it might have been easier to understand him and contemplate how we ourselves aren’t always as inclusive towards others who are different from us.
When Elisa comes to understand that Strickland plans to have Amphibian Man killed, she realizes that the onus is on her to find a way to free him before it’s too late. After making a heartfelt plea to her friend Giles, she is able to enlist him in her attempt to liberate Amphibian Man. The liberation plot reminded me of the heist scenes in Okja, ET, and also the great documentary ALF: Behind the Mask, where real-life activists in the Animal Liberation Front risk years in jail in order to free animals held captive in fur farms, laboratories, zoos, and factory farms.
In all cases, the protoganists are defying the law in order to free the oppressed, and fight for what they perceive as justice. Conversely, the bureaucratic institutions that are holding the beings captive are doing things that are completely legal, and yet also morally bankrupt.
Elisa and Giles, with the help of Zelda and a government scientist who is a mole for Russia, manage to free Amphibian Man from the government facility. They take him back to Elisa’s apartment where they deposit him in a bathtub filled with salt water. Elisa tells Giles that when the tide comes in and the water level rises in a nearby canal, she will release Amphibian Man into the water.
Elisa then heads to work, while Giles sits next to the tub to keep an eye on Amphibian Man. After dozing off for a few minutes, he awakens to see that the tub is empty. Giles follows Amphibian Man’s trail of water to his own apartment next door, where he finds Amphibian Man has bitten off the head of his cat and is eating him or her. Giles is at first shocked and upset, but then forgives Amphibian Man, who kneels before him in contrition. Amphibian Man then somehow transmits a certain energy to Giles, who is bald, which enables him to grow back some of the hair he lost as a result of aging.
I didn’t know what to make of this scene – I’m guessing that maybe it was meant to emphasize that Amphibian man is simultaneously feral and God-like? Or that being higher on the food chain is connected with greater supernatural capabilities?
Regardless, given that Amphibian Man has the physical proportions of humans, his carnivoristic urges don’t make much sense. He does have claws and fangs, (which, by the way, we don’t), and scales, but other than that he resembles humans more than any other animal. And more and more research is emerging that humans have the physical anatomy of herbivores, not carnivores. As for the suggestive parallels between Amphibian Man and Jesus, there is also a fair amount of evidence to indicate that the historical Jesus was in fact a vegetarian.
Basically, the film could have been a great opportunity to dismantle speciesim, but it didn’t take the concept far enough and follow it through to its logical conclusion. Because Amphibian Man is not meant to be an actual creature but a mythical one, and because the film doesn’t hone in on our treatment of actual non-human animals on earth, the argument against speciesism is never able to fully crystallize.
This is understandable given the fact that the film never set out to make a statement on animal rights in the first place. It does make one wonder, however, whether or not those involved in the film remained completely oblivious to how the suffering imposed on Amphibian Man parallels the suffering we impose on animals in real life.
As vegans, sometimes we have to suspend our judgment in order to enjoy a movie that may contain elements that don’t align with what we feel to be true. I found it hard to do this while watching the film because animal captivity and intersectionality were such central themes. That said, the film obviously resonated with many people, which is probably a good thing because it does explore the idea of “connecting with the other” as del Toro would say, and perhaps it will open their minds and hearts up more to the plight of the animals we otherize.