I suppose it was appropriate to the theme that it was pouring rain as I approached the theatre. After the Oscar buzz of The Shape of Water, Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro’s new fantasy film, I had to brave the water and see it. It was gorgeously imagined, shot and performed, but the final scene was something of a jolt to eco-spiritual sensibilities, and more of an Anthropocene Fairytale. The film nods to monster movies and romantic classics at the same time.
The film revolves around a white woman named Eliza (Sally Hawkins), who is a winsome janitor at a top-secret Cold War era US military research facility that has just acquired a new “asset.” She is an orphan who has strange scars on her neck which apparently are the reason she cannot speak. Her friends Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins) are both outcasts in some way: Zelda is a black woman in a racially charged time in American history, and Giles is a gay man in a very straight world.
The “Asset” is an anthropomorphic aqueous creature that can breathe air and underwater through a kind of dual respiratory system which interests the scientists immensely. Their plan, rather than study the creature alive, is to vivisect it and learn what they can before the Russians get a hold of anything that could put them ahead. The creature is tortured and prodded by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) who is the head of security.
Of course, Strickland is the real monster in the film. On the surface, he embodies the supposed pinnacle of Western civilization during the Cold War: A beautiful obedient wife, two children, a new Cadillac in the driveway. None of this makes him happy of course, he is obsessed with getting to the next level, with success, and with impressing his superiors. He is of course chronically insecure and has to have frequent pep talks with himself in the mirror of the men’s room.
Del Toro’s moral critique of American high modernism couldn’t be any clearer. At every turn, Strickland oozes stale white, male, modernist, Christian stereotypes. He is an excellent arch-villain, but also a completely predictable one-dimensional evil that merits no sympathy whatsoever. Anthropocentric culture captures and destroys innocent and beautiful nature in a dark sterile industrial looking lab. The subtext is clear: Nature, embodied by the extracted amazonian amphibious creature who is “worshipped” by the indigenous people of his home place is valuable only as a dissected object. Echoing the classically masculine scientistic view of the world that Carolyn Merchant outlines in the Death of Nature.
Enter Eliza. The whimsical Amalie-esque janitor is assigned to clean up the lab after the creature is tortured. She gives him eggs, plays music for him and teaches him sign language. They fall in love. At one point the man-creature is being tortured and prodded by Strickland and manages to bite off two of his fingers. Eliza finds them on the floor as she is cleaning up the blood. They are surgically reattached, but they do not take, and by the end of the film are black and rotten. And when she gets wind that they will be killing him, she decides to break him out with the help of her friends.
Fast forward to the final scenes: Strickland finds out that Zelda knows something about the location of the man-creature and is determined to get it back. He has her pinned to the wall and to intimidate her, he rips off his blackened fingers and throws them on the floor. When Strictland finally finds Eliza, Giles and the man-creature at the docks, Strictland punches Giles and the shoots Eliza and the man-creature. However, as alluded to earlier in the film, the creature has a kind of bioluminescent healing power and in a sense resurrects. He stands up, heals himself and walks toward Strictland who is attempting to reload his pistol. Strictland marvels at the creatures abilities and says, “You are a god.”
At this point in my mystical naivete, I expected the creature to heal Strictland’s hand, change his heart, and gain his esteem and respect. However, as soon as Strictland says “you are a god,” the creature, without thought or much effort slices Strictland’s throat and he falls to the ground, finally unable to speak in his final moments.
If the man-creature represents an abused ‘nature,’ by a relentless industrial culture, then this ending shows just how indifferent the earth may be to our hubris and attempts at control and power. In my eco-theological hope, I wanted nature to overwhelm Strictland with grace and healing; the earth is resilient to our abuse, and there is a future for humanity if we would just repent and change our relationship to the earth and her creatures. However, Del Toro’s ending teaches an important lesson, one that is sometimes difficult for me to hear: the earth can only be pushed so far before (s)he pushes back.