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, and nods to monster movies and romantic classics. The final scene, however, was something of a jolt to my eco-spiritual sensibilities.
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 arch-villain Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) who is the head of security.
Of course, as we soon realize, Strickland is the real monster of the film. On the surface, he embodies the supposed pinnacle of Western civilization during the Cold War: he has a beautiful, obedient wife, two children, a new Cadillac in the driveway, and is on the road to a promotion. None of this makes him happy of course, and he is myopically obsessed with power, with prestige, and with money. He is of course chronically insecure and has to have frequent pep talks with himself in the fluorescent mirrors 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 effectively hate-able villain, but also a completely predictable, one-dimensional one that merits no sympathy whatsoever. Anthropocentric, greedy Western 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 peoples 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, Strickland will do whatever it takes to subdue and exploit the Asset.
Enter Eliza. The whimsical Amalie-esque janitor is assigned to clean up the lab after the creature is tortured. She inexplicably connects with him and begins a secret romance. She brings 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 (like his soul?). When Eliza finally gets wind that the lab has decided to kill the Asset because he is too dangerous, she decides to break him out with the reluctant help of her friends and a Russian spy on the inside at the lab.
Fast forward to the final scene: Strickland finds out that Eliza’s friend 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, much to her disgust. This act of sadism compels Zelda’s husband to blurt out Eliza’s name, which he had overheard Zelda talking about the creature with. When Strickland finally finds Eliza, Giles and the man-creature at the docks, Strickland knocks Giles out and then shoots Eliza and the man-creature, who crumpled to the ground. However, as alluded to earlier in the film, the creature has a kind of bioluminescent healing power, he rouses and resurrects. The creature staggers to his feet, places his hands over his bullet wounds, heals himself, and walks toward Strickland who is attempting to reload his pistol. Strickland marvels at the creatures abilities and says, “You are a god.”
At this point in my mystical naïveté, I will be honest, I actually I expected the creature to heal Strickland’s hand, which would soften Strickland’s cold black heart, and the beauty and transformative power of nature revealed. However, as soon as Strickland says “you are a god,” the creature, without thought or much effort slices Strickland’s throat from one end to the other with his sharp claws, and he falls to the ground, himself unable to speak in his final moments. My mouth actually fell open in surprise. There was no harmonious ending for Strickland’s long history of abuse.
The earth is being abused by a relentless industrial culture. The Shape of Water, a kind of Fairytale for the Anthropocene, shows just how indifferent the earth may be to our hubris and attempts at control and power. Many are hoping for a soft landing from our consumer culture. Many are rallying for a ‘good’ Anthropocene. Many see a path of penance and repentance for humanity. In my own eco-theological hope I wanted nature to overwhelm Strickland with grace and healing. To show that the earth is resilient to our abuse and that there is a future for humanity if we would just repent and change our relationship with the earth and her creatures. However, Del Toro’s brutal 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.