Guillermo del Toro's Love of Film
The Shape of Water contains a number of references to classic films, though, of course, the two most obvious are Creature From the Black Lagoon and Beauty and the Beast. However, del Toro's latest upends the conventions of both those movies. Creature From the Black Lagoon is a classic monster movie released in 1954 wherein the creature is the antagonist of the movie. At the end of that film, the creature is shot multiple times and sinks to the bottom of the lagoon while the remaining humans, including the woman the monster at one point captured and brought to his lair, escape. The Shape of Water instead reimagines the creature as a sympathetic magical being with whom the main female character falls in love. Turning the "monster" into the hero completely upends the conventional monster movie story.
However, del Toro's The Shape of Water also toys with conventions of fairy tales, particularly those about women turning men cursed to live as beasts or other creatures back into humans. Those fairy tales perpetuate the idea that a woman's love humanizes a man, a convention we still see in romantic comedies today. Instead of following that conventional storyline, The Shape of Water features the Asset turning Elisa into a nonhuman creature by giving her the ability to breathe underwater. Arguably, this demonstrates a much more balanced dynamic between Elisa and the creature, one in which their love for each other is equally displayed. At the very least, though, it upends the idea that the man must be turned into a human in order for both he and the female character to have a happy ending.
Through the movie del Toro showcases his obvious love for monster features and fairy tales, but The Shape of Water also offers a different interpretation of those genres. In fact, it seems The Shape of Water is del Toro's answer to what he believed previous monster films were lacking. There is a romantic aspect to many monster movies, with the monsters becoming infatuated with a beautiful woman. But, as the antagonists of their films, the monsters were always defeated by the end. In The Shape of Water, the monster gets to be the romantic lead, and del Toro's film follows through on the romantic ideation established early on.
Of course, the way in which The Shape of Water differs from typical monster movies and fairy tales also works as an act of rebellion against those storytelling conventions. Those monster flicks and fairy tales usually embody conventional and conservative ideals as far as they relate to otherness and relationships between men and women. But The Shape of Water is much more progressive in its ideals, celebrating the Asset's otherness and depicting an equal relationship between him and Elisa. The Shape of Water showcases its characters bucking convention within the setting of the '60s, but the movie as a whole does the same within the larger scope of cinema.
The Shape of Water's Religious References
Throughout The Shape of Water, Strickland repeatedly references the story of Samson and Delilah from the Book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible. As the story goes, Samson is a powerful man with strength greater than any other man who falls in love with Delilah. However, he is betrayed by Delilah, who uses Samson's love for her against him to learn the secret of his power; she gives that information to his enemies. Stealing his strength, Samson's enemies subjugate and demean him. At his lowest, Samson turns to God for help and is granted his strength once again. He uses it to bring down a temple on the heads of all his enemies, killing himself along with them.
The way Strickland tells the story, he obviously views Samson's vengeance against his enemies, even at the expense of his own life, as a victory. Certainly, in many interpretations of the story, Samson is viewed as a hero - even in Cecil B. DeMille's 1949 adaptation of the story in Samson and Delilah - but The Shape of Water offers a different interpretation. The story of Samson and Delilah is parallelled in The Shape of Water with Strickland and Elisa, he being a powerful man within American society at the time and her being a woman who betrays him and brings about his downfall. However, Strickland isn't the hero of the story, Elisa is.
Instead, Strickland is often depicted exhibiting hypocrisy. He is prideful but demands those around him to display humility, he uses his own power to undermine others but doesn't tolerate being questioned by his own superior, he is religious but uses religion to suit his own needs, he resents the Asset for his otherness but is attracted to Elisa for her differences. Further, because of his old fashioned beliefs, he turns a blind eye to the possibility that Elisa helped the creature escape and doesn't learn of what happened until much later - and only by exerting his power in a monstrous way over Zelda.
It all comes to a head in the climactic scene of The Shape of Water when Strickland is confronted by the creature, who has survived multiple gunshot wounds. Though Strickland views himself as Samson, with Elisa being Delilah and the Asset as Samson's enemies, he's forced to recognize the flaws in this thinking, evidenced in his line, "You are a god." Inevitably, he dies because he interpreted himself as Samson. Strickland's entire view of religion is called into question by the end; though he previously said men were made in God's image, Strickland recognizing the Asset as a god questions those beliefs. In this, The Shape of Water effectively challenges what Strickland, and the audience, believes about religion versus the realities of the world.