Themes of The Shape of Water - Guillermo del Toro's Frog Man Box office and Oscar Winning Triumph

15 December 2023
In the realm of science fiction cinema, few films have captured the imagination and provoked thought quite like Guillermo del Toro's 2017 masterpiece, "The Shape of Water." 

This film, a seamless blend of fantasy and reality, is set against the backdrop sof an post war American society and the fantastical science of an amphibious god from the rivers of South America. As we embark on this exploration, it's essential to acknowledge the unique space "The Shape of Water" occupies in the genre, a testament to del Toro's visionary direction and storytelling.

"The Shape of Water" tells a story that is as enchanting as it is profound. At its core, it is a narrative of love and connection between beings from different worlds. The film introduces us to a mute cleaning lady working in a high-security government laboratory, who forms a unique bond with a mysterious aquatic creature held captive there. Del Toro weaves a tale that transcends the ordinary, delving into themes of love, otherness, and the essence of humanity.

Set against the tense backdrop of the Cold War era where there are reds under beds, "The Shape of Water" does more than tell a personal story; it reflects the societal and political anxieties of the time. This period, marked by suspicion, espionage, and the space race for technological supremacy, provides a rich tapestry against which the film’s themes unfold. The setting is not just a backdrop but an active participant in the story, shaping the characters' lives and the narrative's progression.

In this environment, del Toro crafts a world where the fantastical is believable and the mundane is laced with magic. The juxtaposition of a stark, oppressive government facility with the ethereal, otherworldly presence of the aquatic creature sets the stage for a profound exploration of themes that resonate deeply with the human experience.

As we delve deeper into the thematic realms of "The Shape of Water," it becomes evident that this film is not just a story about a woman and a creature from another world. It is a mirror held up to society, reflecting our fears, biases, and the limitless capacity for love and understanding that defines us. This analysis aims to unravel these layers, offering insights into the film's enduring appeal and its significance in the pantheon of science fiction cinema.

the shape of water themes

The Intersection of Love and Otherness in "The Shape of Water"

One of the most compelling themes in Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape of Water" is the exploration of love's power to transcend the barriers of otherness. This theme is pivotal to the narrative, offering a profound commentary on acceptance, empathy, and the universal need for connection.

At the heart of "The Shape of Water" lies an unconventional love story between Elisa, a mute cleaning lady, and a mysterious aquatic creature with awesine gills. Their bond defies the conventional norms of love, challenging the viewer's perceptions of what it means to connect deeply with another being. This relationship, devoid of spoken language, is built on a foundation of empathy, trust, and emotional resonance. The film masterfully demonstrates that love, in its purest form, transcends the limitations of physical form, language, and societal expectations.

The aquatic creature in the film represents 'the other' – a being distinctly different, not only physically but in its very essence. Del Toro uses this otherness to delve into themes of isolation, fear, and misunderstanding that often accompany the unknown. However, through Elisa's eyes, the creature is seen not as a fearsome or alien entity but as a kindred spirit. This perspective challenges the audience to reconsider their own views on difference and acceptance.

Elisa's relationship with the creature becomes a symbol of the human capacity to embrace the unfamiliar. It's a powerful statement on how love can bridge seemingly insurmountable divides, be they cultural, linguistic, or even species-based.

The film also uses the theme of otherness to comment on broader societal attitudes. The government agents, representing societal norms, view the creature as an asset or a threat, never as a being capable of emotion or deserving of empathy. This stark contrast with Elisa's perspective highlights the film's critique of societal tendencies to fear and marginalize what is not understood.

In a broader sense, "The Shape of Water" uses its central love story to question the boundaries we place around 'acceptable' forms of love and connection. The film suggests that these boundaries are often arbitrary and born out of fear or ignorance. In breaking down these barriers, the film champions a more inclusive, empathetic understanding of love – one that embraces otherness rather than shunning it.

themes of the shape of water 2017

Communication Beyond Words in "The Shape of Water"

"The Shape of Water" by Guillermo del Toro intricately weaves a narrative where communication transcends the spoken word, emphasizing the power of non-verbal forms of expression. This theme is pivotal in understanding the depth of connection between the characters and adds a profound layer to the film's exploration of relationships and understanding.

Central to the film is the relationship between Elisa, who is mute, and the aquatic creature, who is also unable to communicate verbally. Their bond is a poignant testament to the film’s assertion that true communication goes beyond language. Del Toro masterfully showcases how empathy, body language, and shared experiences can form a language of their own. The way Elisa and the creature interact – through sign language, music, touch, and shared moments – beautifully illustrates how deeply one can understand and connect with another without ever speaking a word.

This theme challenges the audience to reconsider the essence of communication. It posits that the ability to listen, to observe, and to feel can be far more powerful than the spoken or written word. This is especially resonant in a world where words are often used to deceive, manipulate, or misrepresent.

Water, in the error..."The Shape of Water," is more than just the creature's habitat; it becomes a symbol of fluid, barrier-free communication. 

The film uses water as a metaphorical bridge between worlds, cultures, and beings. 

It is in water that Elisa and the creature find their most profound connection, a space where they are free from the constraints of their physical and social worlds. Del Toro’s use of water as a medium for connection underscores the theme of communication beyond words, highlighting the fluidity and naturalness of their non-verbal interaction.

The film contrasts the genuine, heartfelt communication between Elisa and the creature with the often futile and misleading verbal interactions among other characters. Government officials and authority figures in the film frequently use words to obscure, manipulate, or exert power. This contrast further emphasizes the purity and authenticity of non-verbal communication as depicted in Elisa's and the creature's relationship.

The Duality of Human Nature in "The Shape of Water"

The Shape of Water offers a profound exploration of the duality of human nature, presenting a nuanced portrayal of kindness and cruelty, empathy and apathy. This theme is intricately woven into the narrative, providing a critical lens through which to view the characters and their actions.

The film showcases a stark contrast between characters who exhibit compassion and those driven by cruelty and selfish motives. Elisa, the protagonist, embodies empathy and understanding, while characters like Colonel Strickland represent the darker aspects of human nature, such as brutality and insensitivity. This juxtaposition serves as a powerful commentary on the choices humans make and the moral complexities inherent in these choices.

Del Toro uses these contrasting characters to delve into the complexities of humanity. He suggests that human nature is not monolithic but a spectrum where kindness and cruelty can coexist within individuals and societies. This nuanced portrayal encourages viewers to reflect on their own nature and the societal norms that shape our actions.

The treatment of the aquatic creature in the film is a focal point for exploring human nature's dual aspects. The creature, being different and unknown, elicits varied responses from the human characters. While Elisa and her friends approach it with curiosity and empathy, others, like Strickland, react with fear and hostility. This dichotomy highlights how fear of the unknown often leads to aggression and cruelty, whereas empathy can lead to understanding and connection.

Del Toro’s narrative suggests that the capacity for both kindness and cruelty is inherent in all of us. The way we respond to the unknown, to the 'other,' is a reflection of our inner nature and the choices we make.

The presence of the aquatic creature acts as a catalyst, bringing out the best and worst in the human characters. Its otherworldly nature forces each character to confront their own prejudices, fears, and capacities for compassion. The creature's impact on the characters serves as a metaphor for how encountering the unfamiliar can challenge and change us.

Political and Social Commentary in "The Shape of Water"

Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, "The Shape of Water" provides a subtle yet powerful critique of government and authoritative structures. The film portrays government officials and the military as entities driven by paranoia, control, and a lack of empathy. Colonel Strickland, the antagonist, embodies these traits, serving as a representation of blind obedience to authority and the dehumanizing aspects of bureaucratic power.

Del Toro uses these elements to comment on the dangers of unchecked authority and the moral compromises often made in the name of national security. The film's setting in a high-security government laboratory becomes a microcosm for a surveillance state, where individuality and freedom are suppressed under the guise of order and protection.

"The Shape of Water" also delves into themes of marginalization and discrimination, highlighting the experiences of characters who exist on the fringes of society. Elisa, being mute, faces barriers in communication and social integration. Her friend Zelda, an African American woman, and Giles, a closeted gay man, also face societal prejudices.

Through these characters, the film sheds light on the struggles faced by those who are often overlooked or oppressed in society. Their experiences are juxtaposed with the treatment of the aquatic creature, which, despite being non-human, also suffers from discrimination and mistreatment. This parallel draws attention to the broader issue of how society treats those who are deemed 'different.'

While set in the past, "The Shape of Water" resonates with contemporary issues. The film’s portrayal of otherness, fear of the unknown, and the fight against oppressive systems mirrors current social and political struggles. It encourages viewers to reflect on how much has changed, or remained the same, in terms of societal attitudes towards difference, authority, and individual rights.

Del Toro masterfully weaves these political and social themes into the narrative, using the fantastical elements of the story to highlight real-world issues. The film becomes a vehicle for exploring how fear and prejudice can lead to oppression and injustice, while also showcasing the potential for empathy and understanding to overcome these barriers.

themes of del toro shape of water movie

The Contrasting Portrayals of Sexuality in 'The Shape of Water'"

"The Shape of Water," with its intricate narrative and character development, presents a nuanced exploration of sexuality, highlighting the contrasting experiences and attitudes of its characters. Guillermo del Toro's approach to these themes is both candid and symbolic, offering a deeper understanding of the characters and their motivations.

Elisa's Exploration of Sexuality

Elisa, the film's protagonist, is portrayed engaging in masturbation, a routine that she follows each morning in her bathtub. This portrayal is significant for several reasons:
  • Normalizing Female Sexuality: Elisa's actions are depicted as a normal, healthy part of her daily routine, challenging the often taboo nature of female masturbation in cinema and society. It's a bolds tatement about female sexual agency and autonomy.
  • Symbolism of Water: The use of water in these scenes is emblematic. Water, a recurring motif in the film, represents life, fluidity, and transformation. In the context of Elisa's sexuality, it symbolizes her desire for connection and emotional depth, themes that are central to her character and the film’s narrative.
  • Contrast with Her Loneliness: These scenes also underscore Elisa's solitude and unfulfilled longing for intimacy and connection. This aspect of her character sets the stage for her deep emotional and physical connection with the aquatic creature, a relationship that transcends conventional boundaries.

Colonel Richard Strickland's Approach to Sexuality

In stark contrast to Elisa's portrayal is the character of Colonel Richard Strickland (played disturbingly well by Micheal Shannon), whose approach to sex is markedly different:

  • Desire for Control: Strickland's interactions with his wife, particularly the scene where he silences her during sex, highlight his desire for control and dominance. Unlike Elisa's exploration of her sexuality, which is rooted in self-discovery and autonomy, Strickland's approach is about exerting power and control.
  • Reflection of Societal Norms: Strickland's attitude towards sex can be seen as a reflection of the conservative societal norms of the era, where sexuality, especially female sexuality, was often repressed and subjected to male control.
  • Contrasting Relationships: The contrasting sexual experiences of Elisa and Strickland are reflective of their respective relationships. While Elisa finds a profound, liberating connection with the creature, Strickland's interactions are rooted in dominance and a lack of genuine emotional connection.

These contrasting portrayals of sexuality in "The Shape of Water" offer a deeper understanding of the characters and their respective journeys. Del Toro uses these themes to challenge traditional narratives around sexuality, especially female sexuality, and to explore the broader themes of control, freedom, and the human longing for connection.

The film, through its nuanced depiction of these themes, encourages viewers to reflect on the nature of desire, the importance of emotional connection, and the varying expressions of sexuality. It's a testament to the film's depth and del Toro's skill as a filmmaker that these themes are woven seamlessly into the fabric of the narrative, enhancing the film’s overall impact and resonance.

The symbolism of the color Green

The best directors use color to convey symbolism and meaning - and Guillermo del Toro, exhibits a masterful use of color, with shades of green playing a crucial symbolic role throughout the film. This color choice is deeply intentional, contributing to the narrative's themes and emotional depth. The most striking use of green is in its association with the amphibian creature, which highlights its connection to the natural aquatic environment and its otherworldly essence. 

This vibrant hue serves as a visual emblem of the creature's unique identity and the enigma it represents. Additionally, green is used to convey longing and desire, particularly in the settings of Elisa's life. Her apartment and the government facility, tinged with green hues, reflect her deep yearning for connection and a break from her monotonous routine. This strategic use of green blurs the boundaries between the mundane and the magical, suggesting the presence of the fantastical within the ordinary world.

Del Toro's attention to detail is evident in specific elements like the key lime pies, costumes, and set designs, all infused with various shades of green. The key lime pies, with their distinct green color, symbolize unfulfilled desires and the pursuit of the elusive, mirroring Elisa's own journey. The green in Elisa's clothing and her home's interiors creates a cohesive visual experience, subtly influencing the viewer's emotional engagement with the film. 

The amphibian's green hue, beyond being a naturalistic choice, symbolizes life, growth, and renewal, resonating with the creature's role as a beacon of hope and change in a world that is otherwise bleak and oppressive. Through these deliberate choices, the color green in "The Shape of Water" becomes more than a visual element; it transforms into a narrative device that enriches the story, adding layers of meaning to the exploration of human emotions and desires.

Artistic Elements Enhancing Themes in "The Shape of Water"

Guillermo Del Toro's "The Shape of Water" is a cinematic masterpiece that stands out for its meticulous use of visual aesthetics and symbolism. The color palette in the film is deliberately chosen to evoke specific emotional and thematic responses. Del Toro, known for his vivid and imaginative style, employs a blend of greens and blues throughout the film. These colors are not just aesthetically pleasing but are laden with symbolism. 

The green hue, prevalent in the government facility, reflects a sense of sterility and control, contrasting sharply with the warmer, more vibrant colors of Elisa's apartment. This juxtaposition underscores the film's exploration of themes such as freedom versus confinement and the stark difference between the world of human bureaucracy and the natural, more empathetic world Elisa represents.

The set design further enhances these themes. The laboratory's cold, hard surfaces and the intricate, almost surreal design of Elisa's apartment create a visual metaphor for the film's central conflict between cold, scientific rationality and the warmth of human emotion and connection. The creature's design is another critical aspect of the film's visual storytelling. Its humanoid yet distinctly non-human appearance forces viewers to confront themes of otherness and empathy, challenging us to question what it means to be human and to be a monster.

The film’s score, composed by Alexandre Desplat, is a vital component in amplifying its emotional depth and thematic resonance. The music in "The Shape of Water" acts as an additional narrative layer, conveying the unspeakable emotions and unvoiced thoughts of the characters. The main theme, with its whimsical and romantic undertones, perfectly encapsulates the film's fairy-tale-like quality, while also highlighting the profound loneliness and longing experienced by the protagonists. The use of music and sound in the film also serves to bridge the gap between Elisa and the creature, two beings who communicate beyond words, thus reinforcing the film’s exploration of communication and connection beyond the conventional boundaries.

The Legacy of "The Shape of Water"

"The Shape of Water" occupies a unique place in the tapestry of science fiction cinema. It stands out for its blend of genres, combining elements of fantasy, romance, and horror. This film brings new perspectives to science fiction by focusing less on technology and futuristic settings and more on the human (and non-human) experience. It challenges the traditional narratives of science fiction, which often revolve around conquest or conflict, and instead presents a story of understanding, empathy, and love. The film's focus on marginalized characters, its exploration of themes such as otherness, and its subversion of typical monster tropes contribute to a fresh narrative approach in the genre.

"The Shape of Water": A Sweep at the Oscars

"The Shape of Water" not only captivated audiences and critics alike but also achieved remarkable acclaim at the Academy Awards, a testament to its artistic and thematic excellence. 

This film's success at the Oscars is a reflection of how it transcended the conventional boundaries of genre filmmaking to become a universally celebrated cinematic masterpiece.

  • Best Picture: The film's crowning achievement was winning the Best Picture award, a rare feat for a film in the science fiction genre. This win signifies the Academy's recognition of the film's storytelling, thematic depth, and artistic innovation.
  • Best Director for Guillermo del Toro: Del Toro's visionary direction was rightly honored with the Best Director award. His unique style, combining fantastical elements with poignant storytelling, was pivotal in bringing the film's complex themes and characters to life.
  • Achievements in Cinematography and Production Design: The film's visual artistry was recognized with awards in both cinematography and production design. These accolades highlight the film's exceptional use of visual elements to create an immersive and emotionally resonant world.
  • Recognition in Music and Sound Categories: The film's score and sound design, crucial in conveying its themes of non-verbal communication and the otherworldly, were also lauded. These awards underscore the importance of auditory elements in enhancing the narrative experience.

The multitude of Oscars won by "The Shape of Water" underscores its status as a work of art that resonates across different aspects of filmmaking. Its success at the Oscars is a celebration of its ability to weave together diverse artistic elements into a coherent and compelling narrative, making it a benchmark in cinematic history. This recognition by the Academy highlights the film's universal appeal and its significance as a cultural touchstone in modern cinema.


As we conclude our exploration of Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape of Water," it becomes evident that this film is much more than a mere addition to the science fiction genre. It stands as a testament to the power of cinema to transcend conventional storytelling, explore complex themes, and resonate deeply with a diverse audience. Modeling itself somewhat on Steven Spielberg's E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,  "The Shape of Water" is not just a narrative about love and connection; it is a multifaceted reflection of humanity in all its beauty and complexity.

The film's exploration of themes such as the intersection of love and otherness, communication beyond words, the duality of human nature, and its incisive political and social commentary, all interweave to create a tapestry rich in meaning and emotion. Del Toro's masterful use of artistic elements – from the hauntingly beautiful score to the meticulously crafted visual aesthetics – elevates these themes, ensuring that the film is not only intellectually stimulating but also a feast for the senses.

Moreover, the acclaim and recognition "The Shape of Water" received, highlighted by its multiple Oscar wins, speak volumes about its impact and legacy. It challenges the norms of genre filmmaking, breaks barriers in terms of narrative and representation, and sets a new standard for cinematic excellence. The film’s success at the Oscars is a testament to its universal appeal and its ability to speak to the human experience in a way that is both unique and relatable.


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About the author Jimmy Jangles

My name is Jimmy Jangles, the founder of The Astromech. I have always been fascinated by the world of science fiction, especially the Star Wars universe, and I created this website to share my love for it with fellow fans.

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