Philosophy of Technology

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“The Shape of Water”, monster in new age

Blog Post

February 18

Wenhan (Leah) Dou


Guillermo del Toro’ s new film “The Shape of Water” hit  74th Venice International Film Festival and now leading 13 nominations at 90th Academy Awards. (Wikipedia)  As a monster’s film, it shows del Toro’s unique view towards monsters and romance. The debate that whether the monster is pure animal/machine or it is another form of life just like human reflects some different view.


The film sets in the 1960s in Baltimore, where a mute custodian, Elisa, at a high-security government laboratory falls in love with a captured humanoid-amphibian creature. (Wikipedia). The “humanoid-amphibian” creature, has high intelligence that he can communicate with human and share the emotion link with the protagonist. As an amphibian, his special respiratory allows him to breathe in the air as well as under the water. The creature also has the ability to cure the wounds or even disease so he was worshiped as the god.  The Colonel of the laboratory fail to see the significance and human of the creature and decided to give dissection of the creature for their further research. Elisa managed to steal the creature out of the laboratory and raised him in her bathroom. Their loving relationship grows during days that creature stays in Elisa’s bathroom and they even had sex in the bathtub. Elisa released the monster in the day of raining season and left in the water with the monster.


Director and characters in the film have a different attitude towards the monster. The director himself sees the creature as fully human. He described that as “girl meets guy, the guy just happens to be wearing a sheath of foam latex, with scales, and a headpiece” (Rich). This interpretation of the monster affirmed that the monster is internal, mental equal to the human. He has the “soul”, and his spiritual statues have no difference with human beings. The appearance difference is the main factor that distinguishes the monster with the human of species. This emphasis on internal similarity shows the idea that the external body appearance and inner mental are two separate systems.


This mechanism idea can trace back to Descartes’ radical suggestion that “the body was nothing but ‘a statue or a machine made of earth,’” and “animal spirits” drove body into living things. Descartes admits that human and animal’s bodies are all “machine-like” while the human has the spiritual soul that animals don’t. He emphasis that animals also have internal agency and even consciousness but only humans have the “radical soul”.  I would interpret this idea into two aspects. That firstly, the body is material and knowable through medical technics. Second, animals are lack of a spiritual force that only human has, making animal different or inferior to human beings. Two aspects make the film “Shape of Water” rather special and make the monster in the film different from the traditional monster film.

From the knowable perspective. The metaphor of clockmaker knows the clock shows that mechanism believes that our body is knowable if we take them apart. We can accurately know what the body and each organ look like, its structure inside the body and how to do organs work in the body. This knowable rule does not only apply to human’s body but to all the bodies. So that only if we want to know the body, we can always have a dissection surgery towards any body just like we can easily take apart a machine if we want to know how does that work. This idea affects the monster film in two aspects. On the one hand, since we can know the monster’s body and its constitution, we could know the monster’s body and its physical ability comprehensively. One important factor that traditional monster film has is the unknowable mystery of the monster, causing a huge gap between human and the monster. While in the “Shape of Water”, the monster is knowable. The Colonel tried to dissect the monster to know how its respiratory system works. Elisa, the protagonist, even had sex with the monster, proving that the monster has the similar reproductive system as human. The knowable process of medical dissection decreases the distance between monster and human, making it less terrifying. On the other hand, the monster was worshiped by its magical ability to cure wounds by “aboriginal people”. The fact that its body is detachable like a machine or any human body makes it less sacred that decrease the human-monster distance again. Making it even more humanoid that people would consider its mental soul and finally, it turns out to have a romantic relationship with Elisa who is in purely human’s shape.

(Elisa having sex/sexual with the creature)

From the mental perspective. Descartes’s idea set an assumption ahead that humans are unique and superior to other creatures. Besides, this superior statue comes from internal “radical soul” or radical ability to think since Descartes also believe “I am a thinking thing.” In the film, characters within the film have conflict idea on whether the monster is “human” enough and whether it should be treated humanely. One interesting detail of this judgment is made by the scientist. He held his idea of the monster back until he saw the monster communicate with Elisa through gesture language and reacted Elisa’s music happily. This scene to him is the determined moment, that since the monster has the ability to communicate with the human, understand complex forms of communications like music and even build an emotional bridge with a human. The judgment comes externally, but it still reflects on the creature’s potential ability to think. It is hard to show the internal thinking process or whether the soul is “radical”, but through communicating and understanding human, the monster shows that it has possible “radical soul”. The new concept of this kind of monster that is non-human but equal to a human in spiritual statues challenges Descartes’ idea and traditional monsters like Frankenstein, while this equal statue to human makes the romance between human and monster convincing in the movie.

To the conclusion, the monster in “The Shape of Water” successfully humanoid the monster by decreasing the distances between monster and human in body and challenging the idea that the only human has the radical thoughts. It reflects on Descartes’s mechanism idea while developing it in new ways that audience would happily accept in today’s condition where “equal” and “love” are welcomed slogans.


Jessica Riskin. “The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick.” iBooks.


Katy Rich “How ‘The Shape of Water’s Aquatic Beast Got So Sexy”


Wikipedia page of “The Shape of Water”






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Philosophy of Technology at NYU Shanghai, a course by Anna Greenspan and Brad Weslake.