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The Shape of Water and Its Use of ‘Image of God’

The Shape of Water functions as an artistic modern morality tale that appropriates the biblical “image of God” concept.
| Feb 1, 2018 | 25 comments |

Recently I saw the Academy Award-nominated film The Shape of Water.1

(Spoilers follow!)

This film actually touches on the topic of being in the “image of God,” which is why I’m discussing it here.

But let me start by setting the stage with a general overview and review of the movie.

First, I wish I had paid more attention to the rating before I went and why it’s rated R. I long ago realized that I do not ever need to see a film that features female nudity–and this movie has some, showing both front and back in several scenes.

It also features the F-word, actually not gratuitously, but in describing sex and telling someone to “F off.” So even though the word makes sense in context, I do not care for the fact that modern culture needs to use this word to describe sex at times and needs to tell people, “f&&& you.

The movie also portrays (without showing in detail) female masturbation. And contains multiple scenes of cringe-worthy cruelty.

This is not a family film.

Second, I came out of the movie angered by the immoral morality tale aspects it contains (I was thinking of it as “mere propaganda” for a bit). What I found offensive includes the fact that the main character is a disabled, dis-empowered woman with a Hispanic last name (who is mute), whose best friends are an elderly homosexual man and a black woman employed on a cleaning crew. The story is set during the “bad old days” of early ’60s Cold War hysteria and open racial discrimination. A physically soft and emotionally sensitive scientist, employed by the Soviet Union as a spy at the secret U.S. government facility, provides critical help to the other three and qualifies as a lesser “good guy”–even though he is a Communist agent.

By contrast, the bad guy is a white heterosexual male (and “cisgendered,” in modern terms). He’s a right-wing patriot and a veteran, who references the Bible as if he believes it on three different occasions in the film and thus seems to be a “Christian” character (even though his behavior is in no way Christlike). He is trapped in rampant consumerism, harshly dismissive of others–and arrogant, racist, sexist, and violent.

Oh, and he is also a sexual harasser/potential rapist.

In fact, all clearly masculine characters in the story are bad, though none others so bad as baddie #1. Men who are good or somewhat good are soft-looking and/or homosexual. Men with rugged faces–and physically strong men and men in dominant positions of power are villainous.

The story is to an extent a modern morality tale, in which people the modern mindset sees as oppressed rise up against the white male oppressor in order to prevent him from fulfilling his horrific plan to vivisect the green creature living in the water (who came from South America, by the way). As such the film has certain virtues which it promotes, both overly and covertly, virtues from a view of the world that is distinctly non-Christian, though not in every way anti-Christian.

The first virtue the film praises is friendship, which underpins the relationships between the protagonist and her gay neighbor and black female co-worker. It also shows visual art and music in highly positive ways. As well as a measure of compassion for others–though that compassion is largely limited to those who are “oppressed,” some scenes in the film surprisingly show the main antagonist going through his own version of empty suffering, showing even a bit of compassion for him.

Though arguably the most important modern virtue in the film is a particular kind of personal self-fulfillment. The movie starts with people trapped in the smothering and depressing routines of daily life, yearning for something more, something that will change their lives. In other words, self-fulfillment. And the most important form of self-fulfillment in the movie is found in a sexual relationship.

Yes, I know this movie is billed as a romance and even though there are romantic aspects of the relationship between Elisa Esposito and the amphibious creature from South America, the most important part of the relationship is sexual, rather than romantic.

The creature, though it on a few occasions uses individual sign language words Elisa teaches it, never renders even one full sentence in reply to her, so their relationship has nothing to do with a meeting of minds. As far as how they interact, it treats her differently from other humans soon after they meet, but does not perform any romantic gestures with her (no gifts or hand-holding or arm around her shoulder), so the relationship between the two is not so much a meeting of hearts, either. She does play music for the creature and while it blinks and tilts its head in interest, this level of relationship is not the one which changes everything about the protagonist.

Elisa “before”

The key change in Elisa, when she begins to smile and puts a red band in her hair, does not happen after she meets the creature nor after she rescues him from the lab, nor after watching movies and listing to music with him, but not until after she has sex with him.

Sex–yes, in the context of love, is put on a pedestal as the ultimate attainment of love and self-fulfillment and cannot be restrained by ideas like marriage first or that relationships should be restricted to one’s own species or to heterosexuality. (Note that sex is what Elisa’s gay neighbor is lacking more than anything else, even though he also lacks success in his profession. Also, the villain’s sexual relationship with his wife is by contrast shown to be unloving and unfulfilling.)

Elisa “after” (with Zelda)

People as a general rule find morality tales that conflict with their own morality much more offensive than ones that support their views. I found what I thought of as the propaganda of The Shape of Water troubling mainly because I do not think sexual fulfillment deserves to be considered the highest human virtue. And also because of how it shows only one Bible-quoting character–the villain. Along with some other elements already mentioned.

But calling the movie “mere propaganda,” as if it were only a message piece and had no artistic value at all would not be fair. Hollywood has given this film 13 Oscar nominations, not just because it applauds what their subset of America deeply believes–the movie is also in some ways very beautiful because it features vivid and tender portrayals of characters, is visually striking, employs powerful symbolism, and has moments of strong emotional effect. It’s going to win some Oscars and from a certain point of view, it deserves them. Even though it’s also propaganda–a very well crafted and artistic version of propaganda.

One striking bit of propaganda happened when the villain discussed with two cleaning ladies (Elisa and Zelda, her black friend at work) the creature he had captured. He stated that the creature was not in the “image of God,” because that image is human, “like me.” Along with a racist swipe at Zelda for not being quite as much in the image of God as he is, the villain mentions the creature was worshiped in South America as “a god.”

Later, near the end of the film when he shoots the creature–who we can think of as a non-extraterrestrial alien–it heals itself by passing a hand over its body. The antagonist says in shock, “You really are a god,” just before this alien-from-Earth kills him.

I think the triumph of the non-human over the human being who proclaimed himself to be in the image of God was supposed to be a feel-good moment for the film viewers, a vindication of their concept of good, the oppressed rising up against the oppressor. But the statement the antagonist made before his death sticks with me. Why was it necessary for him to say that the creature, the Earth-bound alien, was “a god”?

Perhaps the movie merely meant to criticize the arrogance of believing oneself to be in the “image of God” while excluding others from being in that image. But sometimes stories have multiple meanings–was this also supposed to be a triumph of “a god” over “the image of God”? Or was that an accident of script writing, a coincidence? Even if an accident, is that a subliminal message of the film?–that “gods” will triumph over the followers of God?

Or is this film, perhaps unconsciously, participating in a general preparation to worship aliens? To regard creatures who are essentially human in character but different from us in physical form as something we should revere? (I realize these questions may sound rather paranoid, but I think they’re worth asking.)

Note, as reflected in what I have previously said in this series, I would consider the alien in The Shape of Water to be more human than not, since it’s mortal, communicates to a degree, and engages in romantic love (er, sex)(though in some ways it’s more like a wild animal than a human being). It does not qualify as being wildly exotic or transcendent from the human race in the way our Creator God actually is.

What do you think? Especially if you’ve seen the movie, but even if you haven’t, what do you think it means that a villain’s last words about an alien creature from Planet Earth was to call it “a god”?

What other thoughts do you have?

  1. The planned part 5 of this series on what aliens teach about God, which will discuss the UFO phenomenon, has been postponed.

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25 Comments on "The Shape of Water and Its Use of ‘Image of God’"

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Kerry Nietz
Member

Insightful review, Travis. It confirms what I suspected about the movie and its message. Thanks for taking the time!

Gretchen K Engel
Guest

As much as I want to see this movie, your review pushes it down on my list. I’m tired of agenda-pushing and being “preached to” in the movies.

Gretchen K Engel
Guest

If I want to see a movie about the 60s and racial climate of the time, I’ll re-watch Hidden Figures. That is an excellent movie!

Sean
Guest

That one is just as agenda driven as Shape of Water. According to interviews with the real life version of the main character, she felt no racism at NASA at all. The filmmakers basically slandered the real life non-racists to create that conflict for the movie.

notleia
Guest

I find it kinda funny, the complaint about soft-looking men being the heroes. I realize you’re biased, being a military guy and all, but nerds do contribute meaningfully to society without having the traditional trappings of masculinity. There’s no reason to be negative about different body types.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

What you said about their romantic relationship kind of reminds me of my general complaint about romances in main stream media. They just tend not to do a super great job with them. It takes a lot of effort to actually build a believable romance within a two hour movie, but they throw romances in all the time, for the sake of marketing or an easy subplot or whatever. Maybe they weren’t trying to make sex the ultimate thing in their relationship, maybe the filmmakers just didn’t know how to communicate all the deeper aspects and didn’t have time in the schedule to make that part make more sense.

I think the problem with movies like this is how one sided they are. It wouldn’t be so bad if they could depict things realistically and did so from multiple perspectives, but it’s like people have so much fun writing ‘crazy evil religious people’ that they can’t depict religious people as much else. I watched the first couple episodes of Runaways recently and it reminds me of this, though to be fair it seemed a tiny bit better than it could have been. I don’t know if they will ever have a decent presentation of religious people in that show, but they did seem willing to show that a super liberal person is capable of being as pushy and self righteous as they accuse others of being. So their portrayal of religious people could be accidental or something that won’t stay negative the whole show.

Nicola
Guest

I found the creature unconvincing. “Gasp, gasp,I can’t breath.But I can heal myself from bullet wounds.”?
It was too human. Is that what we want in a god? Something that eats…Ok, I won’t spoil it. Something that lashes out indiscriminately? Something that can be chained to live in its own…. again, I’ll refrain. This ‘god’ denotes a severe lack of imagination. “All we can come up with is ourselves.” is not a valid excuse.
The ‘creators’ might have spent more time imagining a behavioural system for a fish. They might have simulated an aquatic creature’s mating rituals. The True Creator spread the gamut for His fish and eels and octopi.
I did appreciate that the references to the Little Mermaid were from Hans Christien Andersen, not Disney, as far as my little eye could tell. I am interested in what others saw to this aspect.
Water, if not a character in the film, at least was treated to gorgeous cinematic effect and given many ‘shapes’. Again, I could think of a few they missed, but what they portrayed was visually poetic.

notleia
Guest

Y’know, sex is a pretty standard symbol of self-actualization, but it does make me wonder how much people mistake the symbol for the thing. It definitely makes it weird for asexual people.

Sasch
Guest

Brian Godawa wrote a review on the movie where he brings out some relevant points about the discussion of the use of “image of God” in the movie.
http://godawa.com/oscar-win-shape-water-reveals-soul-hollywood-bestiality/#more-70949

WriterOfMinds
Guest

Sadly the main villain in this film has an uncomfortable tinge of realism. How many Christians justify animal exploitation (including lethal/painful scientific research) by simplistic appeals to the image of God and the dominion mandate, while ignoring the Bible’s broad messages of love, mercy, self-sacrifice, and servant leadership? In the real world, we haven’t yet had to deal with the issue of how to treat a sapient** but non-human creature, but if some Christians reacted to the discovery of an “alien” the way this movie bad guy does … I can’t say I’d be terribly surprised. I think I remember seeing someone make the (Biblically unsupported, AFAICT) comment that intelligent aliens can’t possibly exist, because humans are the pinnacle of God’s creation and could have no equals. If the person who made that comment were confronted with a sapient alien but chose to cling to that prideful belief … I can imagine some ugly things might happen.

Should the director have included a more reasonable Christian to balance this guy out? I would have _liked_ that, but I suppose one could argue that there wasn’t room in the film’s character list — the cast of a single movie isn’t large enough to make sure that all possible qualities/beliefs are distributed evenly across the heroes and the villains.

Of course, if the main villain had been a Muslim and there wasn’t also a decent Muslim in the film, the other side of the political and cultural aisle would probably be up in arms. Is it right to be worried about stereotyping like this, or should we relax and let balancing happen across multiple films? Is there a systemic trend toward portraying Christians as villains in recent media? That would be more of a problem than a single villainous character.

The film’s notions about relationships and sexual mores do make me uncomfortable, to the point that I don’t plan to see it.

**Maybe. From your description, it sounds like it’s ambiguous whether the fish-man has human-like cognition, or something on the level of a great ape or parrot.

Jesse
Guest

This film and its academy award are propaganda; no more, no less. It’s unfortunate for me that I watched it, albeit not intently, as I actually found it quite boring. And interestingly enough, had it not won an acadmay award, I wouldn’t have watched it at all. Can you see how effective their methods are?