It’s poetic that Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017) begins the same way his first movie Cronos (1993) does: with the protagonists waking up. Through their morning routines, del Toro adopts a “show, don’t tell” approach to character building by allowing us to see firsthand how his characters interact with the world and one another. Visually, they couldn’t be more different.
In Cronos, we watch the sun dawn over an unnamed city in Mexico. Panning to a quaint house, a little girl named Aurora Gris (Tamara Shanath) pokes at her food as her grandparents converse beside her at the breakfast table. Her grandmother Mercedes (Margarita Isabel) sternly reminds her to sit up straight. In response, the little girl only gives her a glum stare. When Aurora’s grandfather Jesús (Federico Luppi) leans over to wipe her mouth, her face lights up, a broad grin splitting her rosy cheeks. Less than a minute into the opening credits, we know that this grandfather and grandchild love each other immensely as we watch Jesús take Aurora to work with him, let her wear his hat as he gives her a piggyback ride, and even play hopscotch with her. Even the audio and lighting are lively and bright — the Gris family is richly backlit by sunlight as they eat their breakfast, their silverware audibly clinking amidst a lively musical score. All of these cues imbue these opening scenes with a sense of warmth that reflects the family’s dynamic with each other.
If Cronos is warm, The Shape of Water is chilly and dreary. Unlike the Gris family’s large and joyful house, The Shape of Water takes us through a small, dimly lit apartment bathed in dark blues and greens. Elisa Esposita (Sally Hawkins) wakes up to the blare of her alarm clock and methodically gets ready for work. We watch her scrub her shoes, linger on her pulling off another page from her calendar with the vaguely unhappy look of someone who hopes that today will be better than yesterday, and see her pack a lunch which consists of a few hardboiled eggs. Elisa lives a solitary life, but not a joyless one. As monotonous as her life may seem, she tries to include other people in it. Moments later, we see her bring her next-door neighbor breakfast, even staying to watch an old Shirley Temple movie with him.
By introducing protagonists of The Shape of Water and Cronos through their interpersonal relationships, Del Toro builds the foundation for what has become one of his most recognizable trademarks: the bond between humans and monsters. Cronos and The Shape of Water both center on ordinary humans forming attachments with supernatural creatures. In Cronos’ case, the relationship needs no time to develop — we’ve already gotten a taste of it in the very beginning.
Cronos follows Jesús Gris, an elderly antique dealer who discovers a strange device in the shape of a scarab hidden in the statue of an archangel. When Jesús accidentally triggers a hidden mechanism that causes the device’s needle-like legs to inject him with a mysterious serum, he discovers it has the ability to grant immortality to the user — as well as a thirst for blood. Gradually, he begins to grow younger, develops a weakness to sunlight, and even gains the ability to revive from mortal wounds. Jesús must contend with his growing addiction to the Cronos device, which puts him closer and closer to transforming into something inhuman. Worse, he draws the attention of De la Guardia (Claudio Brook), a wealthy, dying man who aims to use the Cronos device to cheat death and has sent his thuggish nephew Angel (Ron Perlman) to retrieve at any cost.
Through Cronos, we can trace where del Toro’s affinity for goodhearted monsters began through its protagonist. Jesús is introduced as a gentle, kind man and remains as such for the entire movie––even when his transformation into a vampire-like creature tests his self-control. Instead of using the Cronos device to prolong his life at the expense of others, Jesús uses his newfound virility to alleviate the burden of old age, so he can continue to play an active role in Aurora’s life. The unconditional love both characters have for one another is tangible. Every scene they share together explores the bond a grandparent shares with their grandchild. Even a scene steeped in fantasy, such as one notable moment where Aurora attempts to hide the device from her grandfather when she notices the change it has sparked in him, is steeped in real world subtext. Reminiscent of a child with an addict parent, Aurora doesn’t understand what the Cronos device is, only that it’s somehow hurting her grandfather. Instead of becoming angry or attempting to manipulate her when he catches her, Jesús simply explains the nature of his addiction to Aurora, using a story about how her father tried to do something similar to get Jesús to stop smoking when he was younger. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” Jesús admits. “But I think it’s best if we’re together.”
The Shape of Water’s forsakes this inner conflict between man and monster for a romance story about two outsiders finding love and acceptance from one another. Elisa Esposito — a woman who is mute — works as a cleaning lady in a government laboratory in Baltimore. Her only friends in an otherwise lonely life are her next-door neighbor, an artist named Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Everything changes when a mysterious humanoid amphibian (Doug Jones) is brought to her laboratory for study, piquing Elisa’s curiosity and natural drive for friendliness. As she visits the creature, feeding him eggs and teaching him sign language, the two begin to develop an intense bond. With the help of her friends, Elisa decides to free the amphibian man from the lab, drawing the ire of the villainous Col. Strickland (Michael Shannon) who would do anything to get the amphibian man back — even murder.
Although The Shape of Water’s monster-human relationship is romantic, its depiction of forging an emotional connection with a frightening creature is very similar to Jesús and Aurora’s relationship. The biggest comparisons are in the efforts both sets of protagonists go to to keep their loved ones safe — Elisa and the amphibian man against Col. Strickland, Jesús and Aurora against Angel and De la Guardia. The nature of communication is also explored, albeit touched upon more intentionally in The Shape of Water. Elisa speaks via sign language and likewise teaches the creature how to sign. Beyond becoming their shared method of communication, sign language also becomes one of the ways they bond through Elisa’s visits. Comparatively in Cronos, while Aurora isn’t mute, she spends much of the movie silent, only having one line at the film’s climax. Her nonverbal nature does not hamper her relationship with Jesús in the slightest, and the two are able to understand one another perfectly without the need for conversation.
As we are told through del Toro’s movies, words are imperfect in their capacity to connect people. Not all communication has to be verbal, and in spite of whatever barriers come between us, including language, love and understanding can find a way to cross them. Del Toro plays with this notion throughout his films, and his stance is always an optimistic one. Just like his belief that there is always something beautiful to be found in even the most grotesque monster, there’s a belief that not all communication has to be verbal to be effective. In spite of whatever barriers come between us, including language, understanding and love can find a way to cross them.