Follow TV Tropes


Film / The Shape of Water

Go To

"Water is like love, it has no shape. It takes the shape of whatever it inhabits. It's the most powerful element in the universe. It's gentle, flexible, but breaks through every barrier."

The Shape of Water is a Fantastic Romance film set during the height of the Cold War, directed by Guillermo del Toro and written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August 2017 where it won Leone d'Oro and screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2017. It was released in the US December 1, 2017, and in the UK in February 2018.

The year is 1962 and the Cold War is raging on. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor who works in a government laboratory with her colleague Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer). One day, she discovers what her superiors call "the Asset" (Doug Jones): an amphibious humanoid creature confined to a water tank. Elisa, out of loneliness, fascination, and sympathy for its torture at the hands of head security officer Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), befriends the creature.

But the friendship may very well become something more than just that...

The Shape of Water contains examples of:

    open/close all folders 

  • The '60s: The film takes place in 1962 at the height of the Cold War, ending just a few days before the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • Accomplice by Inaction: Elisa is emphatic that doing nothing to save the Amphibian Man would make her and her friends just as monstrous as the government agents who intend to vivisect him For Science!.
    Giles: It's not even human!
    Elisa: (If we do nothing, neither are we.)
  • Actor Allusion:
    • When Strickland first questions Elisa and Zelda after the Amphibian Man escapes, he asks himself in disgust why he's interrogating "the help". Octavia Spencer, who plays Zelda, won an Oscar for her part in The Help.
    • There's a shot of Elisa and Zelda cleaning what looks like a rocket's jet engine - which could be a nod to Octavia Spencer's role in Hidden Figures.
    • Strickland also says to Zelda that God may look like her or himself. Octavia Spencer played God in the film The Shack.
    • Doug Jones as a lanky fish-man is a massive one, to the point that fan theories that claim that the Amphibian Man is either Abe or rather, his father, abound. When we get our first good look at the Amphibian Man, he's even got a massive manacle around his neck rather like Abe Sapien's breathing device.
    • Sally Hawkins had previously experienced her bathroom being turned into a makeshift pool via flooding in Paddington (2014).
    • Once again, a character played by Michael Shannon is killed by an attack to his neck.
  • Agonizing Stomach Wound: Dr. Hoffstetler is shot in the stomach by Russian spies for his failure. Strickland, furious over being doublecrossed twice, manhandles Hoffstetler's wounds to get him to reveal who stole the asset.
    Strickland: Don't lie. You don't need to. Bullet went through your gut. Shit is mixing with your blood right now, poisoning it. Blood and shit. Can you imagine? You're dead.
  • Ambiguous Ending: Giles, the narrator, says he's going to tell the story of a love affair torn apart by a monster. In the end, he states that he doesn't know what actually happened after the Amphibian Man takes Elisa's body into the water. The film shows the Amphibian Man reviving Elisa and her breathing water, but this could simply be Giles' wish-fulfillment fantasy.
  • Ambiguously Gay: It's implied that Giles' former boss is also his former lover, though it's never clear.
  • Arc Symbol: Water, of course.
    • The opening scene of the film is a fantasy sequence in Elisa's flooded apartment.
    • Our introduction to Elisa focuses on her morning routine, which includes her masturbating while taking a bath.
    • Strickland creates an excuse to summon Elisa into his office so he can sexually harass her by spilling a glass of water. This is contrasted with Elisa's later love scene with the Amphibian Man in her bathroom, which involves her flooding the entire room by overflowing the sink.
    • As the stakes increase, the city experiences increasingly heavy rainfall, with the climax of the film occurring during a torrential downpour.
  • Artistic License – Engineering:
    • Flooding a bathroom in a second-story apartment, so that it seeps through the floor and floods out into the living area, would do some pretty severe water damage to the structure of the building. The film treats it as though the water simply goes away without leaving any additional concerns.
    • The amount of water we see leaking out of the bathroom door when it's flooded would be much faster than the amount the bathroom is refilling.
  • Artistic License – Military: General Hoyt's medal ribbons are upside down, he's a five-star general after the rank had ceased to be bestowed,note  and he's wearing both US Air Force wingsnote  above his ribbons and a blue USAF name badge (Army badges are white text on black, whereas USAF badges have a blue background).
  • Artistic License – Physics: Objects in the opening scene float in the water like in zero gravity, even negatively-buoyant objects like steel chairs. Justified by that scene being a fantasy sequence.
  • Author Appeal: This film hits a lot of Guillermo del Toro's buttons: Monsters. Relationships involving monsters. Journals with notes and drawings about monsters. Biblical themes. The main characters living above a cinema.
  • Bathtub Bonding: Quite a lot of this goes down after the Amphibian Man takes up residence in Elisa's bath.
  • Bathtub Mermaid: The Amphibian Man is kept in a tank at the laboratory first. Elisa later keeps him in her bath, with some added table and mineral salts since he prefers brackish water.
  • Batman in My Basement: Elisa hides the Amphibian Man in her bathroom after she and her friends rescue him from the government laboratory.
  • Beast and Beauty: The Amphibian Man and Elisa.
  • Beneath Notice: How the help are able to learn and get away with the things they do in the top-secret government facility. Emphasized in a scene where Strickland and Fleming are speculating about who could have breached security and taken the Amphibian Man, and Fleming declares it would have required a team of at least ten highly-trained commandos... while Elisa and Zelda are punching their timecards in the background. Even when he does get around to questioning them, Strickland throws Elisa and Zelda out of his office after berating himself for questioning "piss wipers".
  • Berserk Button: The moment Giles affectionally tried to touch the pie shop waiter's hand, the latter reacted offended and outraged, following by angrily kicking him out and banning him from ever returning to his restaurant.
  • Big Bad Ensemble: Strickland is the primary antagonist driving the plot, but he's subordinate to General Hoyt. They want to vivisect the Amphibian Man For Science!. Meanwhile, the Russian agent, Mihalkov, is the one directing Dimitri and wants the Amphibian Man dead so the Americans can't learn anything from it.
  • Bioluminescence Is Cool: The Amphibian Man glows with bioluminescent lines when he's using his healing powers. It's also implied they light up when he's aroused.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: The seemingly friendly pie shop waiter turns out to be racist and homophobic.
  • Bizarre Sexual Dimorphism: At the movie's end, Elisa's neck scars become gills, and Del Toro confirmed in an interview that she and the Amphibian Man are the last of the species. While Elisa looks like a normal human woman save for her gills, the Amphibian Man is much more obviously inhuman.
  • Blasphemous Boast: Downplayed. Strickland tells Zelda and Elisa that they are created in the Lord's image, unlike that creature... then follows up by saying that the Lord probably looks more like him (a white man) than Zelda (a black woman).
  • Blood from the Mouth:
    • At one point Elisa finds the Amphibian Man in the bathtub spitting blood, a sure-tell sign that he is not well.
    • Strickland after the Amphibian Man slashes his throat.
  • Bloody Handprint:
    • Can be seen next to the lab door after the Amphibian Man's attack on Strickland.
    • Another one, this time the Amphibian Man's own bloody handprint, can be seen at the entrance to the cinema where Elisa find him watching an old movie.
  • Boldly Coming: Elisa becomes infatuated by the Amphibian Man, which leads her to have sex with him. Her friend Zelda is astonished and impressed, as she hadn't realized that his genitals would be compatible (they had been kept internal normally, Elisa explains).
  • Book Ends: The film both opens and closes on Giles' narration and Elisa being underwater.
  • Born in the Wrong Century: Giles muses that he was born either too early or too late for his lifestyle.
  • Bottomless Magazines: Strickland fires 9 shots at the escaping van from a 6 shot revolver.
  • Censorship by Spelling: When Strickland's wife suggests they buy a P-U-P-P-Y for their kids who were with them in the room.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Several, including the daily affirmation calendar and the syringes.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture:
    • Strickland routinely tortures the Amphibian Man using a variety of methods. His preferred option seems to be direct beatings and the use of an electric cattle prod, but under the guise of 'science', he also forces the Amphibian Man to endure lengthy air exposure.
    • At the end of the film, Strickland tortures Dimitri to find out where the Amphibian Man is located. He uses the same cattle prod he used on the Amphibian Man, along with the more grotesque options of probing the bullet holes Dimitri just received.
  • Color Motif:
    • Green and teal are everywhere. The herbs in the Amphibian Man's water are green, Giles' ad for Jell-O has to be recolored from red to green, the key lime pie is an obnoxiously unnatural shade, Strickland's wife presents him with a plate of green Jell-O, the bus is green, the van is green, most of the laboratory is color-schemed in various shades of green. Meanwhile, teal is also prevalent in the lab's color scheme, including the workers' uniforms, and Strickland's new Cadillac is insistently teal rather than straight green.
    • Elisa's wardrobe starts out solid green or blue at the beginning of the story, but red accents are added to it as she falls in love with the Amphibian Man, culminating in an all-red outfit.
  • Commonality Connection: Elisa and the Amphibian Man are both unable to speak, and are considered freaks and outcasts by society at best.
  • Compensating for Something: Strickland's very long, well-used cattle prod. His Cadillac, bought off a slick salesman who describes it as a superior car for a superior man, also applies (especially when we see him react to it being damaged).
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Dimitri is shot multiple times in the torso (and once in the cheek), is tortured by Strickland, and eventually dies from his wounds.
  • Darker and Edgier: The director seems to think so anyways. Whereas the previous installments in his filmography dealt with more whimsical and childish concerns, Del Toro sees The Shape of Water as his first truly adult film due to its themes of love, sex, and trust.
  • Death by Childbirth: When Strickland calls Elisa and Zelda into his office to instruct them how to proceed with the cleanup of the facility holding the Amphibian Man, he mentions to Zelda that it's rather odd for someone of "her people" to be an only child, only for Zelda to sheepishly respond that her mother died after giving birth to her.
  • Death by Irony: A fish eats a cat.
  • Deconstruction: One of Del Toro's stated goals with the film was to flip the perspective of traditional monster movies, making the monster and female lead the protagonists while the white male lead, traditionally the protagonist, becomes the antagonist. The Amphibian Man is depicted as benign and only becomes dangerous when he is threatened or abused while Elisa falls in love with him after empathizing with and befriending him instead of fearing him and getting captured by him with the implied threat of rape, with said threat coming from Strickland instead. Strickland displays some real Determinator traits in dealing with the Amphibian Man, but it's the result of his moral bankruptcy along with his later physical decay and desperation to succeed taking a toll on his sanity. The film makes it clear that humans like Strickland are the real monsters while the supposed "monster" is actually an intelligent being capable of forming loving bonds with humans.note 
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: It's Maryland in 1962. Casual and institutionalized racism, sexism, and homophobia are the norm, and all of the major human characters are confronted by it throughout the story.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Elisa's Fantasy Sequence in which she sings and dances with the Amphibian Man is in black and white in order to homage the Golden Age Hollywood musicals it's based on.
  • Despite the Plan: Though we learn about the break-out plan beforehand, it does not fail but succeeds with some hiccups along the way.
  • Did You Just Have Sex?: Zelda asks this of Elisa after noticing her cheerful mood, the day after Eliza has sex with the Amphibian Man for the first time.
  • Died Laughing: After he defies orders to kill the Amphibian Man to keep whatever useful information from the Americans, Bob/Dimitri's handlers open fire and seriously wound him. Just then, Strickland arrives and kills the handlers, and proceeds to torture him, demanding to know how many men were in the strike team that took the Amphibian Man. Bob/Dimitri lets out a bloody chuckle as he reveals that there was no highly-trained strike team, and that the ones responsible "just cleaned."
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: While on the bus the morning after having sex with the Amphibian Man, Elisa watches water droplets on the window. The camera focuses on two droplets, and we watch the smaller one chase the larger one until they merge together.
  • Do Not Call Me "Paul": Inverted. Dimitri's Soviet handlers at first treat "Bob" like an Embarrassing Nickname, but he doesn't appreciate the joke and curtly requests that they stop.
  • Double Meaning: When Dimitri and Mihalkov are speaking after Dimitri claims to have killed the Amphibian Man, he says the following autopsy was unhelpful and quotes a phrase from Lenin that there is "no profit in last week's fish". Mihalkov is surprised that Lenin said such a thing, and ends the conversation that maybe Dimitri is "misremembering". Mihalkov is correct that Lenin said no such thing, and he is also doubtful of Dimitri's story that he killed the Amphibian Man.
  • Dramatic Spotlight: Before Elisa imagines her black-and-white dancing scene with the Amphibian Man, she is shone on by a spotlight while sitting at the kitchen table.
  • Dull Surprise: An exhausted, sick, and dazed Strickland's reaction to the Amphibian Man shrugging off two bullet wounds and walking over to confront him, face-to-face.
    Strickland: Fuck. You are a god.

  • Earn Your Happy Ending: After an unspecified amount of time of suffering and hardship, the Amphibian Man escapes back to the ocean, and heals Elisa's gunshot wound while granting her the ability to breathe underwater, presumably allowing them to live their lives together.
  • Easily Forgiven: Giles forgives the Amphibian Man for eating one of his cats pretty darn quickly, all things considered. He waves it away with the recognition that it wouldn't be fair to judge the Amphibian Man by their own human societal standards.
  • Emergency Transformation: After she's been shot by Strickland, the Amphibian Man takes Elisa into the water with him and uses his powers to not only heal her wounds, but give her gills so she can survive with him.
  • Empathic Environment: The plot hinges on the heroes releasing the Amphibian Man back into the ocean on a day when it's supposed to rain heavily, so the climax occurs during a torrential downpour.
  • End of an Age:
    • Giles' beautifully drawn advertisements are going out of style in favor of photographs. His livelihood is dying out.
    • The classic cinema palaces of the early 20th century are dying out because of the spread of television. New Hollywood is yet to come to revitalize cinema and the multiplexes that will replace them and reestablish the significance of movie theaters have not yet been invented. Even the TV show that Strickland is seen watching with his family represents a massive social change - it's The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, one of the first TV shows ever made about teenagers, and with an overtly counter-cultural beatnik as one of the leads.
  • Entertainingly Wrong: After the successful breakout of the Amphibian Man from the lab, Fleming declares it must have required a team of at least ten highly-trained commandos... while Elisa and Zelda are punching their timecards in the background.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • In Elisa's very first Morning Routine sequence, we see her take a break from getting ready for her day to masturbate alone in her bathtub with a three-mintue timer. This one scene established a) she has active sexual desires, b) she lives alone and has nobody she can do this with, c) she is precise and fits everything into a specific schedule, and d) she possibly has her own connections to water even independent from the Amphibian Man.
    • One of the first things we see about Strickland is him washing his hands before using a urinal, making a mess on the floor that had just been cleaned by Zelda and Elisa, followed by him refusing to wash his hands afterward because "a man washing his hands before AND after is a sign of weakness".
    • The first time we meet Zelda, she's holding up the line of other custodians so that Elisa can cut in front and clock in on time, showing her willingness to bend the rules to help her friend.
    • The Amphibian Man's first two appearances are brief and more than a little unnerving. It's not until Elisa brings in the record player that we see him light up at the sound of the music, dropping his defenses and very clearly requesting more when she turns it off. From that moment on, his sensitivity and intelligence are never in doubt.
  • Even Evil Can Be Loved: Strickland has a remarkably normal home life, with a loving wife and two kids. None of them seem to realize how awful he is.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Dimitri is a Soviet spy who infiltrated the program to steal military secrets, and he initially proposes stealing the Amphibian Man so the Soviets can perform their own experiments upon it, but he is aghast at the thought of killing the Amphibian Man for these experiments. He ultimately defies the order to kill the Amphibian Man, helps Elisa smuggle it out of the facility and gives her supplies/scientific advice to keep him alive until released into the sea.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good:
    • Zelda calls her selfish, deadbeat husband out on this when he asks her why she's going to so much trouble to help Elisa after she broke the law. Doubles as a "Reason You Suck" Speech as she explains that Elisa is her friend, but he'd never understand that, even if he spent every moment of his life trying for a thousand years.
    • Strickland spends most of the movie convinced that "The Asset" must have been stolen for purely pragmatic, espionage-related reasons. It never seems to occur to him that someone simply thought the way the Amphibian Man was being treated was cruel and wanted to help him.
  • Evil Smells Bad: Strickland is the primary antagonist of the film, and as if his odd personal hygiene wasn't bad enough, once the fingers the Amphibian Man bit off and he got reattached start to go gangrenous, people around him frequently comment on the foul odor his miscolored digits give off.
  • Expy: The Amphibian Man is based on the Creature from the Black Lagoon, but also has shades of the movie-version of Abe Sapien. The latter movie was also directed by Guillermo del Toro.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Once he's realized that bullets won't do him any good, Strickland just stands there, emotionlessly drops his last words, and lets the Amphibian Man kill him.
  • Fantastic Racism: Despite being repeatedly told that the Amphibian Man is an incredible creature that deserves to live, Strickland believes the Amphibian Man is an abomination that deserves to be vivisected For Science!. Strickland also displays a bit of regular, non-fantastic racism, too.
  • Fantasy Sequence:
    • Elisa imagines herself singing and dancing with the Amphibian Man.
    • It's left ambiguous as to whether Elisa's revival in the end actually happened, or if it's just the imagination of Giles, who is a hopeless romantic and fan of classic Hollywood cinema.
  • Fauxshadow:
    • There are "No Smoking" signs pasted all around the government facility, warning that there is a lot of high-pressure oxygen on the premises, and there is a scene establishing that a lot of the maintenance workers nonetheless continue smoking. Neither smoking nor an oxygen explosion plays any part in the film, although Elisa does learn how to dodge a security camera when she sees how the smokers do it.
    • Zelda tells Elisa that she's a terrible liar and can't possibly stay cool under pressure. In the end, it is her husband, not Zelda herself, who rats out Elisa and the Amphibian Man, despite Strickland breaking into her home, shoving her against a wall, and ripping his fingers off in front of her.
    • When Elisa is forced to hide when Strickland comes into the room to torture the Amphibian Man, she accidentally drops one of the eggs she bought with her behind. Strickland accidentally steps on it and looks at it curiously, wondering how it comes to be there. This seems to imply that the egg might come into play later when Strickland tries to figure out who breaks the Amphibian Man out of the facility. Not only do we see a scene of Dimitri feeding eggs to the Amphibian Man, later. Strickland never once remembers or mentions the eggs, and he gets the revelation that Elisa is the one responsible from interrogating Dimitri.
  • Feeling Oppressed by Their Existence: Strickland to the Amphibian Man.
    Strickland: You may think that thing looks human. Stands on two legs, right? But we're created in the Lord's image. You don't think that's what the Lord looks like, do you?
  • Fetishes Are Weird: Implied with Strickland, but also Played With. Strickland's creepy and explicitly sexist fetish for quiet women is implied to be a result of his lifelong misogyny, not the other way around, which is why Elisa is so creeped out by it.
  • Fingore: Early in the film, Strickland gets two fingers bitten off by the Amphibian Man, and then sewn back on. The reattached fingers start turning gangrenous before the end, leaving a noticeable rotten smell and eventually oozing pus. He later rips them off in order to intimidate Zelda into giving up the Amphibian Man's whereabouts.
  • Fix Fic: The first inspiration for the film came when a six-year-old Del Toro was watching the original Creature from the Black Lagoon and, being the sort of boy he was, thought that Kay and the Creature would fall in love; seeing how it actually turned out disappointed him greatly.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The women's locker room has a WWII "Loose Lips Might Sink Ships" propaganda poster warning against unguarded conversation. Strickland learns that Elisa was involved in the heist because Zelda's husband overheard Zelda speaking with Elisa on the phone.
    • When Strickland picks his cattle prod off the sink, Elisa notices that there's a small dab of blood left behind on the white porcelain, indicating that he's been beating the Amphibian Man with it. When next we see him, he's staggering away after the Amphibian Man lashed out at him, blood completely soaking the front of his white shirt.
    • His Establishing Character Moment shows Strickland engaging in very poor personal hygiene in the bathroom, notably washing his hands before using the urinal, so it's little surprise that his hand gets infected after his fingers are reattached.
    • One of the first shots we see of Elisa emphasizes the scars on the side of her neck. They turn into gills at the end.
    • When The Mole meets his handlers in his apartment, he cuts some cake for them and then keeps the knife behind his back until they leave. He is right to not trust them.
    • Strickland's terrible, terrible sex scene with his wife gets even creepier when he covers her mouth with his still-bleeding hand. He's picturing having sex with Elisa, who can't speak.
  • Fractured Fairy Tale:
    • Elisa's origin story and eventual fate seem to be a weird take on The Little Mermaid. Her voice was "stolen" before she was found in the water as a child, a great deal of focus is put on her legs and feet (and on aching feet), and at the end she "dies" defending her love interest, and is reborn as a denizen of a new element (i.e. she gets gills).
    • The main plot is a variation of Beauty and the Beast, with a human woman falling in love with a monstrous yet kindhearted being while also avoiding the advances of a cruel suitor.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: In the scene where Giles is forging an ID card for himself to use while breaking out the Asset, we get a glimpse of Elisa's ID card. It shows her middle name (Jeane) and her age (25 years old).
  • A Friend in Need: Giles and Zelda both risk a great deal to help Elisa steal a top-secret government Asset (that they don't even see as human), despite their understandable reservations, simply because they care about her and they know how much it means to her. Zelda even says as much to her deadbeat husband.
  • Furry Reminder: Fishy reminder? Sentient or not, the Amphibian Man is still a wild animal, or at the very least an unknown predator species who feels the need to eat and hunt without concern for human values. Giles' cat finds this out the hard way.
  • Gambit Pileup: General Hoyt and Colonel Strickland of the US government want to vivisect the Amphibian Man for study in hopes that it will give them the advantage in the Space Race. The Soviets want to stop them from doing so, so they order The Mole Dimitri to eliminate the "Asset" and dispose of the body before the vivisection proceeds. Dimitri himself really doesn't want to do this, so he instead joins up with an unaffiliated third party who wants to free the Amphibian Man back into the ocean: Elisa, Giles, and Zelda.
  • Good Is Not Soft: The Amphibian Man is genuinely kind, if a little bit rough around the edges, but can be ruthlessly violent to those who has harmed those he loves.
  • Gorn: Dimitri's fate is very bloody to say the least, having been shot multiple times by his handlers and getting tortured by Strickland.
  • Hand Signals: Elisa communicates entirely in American Sign Language due to being mute, or some improvised gestures once (for explaining the Amphibian Man's genitalia). Giles and Zelda can understand it; they translate for others if necessary.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Bob Hoffstetler a.k.a. Dimitri, one of the scientists experimenting on the Amphibian Man, helps to free him from the lab as soon as he realizes what's going on. While he does help our heroes, he only rises to the level of antihero, as he is still a Soviet spy who murders an MP during the escape.
  • Hiding Behind the Language Barrier: Elisa boldly signs "Fuck you" to Strickland, knowing that he can't understand her. Strickland does at least sense that he's being insulted but can't prove it and thus can't retaliate; judging by Elisa's triumphant smirk that's exactly the reaction she wanted.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: In a film featuring a carnivorous man-fish creature, it's Strickland, General Hoyt, the Soviet handlers and a seemingly friendly pie shop waiter who represent the worst of society. It's made very plain in the opening narration, which explains that the film is about love and the "monster" that tore it apart, referring to Strickland, not the Amphibian Man.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Giles makes a big deal out of Elisa not liking the key-lime pie and trying to throw it out, admonishing her for "wasting" it, and decides to put it in the fridge for later. When he opens the fridge, she sees that it's filled with similar half-eaten slices of pie.
  • Ignored Epiphany: Instead of one singular moment, Strickland seems to have a string of missed opportunities strewn throughout the film. He is shown reading self-help books and trying to approach his life and career with a perspective more towards self-worth than material rewards, but ultimately turns it around to refocus on his obsessions and earning validation from his superiors.
  • I'm Going to Hell for This: Zelda's initial reaction to being shanghaied into Elisa's plan to free the Amphibian Man.
  • Imagine Spot: Toward the end of the film, Elisa imagines herself singing a love song to the Amphibian Man and then dancing with him in the fashion of the musical numbers she's watched on television.
  • Informed Attractiveness: Inverted. We're told that Elisa isn't "much to look at."
  • Insistent Terminology: Strickland initially says that he doesn't like the green color of the Cadillac he is considering buying, but the salesman corrects him that it's teal, not green. After he purchases the car and Fleming tries to compliment the nice green color, Strickland corrects him that it's teal.
  • Interspecies Romance: Between Elisa, a human, and the Amphibian Man. Although depending on the interpretation of the ending scene, Elisa may not be completely human herself.
  • Intimate Healing: After Elisa's been shot, she is on the receiving end of this from the Amphibian Man, via a Magic Kiss.
  • Ironic Echo: Strickland puts Hofstetler in his place by insisting that he follow "protocol" when entering his office. In a later scene, Hostetler insists that Strickland address him as "Doctor," citing "protocol."
  • "It" Is Dehumanizing: The characters go back and forth whether to call the Amphibian Man "it" or "he", and Elisa and Giles even have an argument about which word to use (and therefore whether or not he's a person). Elisa, Giles, Zelda, and Dr. Hoffstetler all refer to the Amphibian Man as "he" at some point, while Strickland very emphatically continues to use "it". It's also worth noting that it's only Strickland and his colleagues who call the creature by the dehumanizing descriptor "The Asset".
  • Jump Scare: When Elisa checks out the water tank that was rolled into the lab, the Amphibian Man makes a sudden movement against the glass which startles Elisa.
  • Just Think of the Potential!: Hofstetler explains that being able to study a creature that can breathe both in and out of air would have enormous potential application for the space program. This is another callback to Creature from the Black Lagoon, where Richard Carlson's character makes the same point.
  • Karmic Death: After spending a good chunk of the movie running his mouth about how superior he is, and making a big deal over Elisa's inability to speak, Strickland dies when the Amphibian Man tears his throat out.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • Strickland acts in an overbearing and condescending fashion to Elisa and Zelda, who notice that his stun baton has blood on it, establishing him as a brute as well as a creep.
    • The diner owner expresses some overt racism right after rejecting Giles, letting us know that this isn't just a tragic case of Incompatible Orientation. He's an asshole, and Giles is better without him.
  • Kind Hearted Cat Lover: Giles, a sensitive artist with several cats. Also the Amphibian Man, who, after being told cats aren't for eating, is seen playing with the kitties.
  • Kitschy Themed Restaurant: Giles' beloved pie shop, which plays up its homemade local flair despite being a franchise and requires its staff to speak in Southern accents.

  • Language of Love: Elisa and the Amphibian Man initially share no common language, but Elisa slowly teaches him some of her Sign Language.
  • Left Hanging: The movie never addresses what happens to Zelda and Giles, who the government now knows helped the Amphibian Man escape.
  • Lethal Eatery: Apparently the diner pies are truly awful. Elisa cannot even bring herself to finish one, and when Giles makes a big show about saving it for later and not "wasting" it, it is revealed that his fridge is filled with other half-eaten pie slices. When the diner waiter rejects Giles and he no longer has to keep up the charade, he very emphatically wipes his tongue with a napkin.
  • Lord of the Ocean: The Amphibian Man was worshipped as a god of the river by the Amazons that lived near it. Considering his powers, there might be a grain of truth to it.
  • Losing a Shoe in the Struggle: A benevolent example at the end when Elisa loses a shoe while floating in the water with her lover.
  • Love at First Sight: Elisa is immediately drawn to the Amphibian Man, and he to her almost as quickly. They don't actually get around to formalizing their feelings for each other until much later in the movie, but for all practical purposes, they really are this.
  • Magic Kiss: Played with. The Amphibian Man kisses Elisa as he heals her at the end, but the actual magic is being done by his hands as they cradle her face.
  • Male-to-Female Universal Adaptor: Elisa and the Amphibian Man. The fact that he's, well, an Amphibian Man doesn't matter, as Elisa explains to Zelda where his bits are.
  • Man-Made House Flood: An unusual non-comedic example. Elisa completely fills the bathroom with water, floor-to-ceiling, in which she and the Amphibian Man are blissfully immersed. We see a few "realistic" consequences of this, like water leaking under the door and dripping through the floor. Nevertheless, such a thing is not mechanically possible, and the Willing Suspension of Disbelief is preserved mostly due to the surreal, dreamlike quality the scene affects.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: In the end, it's not clear whether the Amphibian Man was really a god, or a rare creature with humanlike intelligence and a biology that provokes regeneration. Nor is Elisa's nature clear, and if the Amphibian Man changed her or just made her what she really was.
  • Meaningful Echo: "You. Me. Together." The first time is signed by Elisa to the Amphibian Man right before their dalliance in the flooded bathroom. The second time is signed by the Amphibian Man to Elisa when she tells him she can't come with him into the ocean, as his way of saying, "I won't leave you. We need to be together."
  • Meaningful Name:
    • According to Italian tradition, Elisa's surname Esposito literally means that she was a foundling, abandoned and "exposed" in a public place, which is exactly what happened to her as a baby.
    • Strickland is an Old English Anglo-Saxon surname that means "Strike-land," or to strike a new land by plunging a sword into it via conquest. This is appropriate given Richard Strickland's obsession with asserting masculine dominance over women and other men by waving his huge cattle prod around. It also associates him with land, in contrast to Elisa and the Amphibian Man, who are associated with water. The similarity to the word "strict" is also likely not a coincidence, considering his controlling, authoritarian personality.
  • Mermaid Problem: Lampshaded by Zelda after she deduces that Elisa's gotten laid. As it turns out, it's not a problem at all.
  • Mirror Monologue: Strickland prep talks before the bathroom mirror as the pressures and potential ramifications of failing to capture the Amphibian Man start to pile up.
  • Morning Routine: The film opens with a sequence showing Elisa's morning routine in detail, which lets the audience get to know her and establishes a baseline for when her morning routine changes later on.
  • Mythology Gag: To Guillermo del Toro's work.
    • The Amphibian Man has many similarities to Abe Sapien from Hellboy, being a humanoid aquatic creature with strange powers found by an American government, has an affinity for eggs and music, and is played by Doug Jones.
    • Like Capitán Vidal from Pan's Labyrinth, Strickland is a misogynistic, anti-communist military officer who shoots and sort-of-kills the female protagonist during the film's climax.
    • To Trollhunters. The antagonist goes by Richard Strickland, a name sounding similar to Walter Strickler (the alias of the changeling Stricklander), and when Robert meets with his Soviet contacts, with all three of them dress in ominous black hats and trench-coats similar to Otto Scaarbach. Richard and Robert work together at first, but their conflicting motives cause the two of them to have a falling out (Otto leaving Walter to the mercy of a homicidal troll assassin, Richard leading Robert to die of his gun-shot wounds).
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Poor Dr. Hoffstetler. All he wants to do is keep the Amphibian Man alive and helps it escape, but his reward at the end is being betrayed by his Soviet handlers who attempt to execute him, and then tortured and left to die by Strickland.
  • No Name Given: The Amphibian Man is only ever known by that title and the insulting descriptor "The Asset".
  • Novelization: Del Toro wrote one with Peter Kraus.
  • The Oner: The very first scene of the movie starts with that.
  • Opening the Flood Gates: Elisa intentionally floods her own bathroom so she can have some underwater romantic time with the Amphibian Man. Then the manager of the theater downstairs complains to Giles about the water dripping through his ceiling, so Giles runs over and opens the bathroom door...
  • Parenthetical Swearing: Strickland doesn't know enough sign language to actually understand Elisa's "F-U-C-K-Y-O-U", but the context and her expression show enough that he's insulted anyway.
  • Parenting the Husband: Zelda describes her husband Brewster as a taciturn lump who can't cook his own meals or lift a finger for himself; indeed, the one time we see him he's planted immovably in an armchair in front of their TV. Complaining to Elisa about him seems to be Zelda's pressure-relief valve, though, and she never actually loses her temper with him until he folds like a cheap card table in front of Strickland and rats out Elisa to him just to get him out of the house.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain:
    • Strickland is openly racist, sexist, ableist, species-ist; he's got it all.
    • In a less extreme example, when Pie Guy rejects Giles's romantic overtures with gratuitous and ugly homophobia, he breaks off from the conversation to contemptuously tell an African-American couple that the counter is off-limits to them.
  • The Precious, Precious Car: Strickland buys himself a flashy new teal Cadillac in the middle of the movie as a reward to himself. Naturally, Giles accidentally clips it with his van that very day, smashing a headlight and removing the front bumper.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: All of the main protagonists are shunned or discriminated against in society, especially in the 1960s: Elisa is mute, Zelda is a black woman, Robert is a Russian spy, Elisa's neighbour Giles is a closeted gay man and, of course, the Amphibian Man is being cruelly experimented on.
  • Riddle for the Ages:
    • Del Toro deliberately avoided giving too detailed a backstory on the Amphibian Man or Elisa. We know the Amphibian Man was taken from a river in South America where the natives worshipped him as a god, but nothing more. Elisa was found abandoned as an infant near a river, with unknown scars on her neck that seamlessly form into gills when the Amphibian Man uses his healing powers on her.
    • To a lesser extent, Giles' past. We never do find out how he lost his salaried job at the ad agency, but it's implied that it had something to do with alcohol and possibly also his homosexuality. From his interactions with his former boss, it seems that they may have had an affair.
  • Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: The villains in the story represent Enlightenment - bigoted, sadistic white military men who are all obsessed with the future and a vision for how the world of the future "should" behave, a world that has no room for simple love and anything that doesn't conform, removing them violently if necessary. The heroes represent Romanticism - a group of 1950s outcasts (a mute, a black woman, a gay artist and a communist) who are Nice Guys and recognise love and kindred spirits without reason.
  • Rouge Angles of Satin: Mr. Arzoumanian, who speaks English as a second language and likely no French at all, demands that the title on his marquee be spelled as "Mardi GRASS", believing it to have a hard consonant.
  • Russian Guy Suffers Most: Dimitri receives the most brutal death in the film, being shot multiple times by his handlers and then crudely tortured and left to die by Strickland.

  • Sanity Slippage: Strickland was never a well-adjusted man, but a combination of rage, humiliation, physical pain, stress, and prescription drug abuse begins to take its toll on his faculties. His final speech about Samson to Zelda shows he's completely lost it, even mutilating himself to intimidate her and comparing his rotting fingers to the pillars Samson tore down.
  • Scars are Forever: Elisa has distinctly gill-like scars on her neck where her vocal cords had been severed as a child. At the end of the film, the Amphibian Man either turns them into real gills, or reactivates the gills they always were.
  • Security Blindspot: Elisa finds out that in the facility she works at, there's a narrow hallway where some of the workers go to smoke in secret despite there being a security camera. Apparently, all they had to do was simply budge the camera and they'd never get caught. This area gets used later by Elisa and her friends to exfiltrate the Asset.
  • Sexual Karma: The kind, sensitive, and caring Elisa and Amphibian Man enjoy a transcendentally phenomenal love life. Especially in contrast to the cruel, chauvinistic Strickland and his poor wife.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot: Elisa sheds her robe, joins the Amphibian Man in the bathtub, and closes the shower curtain, at which point the camera politely turns away. The next day, she heads off to work glowing, and explains to a flabbergasted Zelda how his penis works.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Show, Don't Tell: Due to their inability to vocally communicate, the Amphibian Man and Elisa are reduced to having to talk through actions and the occasional sign language. This is ultimately why Elisa finds herself close to him; she feels that he is judging her solely through her actions and seeing her for who she truly is unlike others who see her muteness as her only defining trait. At one point, Elisa laments how she can't verbally explain to the Amphibian Man how much she loves him.
  • Shower of Love: Elisa and Amphibian Man fill up the entire bathroom with water where they have sex. In the end, they move on to the ocean to continue their relationship.
  • Shown Their Work: Elisa uses accurate real-life American Sign Language.
  • The Singing Mute: In her Fantasy Sequence, Elisa is transported from her kitchen table to a black-and-white movie set where she sings like a diva and dances with the Amphibian Man.
  • Slashed Throat: Strickland dies this way by the hands of the Amphibian Man.
  • Sleep Mask: Elisa is wearing one in the opening scene as well as later in the movie, since she works nights and sleeps during daytime.
  • Sorry to Interrupt: Giles silently backs off after walking in on Elisa and the Amphibian Man getting intimate in the bathroom.
  • Spiritual Successor:
  • Spy Speak: Dimitri has to exchange codes with his handlers when meeting them. The first time, they can't hear each other over the wind, the second time he quickly brushes it off in impatience, and the third time they just shoot him instead of giving their own code.
  • Squat's in a Name: Zelda's middle name is "Delilah", which comes from the Book of Judges where she seduces and betrays Samson to the Philistines. Strickland regales her with the story when he first learns her name as a sort of pseudo-insult, but Zelda just says that her mother must not have known the story as well as Strickland does when she chose the name. Despite Strickland trying to reference the story again later in the movie, there is no thematic connection between the stories or Zelda's role in it - though it does tie into Strickland's absolute confidence that he is the hero of this story.
  • Standard '50s Father: Strickland, who has a nice home, a beautiful wife, and two kids. Naturally, the trope is thoroughly deconstructed as he is shown to fully embody its dark side. Technically he's a Standard Early Sixties Father, but the early '60s were still basically the '50s.
  • Stealth Insult: Elisa uses Strickland's lack of knowledge regarding ASL to tell him "Fuck You" and get away with it. Though Zelda's hesitance to translate keys him into the fact that it's probably something insulting.
    Strickland: What's she saying? WHAT is she saying?!
    Elisa: [signs "Thank you" to give Zelda an out]
    Zelda: She said "Thank you," sir.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome:
    • Early on, two of Strickland's fingers are bitten off by the Amphibian Man, but are found and sewn back on. However, since a) the fingers spent a good deal of time detached on the floor and are returned in a lunch bag with mustard on them and b) it's already been shown that Strickland has pretty poor standards of hygiene, they soon start to go necrotic.
    • To free the Amphibian Man, Elisa and Giles scheme to have Giles drive a disguised laundry truck into the facility, use a fake ID, and pick up Elisa and the Amphibian Man from the loading bay where she's moved the camera as the workers often do for smoke breaks. This falls apart pretty quickly because Giles is arriving off-schedule, isn't a regular, and his unlaminated forgery smudges when the guard examines it too closely. The guard immediately draws his gun when he realizes Giles is a fraud, and only Hoffstetler's change of heart salvages the plan.
    • Giles' attempt to make a pass at the diner owner goes about as well as you'd expect in an era when homophobia was rampant. Despite his efforts to test the waters beforehand, the guy immediately freaks out and bans Giles from his restaurant.
  • Swiss-Cheese Security: It's supposed to be a top-secret lab but security is notoriously absent allowing Elisa to sneak in and out of the room and have lunch with the creature multiple times. And play music for it. And then take off with it during shift change.
  • Symbolic Serene Submersion: Happens multiple times, all of which feature the main character Elisa. She has an unnatural level of comfort with water, and water generally symbolizes serenity and comfort in spite of a harsh outside world.
    • The opening scene is a fantasy sequence showing Elisa's apartment submerged, objects in the room are floatingnote , and Elisa is sleeping above her couch.
    • Elisa is shown masturbating in her bathtub as part of her daily routinenote , and never at any other place or time.
    • After the Amphibian Man gets to Elisa's house, she floods her bathroom and has sex with him underwater.
    • In the final scene, Elisa is in a flooded dry dock. Elisa's scars turn into gills, and she kisses the Amphibian Man in a way similar to how she did in her bathroom, this time while clothed.
  • Tactful Translation: Played with. After Elisa boldly finger-spells "F-U-C-K Y-O-U" and Strickland demands Zelda tell him what she's saying. Zelda can't bring herself to lie, but also can't bring herself to answer. Elisa herself gives Zelda an out by signing "Thank you."
  • Tastes Like Friendship: Elisa and the Amphibian Man bond over eating boiled eggs.
  • Testosterone Poisoning: Played for Drama. Rather than being a comedic parody, Strickland's villainy stems directly from his ideas about what makes a man, including (apparently) not washing his hands.
  • They Would Cut You Up: What the government intends to do with the Amphibian Man. Elisa and her helpers prevent this from happening.
  • Thinking Out Loud: Though they mean well and understand her when she responds, Giles and Zelda both unknowingly use Elisa as a way to vent their frustrations more than actually have conversations with her, and sometimes patronize her when she's trying to interrupt; the Amphibian Man, being unable to speak, is the first real back-and-forth exchange she has.
  • Torture Always Works: Despite being fatally shot and bleeding to death in the rain, after a bit of torture from Strickland, Dimitri tells him truthfully that "cleaners" helped him smuggle the Amphibian Man out of the facility, instead of sending him on a Wild Goose Chase since it's not like he'll live long enough for Strickland to come back later and torture him some more. Then again Dimitri is revealing the truth as a final "fuck you" to Strickland.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Elisa enjoys hard-boiled eggs. The Amphibian Man likes them too; it's how they initially bond and the word for "egg" is the first sign she teaches him.
  • Two-Person Pool Party: Elisa and the Amphibian Man share an intimate moment in Elisa's flooded bathroom.
  • Underwater Kiss: And a Magic Kiss, to boot.
  • Un-person: Strickland's boss implicitly threatens to do this to him if he fails to find the creature, which is part of what fuels his Villainous Breakdown.
    General Hoyt: You will disappear from this universe, and find yourself in a universe of shit.
  • Unwanted Assistance: After Elisa helps the Amphibian Man escape the facility, Strickland comments that they can wait 24 hours before reporting the incident, giving them time to clean up the mess. However, Fleming helpfully explains that he had reported it to their superiors the moment he heard the news, much to Strickland's frustration.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Strickland in the third act, due to the immense pressure put on him by his boss to find the stolen "Asset".
    Strickland: (to himself in a mirror) You deliver. That's what you do, you deliver. Right?... Right?!!
  • Villainous Crush: Strickland quickly becomes fixated on Elisa due to his misogyny-fueled fetish for silent women.
  • Wants a Prize for Basic Decency: Inverted. Strickland argues to Hoyt that he deserves a second chance for being a "decent" man (by which he means not swearing or cheating on his wife, rather than ... well, everything else he does do). Hoyt scoffs at the concept.
    Hoyt: Decent? A man has the decency not to fuck up, now that's one thing. That's real decent of him. But the other kind of decency, it doesn't really matter. We sell it, but it's an export. We sell it because we don't use it.
  • What Measure Is a Mook?: The MP Dimitri killed by injection had nothing to do with the crimes committed against the creature, and was just doing his job. The film does not treat his death as any great concern, though his murderer does not survive the film either.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: It is debated within the film whether the Amphibian Man is worthy of compassion as a being that can communicate and understand humans, enjoy music and even fall in love, or whether he's an abomination against God. When Giles complains that the being they want to help isn't even human, Eliza draws a furious comparison between the Amphibian Man and herself.
  • Window Love: In one scene Elisa and the Amphibian Man touch the water tank's glass wall with their hands from each side.
  • Worthy Opponent: Right as Strickland is about to be killed, he acknowledges that the Amphibian Man is deserving of his reputation as a god.
    "Fuck... you are a God."
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Strickland sees himself as being just like the biblical Samson: a righteous pillar of masculinity who is combating enemies of the Lord (like the Amphibian Man, an abomination that mocks the Lord's image with its mere existence), who needs to watch out for the deceptive wiles of women like Zelda. He's really the villain in a romantic fairy tale, who gets his just deserts at the end.
    • Del Toro has commented that, were the movie made in the time period it's set in, Strickland would indeed probably be the hero.
  • You Have Failed Me: General Hoyt makes it clear that failure to recapture the Amphibian Man will fall squarely on Strickland's head, since it's been several days already and he expected better of Strickland.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Dimitri's handlers try to kill him once it is time to "extract" him. This is also in part a You Have Failed Me moment since he did fail to follow orders.
  • Younger Than They Look: It might have been added by randomness, but a Freeze-Frame Bonus of the fake ID-cards that Giles makes for him and Elisa shows Elisa's age to be 25, when she clearly looks older and Sally Hawkins was 40 when playing her.