The Shape of Water is in select theaters now, and there’s a lot to love about Guillermo del Toro’s latest flick. There’s the bold, beautiful story, the incredible performances – particularly from Sally Hawkins as the mute protagonist – and the list goes on. But what stands out most is the production design, and specifically the thoughtful and symbolic use of color.
Color is an often overlooked aspect in most media, but it plays a massive role in creating tone and atmosphere. You’ll notice that most movies subtly utilize a lot of blues and oranges, and that’s because that combination is most comforting to our brains (here’s a video that goes a little more into how and why). It soothes audiences and makes them feel more at home, sucking them deeper into the narrative. But Shape of Water intentionally doesn’t go this route, instead of placing emphasis on greens and teals. And this plays well on a number of levels.
First, it creates an otherworldly environment. The lab in which most of the story takes place is all green. The walls are green, the tile is green, and even the soap in the soap dispensers is green. It feels strange and unfamiliar to us. In fact, it feels almost murky, like we’re underwater. Del Toro and his team of production designers and decorators are isolating this lab from the outside world, from our world.
Then there’s the larger symbolic effect of the green. Green is meant to represent the future and progress. It’s not a subtle metaphor either. One of the main characters is an artist, and he illustrates promotional material. Early in the film, he draws a piece for Jell-O and makes the dessert red. He’s immediately told to change the color to green, because “that’s the future.” Now, this puts the lab in a whole new light, it’s a place where progress happens, but it also gives us key insights into the characters.
Characters that embrace progress are all associated with shades of green. The artist frequently orders Key lime pie so that he can flirt with the clerk behind the counter. The protagonist and her best friend wear teal uniforms. Collectively they’re a gay man, an African-American woman, and a mute, all looked down upon and cast aside during the 1960s when the film takes place, and all just wanting to be treated with respect. Their plight echoes that of the Amphibian Man, who is several shades of green himself. And then there’s the antagonist, Colonel Strickland, played by Michael Shannon.
Strickland is a racist, sexist, rude man who wants to kill the Amphibian Man, viewing him as an abomination. He’s a jerk; you can see that on the surface. But colors help drive this point home. As mentioned, he wants to kill the Amphibian Man, thus killing progress. There’s also a scene where Strickland goes to buy a car, which seems odd and out of place. But the car he looks at is green (or teal, if you prefer), and he resists it immediately, citing that he doesn’t like the color. He only buys it when the salesman tells him that he can be “the man of the future” in it. So he buys it under duress, but only to display some false sense of progress that he doesn’t naturally possess. He even gets defensive later when someone calls his car green.
Later still, Strickland is seen eating green candy out of a green box. He comments that some people like fancy, “foo-foo” candy, but he likes this. It’s the cheap stuff, the simple stuff. He doesn’t respect or appreciate the green. To him, it’s just sugar, no nutrients or benefits to taking away from it.
The Shape of Water is a love story, a fairy tale. But it’s also something more profound. It’s a story about progress, told in the 60s, the era of the Civil Rights Movement, and the people who fought for it. And it’s all told through the color green.
What did you think of The Shape of Water? Let us know in the comments.