What do we want? Interspecies romance! When do we want it? Hopefully sooner rather than later. Romances are fantastic elements of films, but they can often be butchered in the worse ways possible. Take actions films, for one, where we get the peak of a climax and boom: the high intensity of the destruction compels directors to add a very unneeded and awkward kissing scene. We roll our eyes or sigh in exasperation. We are over it.

Interspecies romances, though? Rare as they are, they are novel ideas. But still, cinema beats around the bush with interspecies romance or attempts to underscore its potential as a side relationship. Like, here’s this main human romance and behind it is this interspecies relationship that develops but will never get proper screen time.

THE SHAPE OF WATER: Love as Vast as the Ocean

Take STAR TREK, for example. With its diverse cast of aliens and humans, it really doesn’t bother to show anything out of the ordinary in the movies. We got Uhura and Spock, sure, but it’s hard to count it when their relationship is an awkward plot idea and Spock (or Vulcans in general) does not look far from human, unlike the Klingons and even the Romulans. When people want interspecies romance, we want something arcane. We want something that bears no human resemblance.

Of course, you get the occasional person that thinks otherwise. There is an article regarding THE SHAPE OF WATER that I read which was widely circulated on social media. To be fair, it does address some valid points, such as the lack of overall depth to Dr. Robert Hoffstetler in comparison to the rest of the cast’s more concrete characterization. However, these statements from the article…

  • “It’s one thing to ask audiences to suspend belief for this fairy tale, and it’s a whole other thing to ask them to consider for one moment that an otherwise sane woman would be so desperate as to fall for a creature who can’t even survive on dry land — not when there are actual men in this town.”
  • “No matter how much actor Doug Jones tries to sell the character, it really comes down to the fact that we’re supposed to believe that the creature and this woman were able to make a life together somehow and live happily ever after. Even for a del Toro fairy tale, that’s just too unbelievable.”

…leave little to be desired. The article questions whether a “sane woman” would be willing to throw everything away for this aquatic monster and if the audience can even fathom such an idea even transpiring. The film’s phenomenal score on Rotten Tomatoes, the 13 Oscar nominations, and the awards already won convey an abundantly clear message that people are inclined to the romance between two entirely different species. The concept is not as farfetched as the article claims it could possibly be to moviegoers, and if anything, it provides a fresh insight into the minds of the film’s audience.

Reviews raved about THE SHAPE OF WATER because it broke out of the imposed human-human romance, because the Asset was more of a creature than a carbon-copy of cinema’s human-looking “monsters,” and because it is a fantasy romantic drama that immerses its audiences in Elisa’s peculiar circumstances without drifting us away from the weight of her reality. The Asset does not exist, we can evidently confirm this to be true, but that’s not what viewers are evaluating while watching THE SHAPE OF WATER. Viewers are not attempting to circumvent the gravity of a woman falling in love with a creature by reimaging the Asset as an “actual man” (whatever that means); viewers are seeking and favoring the relationship for what it is: a creature, a woman, and love.

THE SHAPE OF WATER: A Talk With Guillermo Del Toro

If the story between Elisa and the Asset was weaved incorrectly or even failed to cultivate a believable representation of gradual adoration and love, then yes, the film would be an implausible concept to grasp. However, people willingly gave THE SHAPE OF WATER high praise. This provides an indication that moviegoers are indeed capable of conceptualizing interspecies romance. We might not necessarily believe in happily ever afters for most films, and maybe some don’t believe it all too much for THE SHAPE OF WATERbut what we can believe is the foundation of trust and intimacy built by the Asset and Elisa.

Maybe we want something different. Maybe we would throw ourselves into the arms of a fish man. Maybe the film industry needs to stop being cowards.

The closest we got recently to something substantial in interspecies romance is THE BEAUTY AND THE BEAST released last year, and although it did extremely well at the box-office, it fails to meet certain qualities which could have improved the overall tone of the movie. While there are a handful of movies which have interspecies romance, we will examine THE BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and THE SHAPE OF WATER.

“Monstrous” Physical Attributes

Interspecies romance
Images courtesy of Disney.

I love it when films seize the opportunity to accentuate non-human visuals, which is why I was pretty happy to hear BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was going to become a live-action movie. You can imagine my disappointment after the trailer. I heard some argue that the Beast looked “fine” — I’m not here for “fine,” I’m here for an actual beast, not an overly furry man with horns.

The original Disney version had it down: large tusk-like canines, a prominent hunch to his back, and a bulky profile: everything the 2017 version is not. Sure, I can appreciate Disney’s approach to making him rightfully educated (because it never made sense that he’s of royal standing, illiterate, and probably an heir) but beyond that? Beast has nothing visually going for him beyond his fashion sense.

Interspecies romance
Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Guillermo Del Toro decided not to rely heavily on digital or motion-capture to create the Asset. He went out of his way to create the textured skin through makeup, prosthetics, and minimal use of digital effects. Del Toro even went around to see what viewers would want: doe eyes, kissable lips, a slender frame, and even went so far as to ensure his monster would have the perfect butt. If that’s not going above and beyond for viewers, then I don’t know what is.

We have a clear distinction that the Asset is more of an aquatic, bipedal monster and possesses faint human characteristics. Del Toro, unlike Disney, was not afraid to repulse audiences with a visually stimulating monster. THE SHAPE OF WATER’s creative input for the Asset sets an example for films with its outstanding recognition. Enough is enough with the human-looking monsters.

Interspecies Romance

“But it’s a Disney movie. But it’s PG, not R. Its demographic is children.” True, true, and partially true. Disney caters a large audience; different age ranges bring in revenue, after all. On a whole, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a good film. But there’s a significant difference between a good movie and a great one. Some can say the faults lie in the pacing or the lack of depth. I’m leaning toward the latter.

Interspecies romance
Image courtesy of Disney.

As a “child’s” movie, Disney intentionally treads carefully between Belle and Beast. Promoting interspecies romance could put a damper on parents, but, at the same time, the lack of depth to the characters harms a film’s overall result, as well as their nominations to earn awards. The romance between Belle and Beast is seen, but never felt. Their sentiments of love and fondness can be interpreted, but it’s not fully acted on or translated into an additional scene. We see them getting along, falling in love, but moviegoers don’t get that click because there’s not much to be emotionally invested in.

Interspecies romance
Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

THE SHAPE OF WATER is slow, gradual, with moments that make you clench the armrests of your seat. Fear, joy, and anticipation allow you to experience the elation and fright love carries. Because Elisa cannot speak, we actively place ourselves into her world to interpret her feelings, her worries, her thinking, and so on. We are active participants in her story. She shares everything with us, even sharing how she wanted to have sex with the Asset. It does not come across as a sexualized action, but a transcendental connection she cannot verbalize and the Asset cannot convey. We get that much-needed click.

The Happily Ever After

Interspecies romance
Image courtesy of Disney.

It’s not surprising that Disney’s live adaption would be the same as their 1991 version. The Beast turns into a human and everybody in the castle is singing, dancing, and merry. The live adaption added extra scenes and songs, yet it couldn’t show intimacy between Belle and Beast? Not sexual intimacy, but the relationship between them. Like Disney is saying, yeah, a monster and a woman fall in love. But! He’s human! Essentially, the movie emphasizes that, ultimately, it’s a romance between a woman and man. The interspecies content is swept under the rug.

Yes, the original story has the Beast turning human. But if Disney took liberties in their live adaption, there’s no excuse not to build on their relationship as Beast being a beast. The Happily Ever After shtick falls flat because it’s one-dimensional. The ending scene draws the realization for you: this is pure fantasy, a fairytale. It is out of reach rather than making you part of the experience.

Interspecies romance
Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

THE SHAPE OF WATER provides a sense of closure and simplicity. Sure, we don’t know what will happen to Elisa and the Asset, but there’s no reason to. We don’t need a sequel. We don’t even need some huge, festive party to couple two individuals together. Del Toro’s film gives us a Happily Ever After through the beauty of something out of the ordinary. The Asset remains a creature and doesn’t harpoon the beautifully woven narrative by turning human.

This Happily Ever After embraces fantasy themes, but we never consider it to be fantastical. Viewers get immersed into something raw and passionate. And while it constitutes a fairy tale, it never feels quite as out of reach like BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’s fantasy elements.

Step it up, Hollywood

Interspecies romance is difficult. No, not difficult to include, but difficult to encapsulate into a time-constrained medium. It does not have the full liberty of a novel, which could explore interspecies romance in hundreds of pages. There’s not exactly any Netflix original content for it, either.

But if Del Toro could do it (and by god did he nail interspecies romance) then others surely can. Or, at least, it’s possible if cinema would diverge from the typical narrative and the necessity to make monsters humanistic. We don’t want that. We don’t want this escapist method to normalize relationships. Give us the oddity, give us content that is out of the norm. Give us true, genuine monsters.

Holy Ghost-amole!!: The Sympathetic Monster in Horror

THE SHAPE OF WATER is a testament that a relationship between a monster and a human won’t deter audiences. It gets awards. It gets high ratings. Evidently, it must be executed carefully and with utmost care to even surpass the pedestal Del Toro has placed. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is good, but it could have been better, much better. THE SHAPE OF WATER, on the other hand, embodies excellent storytelling, breath-taking effects, and a well-delivered, unforgettable, heart-wrenching story.

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