Okay, all that being said: You could very well walk away from this movie talking about the fish sex. (Some spoilers ahead.)
The movie is set in 1960s Baltimore, and Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaning lady at a research facility that handles top-secret government projects. One day, a new “asset” is brought in: an amphibious creature that looks like a cross between a man and a fish. The creature’s handler, Strickland (Michael Shannon), calls it an abomination and an affront. It was worshiped as a god in the Amazon, where it was caught. Elisa forms a bond with this creature; both are misunderstood and not heard by the outside world. She clearly comes to see the “asset” as more than an animal, referring to the creature at first as “it,” then as “him.”
“When he looks at me, the way he looks at me, he does not know what I lack or how I am incomplete,” she says. “He sees me for what I am, as I am.”
“The movie tries to embody the beauty of the ‘Other,’ ” del Toro said in November. “What makes us different is what makes us great. It’s sort of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in a way that shows you that beauty doesn’t have to be the perfect princess, she doesn’t have to look like a perfume-commercial model.”
Del Toro further subverts this kind of romantic genre; his monster doesn’t have to turn into a human to be loved or renounce who he is: “Because, to me, love is not transformation. Love is acceptance and understanding.”
But we digress. So does this lady get it on with a fish-humanoid thing or what? Yes. They first begin communicating using sign language and (romance!) chowing down on hard-boiled eggs. They grow closer over time, then they finally hook up.
We don’t actually see the two have sex, but we do see Elisa disrobe in front of the “asset” and get into her bathtub with him. The next day, she can’t stop smiling, which tips off her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Zelda asks the question we’re all wondering: Um, how? The suit that actor Doug Jones wears is, well, as smooth as a Ken doll.
Elisa mimes the mechanics to show her new love interest has a hidden penis that he can reveal; she puts her hands together and flips them around so her fingers stick out. Zelda can’t believe it, and makes some joke about never trusting a man, even if he “looks flat down there.”
Jones later said there wasn’t any discussion about possibly showing how relations would work between the two. “Her mime job with her hands of how my accoutrement works was about as. … That’s all I ever heard about it,” he told Syfy Wire. “When I saw the first sculpture designs of the suit and the makeup, it never involved appendages or genitalia.”
He continued: “When I looked at myself, I’m like, ‘Well, I guess that could unfold and present itself, if it needed to.’”
Lest you think the fish-man’s sex appeal is unimportant, del Toro was quite insistent about making sure Jones’s creature was hot. Otherwise, the film wouldn’t have worked.
“A note Guillermo gave me, as far as [the creature’s] physicality goes, he kept pushing the sexy,” Jones told the Hollywood Reporter. “This character has to be sexy. When watching the film you have to believe that someone could actually fall in love with him and find him sexy and want to take their clothes off in his presence.”
Lead designer-sculptor Mike Hill told THR that del Toro instructed him to “give it a soul,” with big expressive eyes, “kissable” lips and broad shoulders.
Hill added: “Guillermo was adamant that the creature have a nice butt.”