For starters, it is strongly infused with both an environmentalist and an anti-colonialist critique. The Black Lagoon of the title is far up the Amazon, and the Creature a product of that environment. The team of geologists who go up there and disrupt its world find fossils in the rocks which look exactly like it, and dialogue about how very little has changed in the Amazon since the Devonian period (from which the fossil originates) encourages us to draw the obvious conclusion - that this creature is a surviving member of the same species, which has been living there, undisturbed and unbeknownst to humans, for millions of years. Meanwhile, we are given plenty of scope for reading almost everything the creature does as an entirely natural reaction to a bunch of alien invaders storming in and assaulting its territory. Even its initial attack on two geological excavators who are waiting in camp while their leader goes to do some lab analysis on the fossilised web-fingered hand they have found, and which serves the narrative purpose of establishing that the creature can be dangerous, can also be read as its entirely understandable response to them disturbing the remains of its ancestors, exacerbated by their own instinctive response of attacking it as soon as it enters their tent. This early attack scene strongly suggests that the creature possesses very human-like emotional responses and intelligence, too. Having killed the camp workers, the creature leaves one of their severed hands standing upright in the middle of the tent, in what I am pretty sure is meant to be a pointed response to their treatment of the fossil: I do to you as you have done to my ancestors.
Once the action moves from the site of the initial fossil discovery to the Black Lagoon itself, similar patterns continue. The creature is clearly fascinated by the expedition, and particularly with Kay Lawrence, played by Julie Adams. But the humans' response to realising it is there is to want to capture it, and indeed to use potent chemicals which have the side-effect of stunning every single fish in the lagoon to do so. The audience is left with plenty of room to sympathise as the creature too becomes violent, and again shows its intelligence by blocking their boat into the lagoon with a barricade of fallen trees. I was reminded very much of Frankenstein, in which it's perfectly easy to imagine an alternative fork for the story involving Victor treating his creation decently from the start and it never becoming a monster as a result. (Not that Universal actually allowed for this in their own treatment of Frankenstein, which was a lot of the reason why I didn't like it: LJ / DW.) Here, the team of scientists are not responsible for having made the creature in the first place, but by showing how their behaviour leads to its actions, the film makes them partly culpable for what happens. And because they are led by white Americans and operating in South America, this in turn supports a reading which is critical of broader white exploitation of both landscapes and peoples.
The dynamics within the team allow for more detailed working-through of these larger themes, too. In particular, there is quite a lot of tension between them concerning different possible responses to the creature. Dr Mark Williams, who has been characterised from the start as mainly driven by money and personal ambition, wants to capture it, and doesn't mind at all if it dies in the process, while others argue for leaving it alive and studying it in its natural habitat. So that allows different possibilities to be aired, and our sympathies are very much steered towards the 'study it in its natural environment' option, as that one is being voiced by a nicer character. (I rather wished they'd actually gone ahead and done it, as the creature is largely treated within this story as though it were the last of its kind, and I would have liked that issue to be aired and investigated.) There are other aspects of the team dynamics which rather undermine the progressive headline take, though. In particular, the local people involved in the story (the two camp workers at the start and the crew of the boat which goes to the lagoon) are all characterised as rough, uneducated and subordinate to the white characters, with no particular interest of their own in their home landscape and environment. Likewise, Julie Adams as the film's sole female character is very much in an Attractive Assistant role - theoretically a scientist, but actually there mainly to support her man and of course become the object of the creature's interest.
The creature itself, by the way, is always spoken of as male by the characters in the film, and the cast and crew in a very good 'making of' documentary included on lady_lugosi1313's DVD. To be fair, the people inside the suits (there were two, one on land and one in the water) were indeed male. But was the creature? No-one in the film gets a chance to look at its biology in any detail, and nor do we have any idea what it thinks about itself. So I've decided I prefer to subvert the face-value presentation and imagine the creature is female, and thus that its interest in Julie Adams is a case of same-sex, though different-species, attraction. I wouldn't want to cast it as unproblematically romantic, though, whatever the genders involved, as it is actually quite stalky - there's a lot of the creature watching her and reaching for her while she is utterly unaware it is doing so. But there is certainly something very poignant about the famous shots in which it mirrors her swimming under the water. I look forward to seeing Guillermo del Toro work through the potential relationship between two such beings in detail.
Nor indeed are those the only strikingly-beautiful shots in the film. Far from it. I didn't realise until we watched the making-of documentary afterwards, but apparently the film was originally shot and released in 3D, because the producers realised that it was going to have to involve quite a lot of extended underwater scenes during which the characters could not speak to each other. So, to pre-empt audience boredom arising from lack of dialogue, they aimed to make those scenes more engaging via the use of 3D. Obviously, we didn't see it that way (though I would love to!), but we were still watching a film whose producers had put a lot of effort into making it visually interesting. Even without the 3D effects, the underwater scenes are absolutely gorgeous, as I think the gif above attests, and indeed the film as a whole very nicely put-together.
Well, that's it then. I am ready for Shape of Water, AND furthermore I am actually up to date on my film and book reviews!!! I don't think I have been on top of both of them at once since at least 2015, and I can't tell you how relieved I am to have finally got here. I can read and watch whatever I want now, without feeling ground down at the thought of yet another addition to a huge back-log. I could even write about my actual life a bit! Or do whatever I want. Who knows what joys and wonders I will discover in this brave new world...