A Change of Heart: "The Shape of Water"
When people would ask me if I had seen The Shape of Water and I replied with “no,” this was my typical follow-up excuse.
“Guillermo del Toro is an awesome director, but it’s basically Beauty and the Beast underwater. I mean, she falls in LOVE with a FISH!”
Granted, my only experiences with the movie were the poster and the commentary of a few friends who also harped on the absurdity of the fishy love story.
Then it got nominated for an Oscar.
I believe that most films that get Best Picture nods can be broken into three categories: diversity, adversity, and humanity. Typically, the stories that dominate theaters during ‘Oscar season’ either give screen time to a minority that Hollywood typically ignores, recall a tale of an underdog who rises up despite the odds that rest against them, or bring us a grand revelation about the nature of the human experience.
For 2018, diversity showed up in films like Get Out and Call Me By Your Name, adversity in The Post, Dunkirk, and The Darkest Hour, and humanity in Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Phantom Thread.
If the film tackles two or all three categories…well, that’s what we call an Oscar jackpot. Typically, these films rise as the favorites to win. This year, Get Out, Three Billboards, and Call Me By Your Name seemed to be the lucky lottery winners.
Every so often, we see a fourth category arise. Let’s call it the ‘oddity:’ a wildcard film that does not tackle ‘serious’ content like its fellow nominees yet has a justifiable sense of creative majesty. Hence, The Shape of Water appearing in the 2018 pack.
Okay, so the fish love story looks cool on screen. Props to del Toro.
Then, it won an Oscar for Best Picture, and I said to myself, “Okay, that’s it. There’s gotta be something here that I’m missing.”
Turns out, I missed a whole lot.
The Shape of Water exemplifies every technical and creative category that a film possibly can. In other words, it does the best job at everything.
For starters, the acting is superb. Sally Hawkins, in her role of the mute custodian Eliza Esposito, evokes more emotion through her expressions and gestures than most people can with words. Octavia Spencer gives us comedic relief as Eliza’s coworker, Zelda, exercising her spot-on wit in every scene she appears in. Even Doug Jones, who plays the Amphibian Man, makes me believe that a fish can truly have feelings.
Then we have the script: perfectly paced with a balance of humor and drama that leaves you satisfied yet wishing there was more. It follows the typical, concise plot sequencing of an action movie but not in the million-fight-scenes-in-a-superhero-movie kind of way. No car chase is dragged on, no love scene is too dramatic, and no character is stifled by the tediousness of backstory explanation.
The technical achievements of this film in lighting, set design, costuming, makeup, and overall aesthetic can be summed up in eight words; a brilliant, coherent collision of vintage and fantasy. Del Toro works his fantasy magic on 1960s Baltimore during the height of the Cold War, turning the bustling city into a dark, swampy vision that matches his creature. From the motifs of green and water to the swirling reflections of waves across walls, the production team creates the most aesthetically pleasing atmosphere for the characters, and our minds, to wander.
And don’t even get me started on the soundtrack. We’ll be here all day.
There’s something about vintage style and the fantasy genre that works so well together. So many mystical films rely heavily on CGI to get us to suspend our beliefs, but The Shape of Water never asks us to. We can clearly see that the Amphibian Man is a dude in a suit and little editing is used to erase that. In a way, the minimal, almost campy style of fantasy that we associate with older movies makes the story feel more real. In this world, del Toro forces us to reckon with the fact that monsters may not be that different from us; in a way, he’s preparing us to face the non-CGI monsters that may actually be out there.
So, did this ‘oddity’ win Best Picture purely based on its technical and creative achievements?
Well, actually, Del Toro hit the jackpot. The Oscar jackpot.
Bet you didn't see that coming.
When I said this film does the best job at everything, it truly does. When you break down the plot, diversity, adversity, and humanity are the central pillars of this story.
This film’s team of fish-savers includes a woman with a disability, a black woman, a closeted gay man, and a nice Russian looking to help those in need. Oh, and did I mention there’s a fish with the capacity to love?
Diversity = check.
Despite the love-story thrill ride, the story also grapples with the social and political issues of the 1960s and their effects on different people. Gender inequality, racism & discrimination, stereotyping of immigrants, and the hierarchy of workplaces are all tackled within the two-hour film. And the cast of characters are some very determined underdogs.
Adversity = check.
As for the last one, I think I’ll let Eliza take the reins.
“When he looks at me, the way he looks at me…he does not know what I lack or how I am incomplete. He sees me, for what I am, as I am. He's happy to see me. Every time. Every day. Now, I can either save him... or let him die.”
Humanity = check.
Yes, The Shape of Water is about a girl who falls in love with a fish.
But it is so much more than that.