The Best Picture Oscar is an award that puts movies on my radar, but don’t go into with high expectations. For me, there’s a general discontent between me, and the Oscars in what is consider great filmmaking. On occasion I can agree with them like the decision to not nominate The Dark Knight (2008) for Best Picture since it was essentially a gritty live action Saturday morning cartoon. Then, there’s everything else that baffles me on the Oscars standards; 2014 had Gravity (2013) nominated for Best Picture despite it’s glaring weak writing, 2016 Mad Max: Fury Road for Best Picture again for glaring weak writing, 2017 Best Picture winner Moonlight which got over hyped despite the fact itself is a quiet film that was well made, and now The Shape of Water joins that rank in 2018. Much like the other best picture winners, and nominees mentioned I don’t think they’re bad movies. They just don’t live up to the pedigree when being associated with the category of Best Picture anything.
The Shape of Water is set during the 1960s, centering around a lonely janitor forming a unique relationship with an amphibious creature that is being held in captivity. Out of the films in Guillermo del Toro filmography this is the most plain, and least subtle of his films. It’s themes about outsiders being demonize is clear as day, characters being good & bad is nearly impossible to miss with their dialogue, and the whole intention of this being a fairy tale set in a real world is always seen. When it comes to this film’s theme, and writing everything is easy to grasp, but without much depth to it. That’s fine, but not when the contrast is stark between two conflicting halves of a movie. In the same way it’s real world aspects conflicts with the fairy tale like narrative.
For starter, the first half is a slow, absorbing movie chronicling the average lives of an “other” to put it simply, and how they feel lonely in the world. Characterizing the mute heroine Elisa (Sally Hawkins), Soviet spy scientist Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), and a tormented artist Giles (Richard Jenkins) pretty directly. They all at some point talk about being lonely, misunderstood, and not knowing the companionship of a soulmate. These topics are further accentuated by the discovery of an unknown Amphibian Man who is experimented on. Through Elisa interaction with the Amphibian Man, and the cruel experiments Hoffstetler is forced to witness all set out to understand the unknown creature. All the meanwhile being held captive in a secret laboratory with the racist head honcho Stirland (Michael Shannon) seeking to kill that which he doesn’t understand. When describing the movie like this it’s easier to see why I consider it’s storytelling to be similar to a fairy tale; simple themes, simple story, and simple characters. What holds this first half together wonderfully is how intimate everything feels from the natural dialogue between friends to the individual characters hardships longing to belong somewhere.
Where the illusion of being a fairy tale more or less falls apart is in its real world aspects, and the second half of the story. Mentions of the cold war, racial discrimination, gays not being welcome at a diner, and other details reflecting real world issues are sprinkle throughout. Figuring out what Guillermo del Toro was trying to do by incorporating these elements is uncertain. The commentary of the acceptance, and understanding of people different from us is obvious, but what about the other details surrounding that. It’s uncertain, and the film’s writing doesn’t provide these answers. In the same way it handle it themes, details that mirror the real world aren’t looked into. It’s wasn’t Guillermo del Toro intention to delve into these issues; instead all I could ponder about is maybe the film is also about old fashioned ideals that brewed hatred, and how it’ll brews disdain, and violence of those you discriminate against when choosing to keep yourself in a bubble. I’m not going to spoil this movie specific plot points, but I did see enough in what it told where coming to such a conclusion is possible to interpret.
Of course, the second half is likely where it’ll lose viewers. Further losing the illusion of being a fairy tale with 1960s aesthetics, and in its place is gap in logic, and plot conveniences that increases as the film progresses. One such event includes a moment when the Amphibian Man run outs of it hiding place, and goes out in the open with our characters having to search for it. In all this commotion, not a single person spots the Amphibian Man, and even more convenient is the place where the Amphibian Man is found doesn’t have a single person inside it either. Another example of leaps in logic is how simplistic the plan to get the Amphibian Man free from the laboratory is, and further astonishing is that it actually works. Making you also question with such a valuable specimen why is it so lax in security for it. Questions like this only increases in the second half. Another trait lost in the second half is the relationship building between Elisa, and the Amphibian Man. The first half dedicated time to Elisa, and the Amphibian Man making a connection, and finding a way to communicate. In its second half, it rushes through this. Maybe it’s intentional by design since time in the first half moves slower compare to the events that transpire in the second half. I could definitely see it being Elisa, and the Amphibian Man romance making time feel minoot when with a soulmate. Although, as a film, it’s also a missed opportunity to naturally let it grow.
Del Toro eyes for visuals is capture through cinematographer Dan Laustsen, and production designer Paul D. Austerberry creating creating multiple atmospherically rich worlds. From the cold, and harsh interiors of the laboratories to Elisa apartment filled with green for an underwater feel. Submerging the viewers in a clammy wet mood, rain streaming down the windows, and shadows wavering on the walls elegantly set the mood. Capturing the pleasing, and old fashion style of 1960s America with a dark underbelly when Michael Shannon is on screen. Echoing a darker world amidst it’s beauty. When it comes together set to the ever changing moody score from Alexandre Desplat’s from wistful, and sorrow will immortalize certain images in your mind.
Sally Hawkins delivers a nuance performance portraying plenty about her character without saying a word. She’s understated in capturing every ounce emotion providing a sense of wonder, intrigue, and tragedy through movement. Her eyes, and the way she expressive herself is one of the film’s many technical strength. Michael Shannon receives the short end of the stick out of everyone in the cast. He’s has to play a racist, and misogynist villain, and make him unlikable. Shannon mores than hams it up in his scenes ensuring every bit of his mannerism, and expression is as slimy as possible. Only thing less subtle about Shannon performance would be him literally hanging a sign around his neck written with “Obviously evil bad guy” on it. Richard Jenkins is basically a more vocal version of Sally Hawkins, but equally just as tremendous in action. Sorta being the emotional voice that Sally Hawkins cannot have making every scene he’s in believable, and his friendship with Sally Hawkins seems more genuine for it. Octavia Spencer is humorous through her many scenes, and sympathetic when needs to be. Michael Stuhlbarg is much like Michael Shannon in getting a role that doesn’t require much from him, but plays it it well.
Doug Jones plays the Amphibian Man in a costume that is impressive in detail, and allows Doug Jones to do everything he needs to bring the creature to life. Acting like a scared animal, Jones makes the Amphibian Man alluring in its behavior. Meticulously moving unlike a human, and sounding more like a beast through his screams than a man. Creating a creature with a soul that’s easy to be lose sight over the thought it’s a mere man in a costume. It’s quite a joy to see a costume so rich in detail from the wet scales, the fish like fins around its arms, and the several combination of different Amphibian creatures into a human like structure. Plus, it’s possibly the only time you’ll see an Amphibian Man in a musical number which personally was a treat to view since I do have a soft spot for some silly B-movie pictures too.
The Shape of Water doesn’t live up the pedigree of a award winning film, but if one can get over that hurdle there’s plenty to like about the movie on a technical, and writing level. Del Toro eye for visuals is just as strong as ever, and so is his love for old cinema replicating the feel, and look of a classic movie. Being a heartfelt mishmash of his love for old school creature feature like Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) with his love of classic cinema like E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982) portraying otherworldly bonds. It’s a film that from Guillermo del Toro that feels as every bit as passionate, and sincere as its leading characters. It’s second half is where most viewers will be tested containing the biggest lap in logic, and rushed relationship which is meant to be the centerpiece of the film. Being best described as a E.T. the Extra Terrestrial for adults it’s dreamy in its imagery, but much like Sally Hawkins character that lives above a theater roaming with fantastical images, the real world eventually creeps in, and ends the fantasy. It’s nowhere near the pedigree of other Best Picture winners like many will allude too, but it’s a movie I wouldn’t mind revisiting to be lost again in its dream.