The Shape of Water Movie Review: Oscar Fish Bait or Fairytale Gold?

The Shape of Water received a whopping 13 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor & Actress, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. But how does this film really stack up?

In director Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, a female janitor at a secret facility develops an unlikely connection to a mysterious sea creature. Del Toro hits a sweet spot in blending a number of genres he’s quite proficient at directing. Set in Baltimore in 1962, the film is a period romance, a cold-war thriller, a fantastical sci-fi horror, and a fairy tale. Each of these elements are competently cinematographed as part of the director’s creative vision.

Elisa Esposito (played by Sally Hawkins) is a mute cleaning lady. She’s lives a mostly lonely life because she communicates in sign language only with her mild mannered friend Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her sassy co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).

Each of the main characters are introduced in such as way that their core traits are immediately conveyed. An example of this is when Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) walks into the men’s room while Elisa and Zelda are cleaning. He puts down his blood stained baton over the sink, washes his hands as he makes a stern remark about his principles and proceeds to relieve himself in the urinal hands free.

Later, when Elisa is cleaning a blood soaked laboratory she discovers a sentient amphibian humanoid in captivity. Because of her humanity and compassion, Elisa makes a connection with the creature and feeds it boiled eggs.

Not long after, the Americans want to vivisect the creature to learn of any advantages that could help put them one step ahead of the Soviets. But Elisa has other ideas. She must plan an escape with a little help from her friends in order to save the amphibian man (Doug Jones).

The forthcoming blu-ray will not be feature the director’s commentary track. Del Toro prefers to allow the film the speak for itself. On one hand this could be a coincidental nod to the fact that two primary characters cannot speak. Or to be a bit cynical, perhaps to mitigate any legal problems from a number of plagiarism allegations that have come to light.

The Shape of Water’s story is not incredibly inventive considering the number of fantastical fairy tale twists it could have taken. Of course fairy tales, even from different cultures, often share similarities in story structure, characters and themes.

The Shape of Water follows a familiar pattern and trajectory. A good rule for writing is to build up characters and follow where they take you. The script spends a lot of time setting up the world and characters, but not enough time letting the characters organically shape the story in a riveting manner. The logistical gaps in the story are similar to how fairy tales sacrifice realism and suspend belief.

A lot of reviews rightly point out one of the main themes: love. There are many different forms or definitions of love. Hollywood movies focus on the romantic version as it’s the one that sells, in particular to certain demographics.

From a non-romantic perspective, The Shape of Water is better at conveying the need for emotional and physical companionship: a type of connection that is more than words. Beyond the literal, the amphibian man represents nature and power that transcends the material world; at the same time, is immutably good and is all around us in a physical and accessible form.

“Outsiders” is not the precise word to describe the characters. Similar to the amphibian man, the human characters are in between worlds. As a mute, Elisa lives a solitary existence despite being in the city surrounded by many people. Zelda is living in a time period when black people couldn’t eat in the local pie shop, they could only order and take out their food. Giles, an aging gay man who hand draws ad illustrations, is out of sync with the era. He’s professionally behind the times but socially would be better off living decades in the future. Dr. Hoffstetler played by Michael Stuhulbar is an agent with his own motivations, caught in between the Americans and the Soviets.

As good as Sally Hawkins is as Elisa, and she will likely pick up an Oscar for her lead performance, Michael Shannon is the best actor in the cast. Shannon captures Colonels Strickland’s sadistic behavior in a restrained yet menacing manner. Strickland is a compelling villain in need of a worthy protagonist to contend with. While Shannon is not nominated, Spencer and Jenkins received recognition and their performances fit their roles quite well.

On the commentary track for Guillermo del Toro’s previous film Pan’s Labyrinth, he is incredibly articulate and open about his process. It’s evident that del Toro puts a lot thought into the creative and the technical aspects of film making. One of his strengths as a director is building a world that the audience immerse themselves into. Del Toro’s choices in casting, color palette, set & creature designs, and practical versus CGI effects help constructs a fantastical world which has his own personal signature to it. Having said that, Pan’s Labyrinth is more imaginative and absorbing than The Shape of Water.

A dark romantic fable which references the Creature from the Black Lagoon isn’t at first glance an Oscar friendly movie. Upon closer inspection, through an old fashion lens The Shape of Water checks off a number of social issues that the Academy likes to reward itself. Despite the fantasy elements, the lack of an original, robust story is this film’s elephant in the room. For this reason, it’s unlikely to take home the Best Original Screenplay award. It is however a top contender for the acting categories, best score and best production design.

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