When Guillermo del Toro's THE SHAPE OF WATER won the Best Picture award for 2017, it was not a big surprise; del Toro's movie had been nominated for a whopping 13 awards, and had already won 3 (for del Toro's direction, its production design and its score). On the other hand, there had never been a science fiction film that won Best Picture before (somewhat amazingly, Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001:A SPACE ODYSSEY was not even nominated for Best Picture!), and there was quite a bit of buzz about some of the other films nominated, like 3 BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI and GET OUT. Still, the Academy resisted having another upset like they had had the year before when MOONLIGHT defeated LA LA LAND, and they awarded the expected winner this time. Personally, while I find del Toro's film undeniably lovely to look out and well acted, I think it falls short of greatness, especially in its predictable screenplay.
In 1954's cult monster film classic THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, there's a striking moment when the film's lovely leading lady goes for a swim in the Amazon waters, and the film's titular creature (also known as the gill man) starts to swim below her. But instead of attacking her, it follows her motions beneath her, without her knowing, copying her, clearly carrying out a sort of mating dance. Up until then, the creature had only been shown as a fearsome beast, but in that moment, its awkward desire made it seem almost likable. For a lot of adolescent boys just discovering girls but feeling too, well, monstrous, to act on their desires, it hit home. One of those adolescent boys was Guillermo del Toro, who was a horror movie obsessed, monster loving kid, that would go on turn those childhood obsessions into movies. Beginning with his first feature film, 1993's interesting vampire reimagining CRONOS to THE SHAPE OF WATER, every film he's directed has some kind of monster or ghost running through it. He says he first got the idea for THE SHAPE OF WATER while talking to writer David Kraus in 2011, and he also considered directing a straight up remake of THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON for Universal (allegedly, the studio passed on his pitch for the film when he wanted to end it with the gill man and the female lead ending up together!). Del Toro eventually wrote the film as a love story, and immediately wanted English actress Sally Hawkins (who had been so likable in 2008's Mike Leigh film HAPPY GO LUCKY) to play the lead. Octavia Spencer, Micheal Shannon and Richard Jenkins, excellent actors all, were cast in supporting roles. Del Toro finished the script with help from TV writer Vanessa Taylor and shot the film for a relatively low twenty million dollar budget in 2016. Powered by word of mouth as much as Oscar nominations, the film would eventually gross around one hundred and ninety million dollars, making it one of the most financially successful Best Picture winners in recent years.
Set in Baltimore in 1962, it tells the story of Eliza (Hawkins), a mute, orphaned cleaning woman, who lives in a modest apartment building in which she has befriended her lonely, gay, recovering alcoholic neighbor Giles (Jenkins). At work, she and her friend Zelda (Spencer) are cleaning out a government lab in which a scaled, man sized fish creature has been housed by security manager Richard (Shannon). Eliza finds herself drawn to the creature, despite the fact that it has bitten off two of Richard's fingers. She starts to feed it, play music for it, and teach it sign language. When she discovers that Richard plans to kill and dissect the creature, she sneaks him into her apartment with the reluctant help of Zelda and Giles. Slowly, she finds herself falling in love with the creature, and they began to have an unusual sex life. Giles also finds himself drawn to the creature and he discovers that he has magical healing powers. Meanwhile, Richard, enraged at the creature's disappearance, eventually tracks him down on the same night that Eliza plans to release it into the sea. Before she can, Richard shoots both her and the creature, but he resurrects himself and kills Richard. Then he carries Eliza off into the water, both healing her and giving her the ability to breath under water. The two of them swim off together.
From it's lovely opening tracking shot that glides through a watery apartment and ends on Eliza, reclining in the water like sleeping beauty, while Jenkins's character on the soundtrack refers to her as "a princess without a voice", de Toro establishes that this story is a modern, adult fairy tale, and throughout the film cinematographer Dan Lausten and production designer Paul D. Austerberry give the film a surreal green tinged look (even the food and the cars are green) while still realistically recreating Baltimore in the 1960's. And that fairy tale quality is extended in both Alexandre Desplat's excellent score and the use of old jazz tunes on the soundtrack, which contrast with the odd squacking noises that the creature makes. (Pat Friday singing "I know why" has never sounded so haunting!) I love the slightly crazy scene in which Eliza imagines herself singing in an old black and white Astaire-Rogers style musical with the creature making an unlikely dance partner. Since those movies were themselves often like fairy tales, it doesn't seem out of place and keeps with the overall tone of the film while giving de Toro a chance to put in an unexpected homage to old Hollywood.
However, playing out like a fairy tale makes the plot too simple at times for my taste; this was a truly a film where I could guess almost every beat of the story from just having seen the preview beforehand. From Eliza bonding with the creature and sneaking it out, to the killing of the evil Richard at the end before the inevitable happy ending, there are no plot twists in this film that could be called surprising (although I must admit that I did not foresee an actual Communist spy being part of the story, but I also found that subplot pointless). Along with being a like a fairy tale, the movie also resembles a number of films that came out back in the 1980's (like ET, SPLASH and STAR MAN), in which innocent alien or magical creatures were threatened with horrible government experiments; at times I couldn't help but feel that I've seen this story before, right down to the creature's magic healing powers and resurrection abilities that resemble ET's. There are also questions of plausibility in the story, with a human sized fish creature somehow getting around a crowded city without anyone noticing (he even takes a trip to a movie theater!). Even fairy tales have to make sense. And I would have like to know a little bit more about the creature, especially regarding whether there are any more like it out there.
Still, this film is certainly never boring to look out, and that's especially true of the magnificent job done by the effect and makeup crew on the creature, turning the old gill man from THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON into a modern marvel. Del Toro has said designing him was one of the most difficult things he's worked on in all of his years of film making, and it shows. It's a monster that can be both frightening and beautiful, threatening or pathetic. And clearly they learned one of the important lessons of ET: audiences will care for an alien creature as long as it has big, soulful eyes. Also, credit must be given to Doug Jones, the man in the suit, who has been working with de Toro since 1997's MIMIC; his years of playing monsters and training as a mime pay off in the way that the creature's thoughts are often conveyed with a simple gesture or turn of the head. For a monster performance, it's often subtle.
As for the other performances, most of them are very good. In Eliza, Giles and Zelda, we get a trio of lovable misfits, the kind of people who weren't always welcome in the era of the early 60's as the film often makes clear. Sally Hawkins as Eliza is extremely endearing; with her simple beauty and broad, expressive eyes, she doesn't need to talk to carry the film; from the early moment when we see her kindly bringing breakfast to her neighbor Giles, to the way she taps her feet on the floor as she walks down the hall, mimicking the tap dance routine she just saw on TV, we're completely on her side. One intriguing question arises concerning her character: we hear that she was found alone and abandoned in the water as a baby, and she has a scar on her neck that resembles a fish's gill. Therefore, one has to wonder, is she herself half fish creature and half human? That would explain why she's almost immediately drawn to the creature, even after she knows that it bit a man's fingers off. The movie never says she is, but it's an interesting idea Richard Jenkins as Giles is also very good as an unhappily closeted gay man; I love the wistful nature he has when he finds himself confessing to the creature that he feels alone too, and he's also often funny (at one point he asks of the creature "Now, is he a god? I dunno if he's a god. I mean he ate a cat, so I don't know!"). Octavia Spencer as Zelda is fine, but she really doesn't have a lot to do in the standard role of the African American faithful friend to the main character type. Still, I do enjoy her reaction in the scene in which Eliza mimes out exactly how she and creature can have sex!
And then there's Micheal Shannon as the vile Richard; with his tall frame and harsh features, Shannon is usually typecast as a villain, so his casting here is no surprise. But the script gives him no dimension whatsoever, he's just a sneering, leering horrid person in every scene; even when he's at home with his family or buying a cadillac he seems creepy. Even worse, I find his one note performance more and more grating as the film goes on and he gets more and more despicable. (There's even a scene involving him torturing someone for information; it's ugly and unnecessary, and I wish Hollywood would get over the need for such scenes in movies and TV shows) I understand that fairy tales always have wicked characters, but it wouldn't have hurt to have given him a few moments of sympathy. While I have enjoyed Shannon in other roles over the years, the best thing that I can say about this one is that he's not quite on screen enough to ruin the film, but he definitely damages it, in my opinion.
SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
I think it's clear that I admire this film without loving it (it's not even my favorite Del Toro film, I enjoyed 1996's PAN'S LABYRINTH more). I think that nominated films like Jordan Peele's GET OUT and Martin McDonagh's THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI were better, and films that weren't nominated like Dee Rees's excellent post war drama MUDBOUND, Craig Gillespie's deliriously entertaining I TONYA and Lee Unkrich's and Adrian Molina's delightful COCO were also superior. Still, De Toro is a likable Hollywood personality who's been making (mostly) good films for 20 years, so I'm not exactly upset about the Academy's choice.