Sleeping With the Fishes
'I've heard it said that The Shape of Water is the first science fiction film to win the Best Picture Oscar,' said one of my news anchors of choice, as part of their post-Academy Awards coverage. His colleague did not look impressed: a faintly chilly look of disapproval crossed her face, in fact. 'I didn't know it was science fiction. I thought it was a love story.' Or, in the pithy little rhyme usually attributed to Kingsley Amis – 'SF's no good!'/They holler till we're deaf./'But this is good!'/'Well, then it's not SF.'
I suppose I should just grin and bear it: if an SF-horror genre movie has to be dressed up as some sort of romantic fantasy in order to win a major award, then many would say that's not too great a price to pay. I don't know: as long-standing readers of this column (hello, masochists) may recall, I long ago stopped treating the Oscars as an actual awards ceremony and just think of it as an election, one where the victory almost always goes to the candidate with the right kind of pedigree, rather than the one who is objectively best.
These days, the process seems to involve a form of vetting, where every nominee has their past scrutinised for any departure from the prescribed standards of behaviour, with particularly egregious offences effectively killing your chances (there was some doubt over Gary Oldman's chances of winning at one point, given some of his unreconstructed pronouncements in past interviews). This applies to whole films as much as individuals, although in this case the vetting process can get a bit more abstract: one of the key obstacles which can rise up in a movie's way is that of plagiarism, however you dress it up. For a while this was a particular issue for The Shape of Water. There have been allegations from the family of the writer responsible that this film draws unacceptably heavily from the plot of a TV play entitled Let Me Hear You Whisper. The acclaimed French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has also weighed in, complaining that director Guillermo del Toro refuses to admit that the movie reuses elements of his own 1991 film Delicatessen.
This is really par for the course for many films these days. What I do find rather surprising is the fact that no-one is really saying much about the fact that The Shape of Water is essentially, if not a remake of Jack Arnold's classic monster movie Creature from the Black Lagoon, then so heavily indebted to it as to have no significant independent identity of its own. Or perhaps it's just the case that the homage is so very obvious that it's not even worth mentioning: del Toro was in the frame to direct a remake of Black Lagoon at one point, and his new ideas for the plot were apparently where the idea of The Shape of Water originated. On the other hand, perhaps it is simply inconceivable for many people that an acclaimed critical darling with four Oscar wins and a further nine nominations could have been spawned by what's still perceived as a trashy monster movie.
Del Toro's movie is set, we are invited to infer, in the early 60s, and primarily concerns the doings of a lonely, mute woman named Elisa (she is played by Sally Hawkins). Her closest friends are the unfulfilled artist in the next apartment (Richard Jenkins) and her work colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer). I have to say that even as the opening scenes of the film were sketching in the details of her life, my companion – who was unaware of the whole plagiarism kerfuffle – was saying, 'Ooh, this is like Amelie' – a well-received film directed by, you guessed it, Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
Elisa is a cleaner at a government science facility, and one which shortly embarks on an unusual new research project: a new specimen arrives, captured in the Amazon by relentless intelligence officer Strickland (Michael Shannon) – an aquatic humanoid creature, basically a kind of gill-man (the creature is played by Doug Jones). The gill-man is brutally treated by Strickland and his team, who believe its unique properties can give the US an edge in the space race, but Elisa manages to make a more personal connection with him. When she learns that the gill-man's life will shortly be put in danger by the demands of the project, Elisa finds she has to take steps to protect him...
Guillermo del Toro is one of those people whose career has shown sporadic flashes of utter brilliance ever since his first film, Cronos, appeared in the middle of the 1990s. Cronos was an iconoclastic vampire movie; he has gone on to make several brilliant superhero-horror movie fusions, the historical fantasy Pan's Labyrinth, and the aspiring Japanese-culture blockbuster Pacific Rim. Even the films he hasn't made sound unusually enticing: for a long time he was slated to direct the Hobbit trilogy, while his efforts to realise a big-budget adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness were ultimately scuppered by the appearance of the similarly-themed Prometheus. So you could certainly argue that The Shape of Water is merely the culmination of a distinguished career that has long deserved proper recognition.
There are certainly elements of The Shape of Water that recall earlier films del Toro has worked on: Doug Jones played a broadly similar gill-man character in the two Hellboy films, for instance, while anyone familiar with the wider canon of Lovecraftian horror-fantasy may find certain elements of the new film's plot are telegraphed just a little too obviously.
Nevertheless, this is still a breathtakingly accomplished film, beautiful to look at, involving in its storytelling, and uniformly superbly acted. Del Toro's ability to blend different flavours is notable: the general thrust of the advertising for The Shape of Water indeed suggests this is essentially a lushly imagined romantic fantasy, and it certainly functions as such. But on the other hand, I would be careful about who I took to see this film – the nudity and explicit sexual content is somewhat stronger than you might expect, while the horror element has a much harder, gorier edge than any of the publicity suggests. There are some properly grisly, uncomfortable-to-watch moments as the story progresses.
This is partly a result of the film's ambitions to be more than just an escapist fantasy film, of course. We are back in Unique Cultural Moment territory here, and it is notable that the film's main villain is Shannon's straight-arrow by-the-book career army man, who would probably be the hero of a 50s B-movie. Here, of course, the focus is on the way he insists on dominating anyone around him who is less of a WASP-ish alpha male, and his casual brutality is set in opposition to the general sensitivity and decency of the characters who end up opposing him. The role is written and performed with just enough subtlety for Strickland not to come across as an absolute one-dimensional cut-out, but it remains the case that for me The Shape of Water's disparaged-minorities-unite-to-stick-it-to-The-Man subtext is just a little too on the nose. (I'm not sure the musical number in the third act entirely works, either.)
Nevertheless, this is still a tremendously accomplished and highly distinctive film, which I think will be very well remembered in years to come as well. And, given the terrible troubles that Universal have been having, trying to get their monster-based franchise started, I suspect that people there will be seriously regretting not giving del Toro more freedom when he was working on movie ideas for them: it's certainly difficult to imagine anyone daring to attempt another remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon for many years to come, let alone being so successful.