Thanks to Free Movie Night, I was able to see a film beloved by so many that it garnered itself the most Academy Award nominations of any film this year, including “Best Picture.”
The Shape of Water is Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s latest venture. That’s a name you’ve probably come to associate with movies like Crimson Peak or, more famously, the haunting fairytale beauty, Pan’s Labyrinth. In these films, del Toro has gained a reputation for his darkly fantastical taste, equal parts morbid and whimsical. The Shape of Water doesn’t disappoint on this front.
The film follows “Elisa Esposito,” a mute janitor working for a secret government laboratory in Baltimore during the Cold War era. One day, a strange semi-amphibian, semi-humanoid creature is brought into the lab for analysis and, as ordered by grade-A douchebag “Colonel Richard Strickland,” eventual vivisection, all for the sake of defeating the Russians. But, the more Elisa cleans the creature’s chamber, the more she seems to relate to it, care for it and even fall in love with it. This connection is enough to motivate her to try and help the creature escape its grisly fate, and it establishes a deep relationship between two voiceless individuals.
Del Toro’s trademark theme of authority opposing humanity is reflected in The Shape of Water, but with an interesting twist in the direction of diversity. Diversity is not just a happy coincidence in this film–it is vital to the heart of the film and its artistic ode to people of all colors, languages and orientations, especially those who, much like Elisa and the creature, are voiceless.
This ethos lives in the visual metaphors as well, of which there are plenty: the resemblance of Elisa’s mute-rendering neck wound to the creature’s gills, the “Occam Aerospace Research Center” being a nod to the Occam’s razor theory, the two dead fingers on Strickland’s hand rotting black to show what little difference lies between him and his cleaning staff, this connection between water and the innate worth of all human lives–all of it enough to keep the film theorist in me rambling for pages.
But, interesting and developed as it is, does all this really add up to a “Best Picture” nomination?
Watching this film just felt a little too straightforward. Elisa and the creature slide cleanly into a heart-to-heart bond with little to no lead-up or delay, something a viewer can predict from stories like Beauty and the Beast. Strickland’s role is well acted and easy to hate. So easy to hate that he’s barely even a character, rather just a face for the viewer to glare at in place of a person with actual motivations other than “evil.”
As a result, The Shape of Water is a film with clear wrongs and rights, good guys and bad guys, and there’s nothing that interesting or questionable when examining the morality of each character. Things like this don’t break the movie, and it’s still a movie I was glad to have seen.
The Shape of Water is one of the better pictures of this Oscar season, but it’s not the “Best Picture.”