Guillermo del Toro is one of those filmmakers who always gets me pumped during the announcement stages — tell me that del Toro is signed on to helm a movie about a water bottle named Bob and I’ll be like F**k yeah! Sign me up! — but rarely blows my mind when I actually watch the film. I LOVE Pan’s Labyrinth, not bothered about Blade II, kinda dig Hellboy, don’t really give a shit about Hellboy II nor Pacific Rim — bite me. And I’m one of those guys who legitimately finds — shut up and strap on your seatbelts — Crimson Peak awesome.
The cool thing about the dude is, whether I love the movie or not, I never once walked out of his movies thinking, The asshole sold out. Guillermo del Toro is one of the most passionate filmmakers out there. To him, every frame is a delicate painting that must be handled with tender loving care. But he also tackles his projects with childlike sensibilities. Think of a little boy playing with his action figures. It shows. His devotion to his art trickles out of every frame. I am obsessed with his obsession with monsters. His speech at the Golden Globes is one of the best speeches at an awards show. The dude just gets films.
The Shape of Water is Del Toro’s best work since Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s not as bombastic as Blade II, Hellboy or Pacific Rim, but it is in a smaller sandbox does del Toro truly thrive. And this will be the first of two times in this article where I will explicitly urge you to watch this movie. Please for the love of God, watch this movie. And please for the love of God, pay for it with your hard-earned money. “The Shape of Water” won FOUR Oscars at the 90th Academy Awards, including BEST PICTURE and BEST DIRECTOR.
Many of us did not expect it to win Best Picture; Three Billboards (another Fox Searchlight production) had all the momentum. And when del Toro clinched the Best Director award, I was dead certain that Three Billboards would bag the big one. But holy shit! Not only did The Shape of Water win, it is the only fantasy film to win an Oscar since Return of the King in 2003. The old white, high brow dumbasses at The Academy usually scoff at Fantasy films.
The premise is simple but executed with such conviction and confidence. In the epilogue we hear Richard Jenkins’ voice-over: “This is a story of love and the monster who tried to destroy it.” Perhaps if you’re unfamiliar with the works of del Toro, you might assume that the fish alien thingy that everyone has been yapping about is the ‘monster’. Here, just like in real life, the monster refers to a man: Michael Shannon’s cold-blooded Col. Strickland.
The film opens as Sally Hawkins’ character Elisa awakens on a couch. Elisa leads what would appear to be a mundane life. She wakes up, prepares eggs for her next-door neighbour Giles (Jenkins), who’s her closest confidant, and then masturbates in the bathtub — a moment which is of course cut by our Malaysian censorship board.
What’s interesting about this scene is that the camera doesn’t linger on her while she masturbates. The shot isn’t a cue for us to take off our pants and jack off. It doesn’t portray Elisa as a sex object. Del Toro captures this intimate moment but doesn’t leer or focus on her, as if to say this is normal. Elisa works as a janitor in a research facility, with her other close friend Zelda (Octavia Sponsor), her defacto elder sister. She goes about her day without calling attention to herself and then goes home. Rinse and repeat. Oh and I forgot to mention, Elisa is mute and only speaks in sign language. Elisa is content or at least appears to be.
Her life changes, with the introduction of an alien creature trapped in a research tank. The nameless creature is embodied by Doug Jones (Abe Sapien from Hellboy), under layers and layers and layers of makeup and more layers of computer-generated imagery. It is fully realised and GORGEOUS. The fact that The Shape of Water did not get an Oscar nomination for makeup is a farce. The creature is lovable and intelligent. But just like any creature, humans
included especially, it can be menacing when provoked. Elisa forms a connection with the creature and the rest, you should discover on your own.
But before you roll your eyes, know that The Shape of Water is so much more than a cliched love story. This is a film about the freedom to be who you are and love who you love. It highlights the purity of love and empathy. Del Toro tackles bigotry head-on, without hitting you on the head. The alien represents the minority and the oppressed, whether it’s sexual orientation or the colour of your skin.
More often than not, we’re seen as monsters. I remember walking around Lowyat Plaza one time, with my girlfriend, who happens to be Chinese. As we were walking by one of the shops, my girlfriend held my hand. Upon seeing this, the retailer sneered loudly and said, “Omg. why him?” in a language he thought I didn’t understand. This movie is for me. If you’re an LGBT person who gets ridiculed, this movie is for you too.
You see, we’re not the monsters, just like how the alien here isn’t a monster. It’s the people who step on us, belittle us and come between our love who are the real monsters. Del Toro conveys that beautifully. He always has had the knack of unveiling the man behind the monster and the monster behind the man. Col. Strickland is an egotistical, narrow-minded asshole obsessed with power — He puts his bleeding hand over his wife’s mouth as he has sex with her. It’s also no surprise that Elisa’s closest friends are a black woman and a closeted gay man, both of whom are not portrayed in a stereotypical manner.
Many of you might find the romance between the alien creature (billed on IMDb as Amphibian Man) and the human girl Elisa as weird or disgusting. Many have even said that del Toro is putting beastiality in a positive light. No, you idiots. This is pretty much the same thing as the relationship between Gamora and Star-Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy, except presented in a more realistic manner. Experiencing the movie for yourself will change your perception. Their love feels like a victory for mankind.
The Shape of Water is further strengthened by its superb performances. Michael Shannon delivers a cold and piercing performance as Col. Strickland. He’s disgusting and every time he pops up on screen, you wish Conor McGregor would make a cameo appearance and knock the bastard’s teeth out. Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spenser deliver fine performances too. But boy Sally Hawkins is bloody amazing. We have seen badass female heroes like Rey, Diana Prince, and Furiosa. But Sally Hawkins’ Elisa Esposito is a different kind of fighter. Here’s a character that’s innocent, warm and charming but there’s a fierceness to her that is addictive to watch. I have nothing against Frances McDormand winning Best Actress — she’s great. But Sally Hawkins had to shoulder an entire movie without uttering a single word. Just watch the scene where she signs “f**k you” to Col. Strickland. She is phenomenal!
By the time the end credits rolled, it’s a no-brainer that The Shape of Water” deserves its Best Picture Oscar nomination and win. Is it my personal favourite of the Oscar-nominated films? No. I would rank Lady Bird and Three Billboards slightly higher. But I have no qualms whatsoever about it winning Best Picture. Heck, I know that this is one of those movies that the more I watch and more I think about it, the more I will love.
Here’s my call to action:
Please for the love of all things holy, watch the movie in cinemas. I know, you can torrent the movie, watch it online or buy the pirated DVD for 5 bucks. I understand that the movie came out months ago in the US and it’s frustrating. I understand and I’m frustrated too.
But that’s EXACTLY why you should watch it in cinemas. Believe it or not, movies are a business and just like any other business, supply and demand matters. IF we vote with our dollars and studios are happy with the numbers, there is a chance that they’ll release smaller movies like this, in Malaysia the same time as the US. You complain why there’s a crappy two dollar horror movie every other week, sometimes released here even before the US. It’s because those are the movies that are making money here. VOTE with your dollars. The Shape of Water deserves that much.
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The Shape of Water
The Shape of Water is so much more than a cliched love story. This is a film about the freedom to be who you are and love who you love. And it is awesome!