Screencap from the film's trailer, March 10, 2018 – YouTube/FoxSearchlight
CAIRO – 11 March 2018: With the curtains coming to a close over the 90th Annual Academy Awards, one strange little film that's been receiving quite a lot of buzz online walks away with the Oscar statuette for 'Best Motion Picture of the Year'; Guillermo Del Toro's “The Shape of Water”.
Described as a "Fairytale for Troubled Times", it is a film that certainly revels in Del Toro's love of the magical and monstrous; a B-Movie take on the timeless tale of Beauty and the Beast, with social commentary bubbling beneath the surface as well. Taking place in 1960's America, following the devastation of World War II and with the Cold War and Space Race on the horizon, “The Shape of Water” is a film perfectly suited for uncertain times.
Our leading lady is Elisa (Sally Hawkins), introduced by the film's narrator as a "princess without a voice". Indeed, Elisa was mute since shortly after her birth, communicating with sign language. Watching as her lonely days drift by, she works as a janitor for the Occam Aerospace Research Centre with fellow cleaning lady Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), her only friend alongside neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) who narrates the movie.
Elisa's life begins to change rather drastically the night she and Zelda are sent to mop up some blood upon orders of government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon), which is where they both discover Occam's big secret; an amphibious humanoid creature (portrayed by Doug Jones) captured from a remote jungle, whose unique biology is being studied by the government. This marks the beginning of a very strange yet sweet friendship between the creature and Elisa, which eventually begins to blossom into something much, much more.
Their bond comes from the fact that both Elisa and this creature require no words to understand each other, and that, as a disabled woman, Elisa is sympathetic to the creature's status as an outcast. It is through him that she finally finds a man who understands her, seeing her as someone who isn't broken.
Del Toro brings back his childhood love of vintage Hollywood horror to full light here, this time turning the tables and giving monsters their chance at love. The appearance of the movie's fish man brings to mind the titular 1954 “Creature from the Black Lagoon”, famous for its imagery of a fish-man kidnapping a beautiful though helpless woman. In “The Shape of Water”, it is the woman who rescues the monster from a man like Strickland, who very well would have been the film's hero in a different time.
Those curious to how a film with such an odd premise could earn over 13 Oscar Nominations and win four awards, (along with its previous win of the Golden Lion award in Venice) should understand the sheer passion Del Toro holds for the grotesque and fantastical, and how well he weaves this into his movies. With critically adored films such as “Pan's Labyrinth”, “Crimson Peak” and “Pacific Rim” under his belt, it's no short wonder that audiences were looking forward to his latest release as soon as the first trailer dropped.
And indeed, Del Toro has wowed the critics once again.
Writing for The Telegraph, film critic Robbie Collin likens the film to the "best bath you ever had", continuing that it "sends tingles coursing through every part of you that other films don’t reach." Over at The Guardian and Observer, film critic Mark Kermode, after opening up with praise for Del Toro in general, remarks that "I became aware of the shape of my own tears, swept along by the emotional waves of Del Toro’s sparkling drama." Currently holding a 92-percent positive vote on the critic aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes (with an audience's score of 78 percent), showing a highly positive reception.
Of course, as with all things, not everyone was happy with the film.
At the New York Observer, writer Rex Reed felt the film was a sinking ship, stating that "The more I try to find some kind of justifiable meaning and relevance, the more I find ‘The Shape of Water’ a loopy, lunkheaded load of drivel." Meanwhile, at Slant Magazine, critic Chuck Bowen found the film's characterization lacking, its actors "boxed into archetypical roles", concluding ultimately that "For all its conceits, themes, and symbols, ‘The Shape of Water’ fails to impart a sense that its antique tropes have been adopted for a purpose."
Looming over the movie is another negative cloud, this time coming from David Zindel, who has filed a lawsuit against Del Toro and Fox Searchlist on the grounds of plagiarism. Zindel, son of Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Paul Zindel, states that “The Shape of Water” blatantly copied the plotline of his father's 1969 play “Let Me Hear You Whisper”, which is set in a research facility and involves a woman's relationship with its aquatic captor; in this case, a dolphin, who is scheduled to be dissected and she seeks to rescue. The play was adapted into a 1990 TV movie.
Del Toro, speaking to Deadline, denies the accusations of plagiarism, stating that throughout his 25-year-long career he has always been open and honest about his influences, sharing them freely across his Twitter account, DVD interviews and wherever else. The lawsuit case is still on-going as of this writing.
In the end, the number of awards a film receives does little to fully influence opinions for everyone. Movies can be more than just what is shown on-screen; a film is a relationship. Each person who watches a movie walks away with their own viewpoint on it, ranging from positive, neutral and negative. To determine whether or not a film is worth the hype can only truly be concluded by viewing it yourself.