The Shape Of Water
Of all the types of films released each year one genre appears to be snubbed more frequently than other genres when the time for major award season rolls around science fiction and fantasy frequent being lauded as amazing examples of the best the cinematic arts has to offer as well as astronomical popularity and box office receipts exceeding the billon dollar milestone, they never seem to be listed for the major accolades. Occasionally, they might garner one of the awards for technical accomplishment including sound, costume or artwork but the awards people remain watching the overly drawn out ceremony constantly eludes this genre. The upcoming Academy Awards will mark the end of this regrettable trend when one movie title will be announced among the nominees thirteen times, ‘The Shape of Water’ certainly this staggering total encompasses the usual recognition of technical achievements but. More importantly, a near clear sweep of the top six Oscars. Nominations were awarded to this movie in the coveted categories of Best Director, Best Actor and actress in a leading role as well as best supporting actress. What remains truly remarkable were the nominations for highly desired, Best Original Screenplay and the top honor of the evening, Best Motion Picture of the Year. These awards for the 90th Academy Awards are not an isolated incident. A similar recognition was afforded by other with numerous trips to the podium at such prestigious honors the Golden Globe and the American Film Institute selected it as one of the top 10 films of the year. For those us that were enticed in to becoming a cinephile at the Saturday Matinee or Friday night drive -ins, the kind of stories we have spent our formative years enthralled by these films, the specifics of our passion have finally been rewarded. Movies of these popular categories tended to be slapped together with budgets that would barely cover smokes, snack and beer for the crew. Special effects were typically on the level of a Chevy hub cap and fishing line to stand in for an inter galactic craft. Even after the ability of filmmakers to employ cutting edge computer generated graphics permitted their resulting movie to finally represent their imagination, these movies still lacked representation at the awards. Now our love of these movies has been vindicated.
Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), lives in Baltimore working as a janitor for a government building involved with top secret research. The story is set during the Cold War when there was a proliferation of such covert facilities. She lived alone in a small apartment above a movie theater until a discovery affected her life. Elisa was a foundling, abandoned as a child. She was mute with scars on her neck, learning sign language to communicate with others. Elisa’s only friends are her neighbors, Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay man who is trying to get a career as an advertisement illustrator, and co-worker Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer. One day the facility receives a mysterious shipment from a river in South America. The specimen was obtained by explorer, Colonel Richard Strickland (Shannon). The shipment contained a humanoid creature, confined to a tank of water to accommodate its aquatic nature. During her work Elisa comes across the amphibian (Doug Jones). This is not the first time Mr. Jones portrayed an aquatic man in a tank. He played Abe Sapien in ‘Hellboy II: The Golden Army’ as well as The Silver Surfer in ‘Fantastic Four: 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer’. He has been a consistently busy character actor specializing various creatures for twenty years. While most of the characters Mr. Jones has undertaken were not afforded the detail in characterization, the experience obviously did provide considerable insight for him to infuse into this incredible performance here. At the most fundamental level this film contains the defining elements of a creature feature, albeit of far superior quality. It is unusual for this type of movie to give too much attention of the character development of the creature. They are included for a singular purpose, to motivate the humans. One of the aspects of this film that set it so far above not only the other examples of the genre, but movies in general, is how the Amphibian Man is multifaceted, realistic and relatable. Among the best examples of this in classic cinema go back to 1931 with Boris Karloff’s amazing embodiment on the monster in James Whale’s ‘Frankenstein’. He imbued the creature with a pathos that has remained unsurpassed in the myriad of interpretations of the creature. If this was not achieved as well as seen here the all-important relationship between the Amphibian Man and Elisa would imploded, spiraling into a farce.
Younger viewers may not be familiar with the sixties except perhaps for movies set in that period. For those of us with firsthand experience of this pivotal decade the story will reveal a deeper level of meaning. The magnitude of a scientific discovery like this is enormous. Discovering a previously unknown humanoid would ensure a ticket to Stockholm to pick up your Nobel Prize. If this occurred today the news would come close to breaking the internet. The scientist responsible for bringing this specimen to the public would be instant media sensations, in the sixties the pervading emotion environment and psychological zeitgeist was one of extreme paranoia resulting from the escalating tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union referred to as the old War. The primary motivation driving all significant scientific research was to provide a military or political advantage to one side of the opposing super powers. We didn’t travel to the moon to advance human potential; but to prevent a Red Moon, under Soviet control. The project is removed from the colonel’s purview by General Frank Hoyt (Nick Searcy), who is charged with exploring potential use in the space program. To the end the general orders Strickland to perform a vivisection. The view though of surgically dismantling a living, sentient being is beyond inhuman, it is one of the most heinous actions possible, the Nazis routinely vivisected prisoners of the concentration camps, the general’s order was tantamount to equating our government on the same immoral standing as the Nazis. Under the pervasive paranoia of the ‘Red Menace’ such a dreadful course of action was quite possible.
The story embraces the motifs of the decade by inserting an espionage thread into the narrative. One of the scientist working on the project, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), was secretly a Soviet agent deeply undercover. While most current movies, and television series utilize covert agents of this type as a convenient plot device. Keep in mind that in the sixties soviet embedded agents were a significant danger to the security of the nation. One of the most overwhelming fears gripping the country was the inherent uncertainty. Anyone, a neighbor, co-work of stranger sitting across from you on the bus might be a Soviet spy pretending to be a typical American. Initially, Dr. Hoffstetler pleads with the general to keep the subject alive for extensive research. This position changes radically when he receives orders from the Kremlin that they want the subject unusable by the American scientist. He is commanded to euthanize the creature. Elisa has formed a strong, emotional bond with the creature and is appalled by the plans and enlists Giles assistance to help the creature escape. The structure of the story is straightforward, the twist infused in the film are achieved in an organic fashion eschewing the typical contrived feeling found imparted by most movies. Guillermo del Toro has redefined the basic nature of horror blurring the distinction between the supernatural and science fiction technology. This was observed in Hell Boy where the organization had a reliance on technology as an adjunct to the supernatural team members. More recently this blend was seen in his television series, ‘The Strain’ that was a masterpiece of presenting the paranormal on a technological scaffold. This imparts a sense of realism that is critical of the success of a fantasy. When the plot is dependent on the product of a focused imagination a tether to the real world provides a means for the viewer to firmly connect to the story and fully appreciate the character development. As validated by the numerous honorifics received and pending this film deserves each one. The nominations and wins are not a product of the studio public relations area. The cast can strike an ideal balance between personal achievement and performing within a tightly knit ensemble cast. Like a jigsaw puzzle each piece is a self-contained entity that when taken as a whole provides the view of wonderous beauty.