After watching Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, I’m not at all surprised that it won a Best Picture Oscar.
It was terrible.
Big-budget films can have an awfulness all their own, quite different from their low-budget counterparts; regular readers of this site know that I’ve seen more than my share of horrible low-to-no-budget movies, so I know the difference. In this case, with The Shape of Water, the movie’s biggest flaw, outside of its dreariness, was how completely cliched the story was. If you’re looking for a cinematic exercise in virtue-signaling where we, as a woke nation, can look back at a fictional 1960’s America and shudder in horror, you’ll love this film. Every tired, hackneyed trope Hollywood has ever shat out shines bright and proud in The Shape of Water, which tells you everything you need to know about the kinds of people who nominate and vote for the Academy Awards.
To talk about it I need to spoil it. Which isn’t a problem because this movie’s as rancid as week-old fish.
The story’s familiar enough: woman meets fish in secret scientific facility, woman steals fish to live in her bathtub, woman fucks fish, woman and fish live happily ever after and as it turns out woman is part fish herself so it’s all good and not at all disgusting.
As this is a character-driven movie, let’s take a look at the main characters.
Elisa: the protagonist. She can’t speak, but she can masturbate in the bathtub. A lot. She’s the typical Hollywood handicapped character: a saintly figure that can do nothing but good. As such, she goes through no development or maturation during the film. She doesn’t need to. You can’t improve on perfection.
Strickland: the antagonist. The polar opposite of Elisa in that he’s irredeemably evil and incapable of development because when you’re as malevolent as he is, there’s no saving you. He’s also racist and sexist. And, of course, he’s a Bible-thumper, because Hollywood knows that Christians are Bad People.
Giles: the gay friend. As Elisa’s bestest, gayest buddy in the whole wide world, he exists only to show the audience how homophobic Americans were in the 1960’s. Fired from his job as an artist for an advertising firm (Mad Men!) for reasons unclear but probably having to do with his homosexuality, he develops an attraction for the owner of the local diner. The diner owner, about thirty years younger than Giles and not gay, is of course evil for refusing Giles’s advances, and turns out to be racist to boot because he won’t let a black couple sit at the lunch counter.
Zelda: the black friend. Normally, mature black women act as the moral center of these kinds of movies, but in The Shape of Water, we don’t need a moral center: Elisa the protagonist is the moral center. Instead, Zelda exists to show the audience how racist Americans were in the 1960’s, particularly Bible-thumping Americans. Oh, and she occasionally translates Elisa’s sign language for other characters. All of the good people know sign language. All of the evil people don’t.
The Asset: the fish/amphibian creature/love interest. Looks almost exactly like Abe Sapien. Eats eggs like Abe Sapien. Is not Abe Sapien, according to del Toro. Has magical powers. And a hidden penis.
All the male characters who aren’t fish are homosexuals, Russian spies, stupid, cowardly, or evil. Go figure.
The visuals were dreary, the special effects amazing. That’s where the budget went.
I understand that it’s supposed to be a fairy tale. A dark fantasy. But if it is, why include the bizarre scene of Strickland fucking his creepy wife? Or the Russian spy subplot? The theme/tone was uneven at best.
For comparison, let’s take a look at some previous Best Picture Oscar winners: Casablanca in 1943, The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1957, A Man for All Seasons in 1966, The Godfather in 1972, Amadeus in 1984, Schindler’s List in 1993, Million Dollar Baby in 2004, and The King’s Speech in 2010.
This is the kind of film that wins the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2017: a paean to moral preening and the evils of religious white men. It sucked.