SPOILER ALERT: This article is aimed at readers who have already seen “The Shape of Water”.
“Best” is a subjective word. That’s why any movie that gets nominated for “Best Picture” will always be the subject of discussion.
This year’s Academy Awards Best Picture was no different – though they at least got the name of the movie right, unlike in 2017.
“The Shape of Water”, a fantasy romance by Guillermo del Toro, is 2018’s Best Picture. It also won the Golden Lion award at the 2017 Venice Film Festival, which is effectively a best film award, as well. So there’s some precedence for its cinematic merit.
What makes “The Shape of Water” an awkward choice for Best Picture is not that it’s a fantasy film – that fact should be lauded as a step forward for the Academy Awards finally broadening the types of movies that they consider suitable. That’s actually quite a bold choice.
Rather, what makes “The Shape of Water” strange is that the central love story makes little sense.
Mute cleaner Elisa (Sally Hopkins) falls in love with an amphibious humanoid (Doug Jones), who cannot speak English. In case you’re wondering, [SPOILER ALERT] the amphibious humanoid reciprocates her feelings. He learns sign language – surprisingly quickly – enabling him to communicate with Elisa later on.
The story explains their unlikely connection thus: Elisa feels that the amphibious humanoid finally understands her in a way no other non-mute human can, because of their inability to communicate verbally.
Unfortunately, it spells this exposition out in the clunkiest way possible, by having another character, Giles (Richard Jenkins), say out loud what Elisa is signing to him. She doesn’t even give him a proper explanation for wanting him to speak out what she is signing, and he willingly goes along with her request, despite the fact that they’ve communicated perfectly fine without him repeating what she’s signing for many years.
That entire scene explaining Elisa’s love is done purely for the benefit of the audience, rather than as an organic development of the story. And that encapsulates the core problem with the movie.
It focuses on the visual spectacle for the viewer, rather than telling a proper, touching story.
Without a reasonable foundation for their romance, Elisa and the humanoid’s relationship expands into realms of increasing weirdness. The culmination of their love results in an underwater lovemaking scene, despite the fact that they’ve only ever really bonded over eating hard-boiled eggs. At this point, they haven’t even really had a proper conversation.
If Elisa were a mute teenage girl and the humanoid was a foreign teen boy who couldn’t speak English, the scene would probably have been far more disturbing, although that’s not to say it’s not disturbing in its current form.
While caught up in the striking visuals and the seemingly Shakespearean drama of the film, you might not really stop to think about how baseless the relationship between Elisa and the amphibian is.
But after you go back and think about the ending, [SPOILER ALERT] when Elisa is given gills and lives with the amphibious humanoid happily ever after – presumably sublimating both their carnal desires underwater forever – it all falls apart.
Production-wise, “The Shape of Water” checks off all the requisites of a Best Picture award winner, mechanically. But its storytelling – its emotional core – is lacking.
Perhaps there were some missing scenes. Maybe the director had to cut a scene of Elisa and the amphibious humanoid having a full-blown conversation. Some dialogue that further justified their deep love for each other may have been cut.
Unfortunately, that might have been what made all the difference.
“The Shape of Water” may be one of the most awkward films to have been bestowed with the Best Picture award in recent years. While the decision shows some evidence of progress, it’s also surprisingly remiss in judging the quality of the story.
Marcus Goh is a Singapore television scriptwriter, having written for “Lion Mums”, “Crimewatch”, “Incredible Tales”, and “Police & Thief”. He’s also a Transformers enthusiast and avid pop culture scholar. You can find him on social media as Optimarcus and on his site. The views expressed are his own.
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