by Brenda W. Clough
There are those of us who watch movies over and over again. I can’t imagine what repeat views of The Last Jedi would get you. But with The Shape of Water, I can see it. This is what a science fiction movie should be like. It should not be teens with perfect complexions and good teeth in chase scenes and space combat. The Shape of Water is subtle, full of angles and weirdnesses. It’s subversive in the right way, with depth, as you might deduce from the title. You have to think about it!
Guillermo del Toro’s latest is quite different from his (IMO) tiresome Pacific Rim. This new effort is romantic and Mad Men, with Dan Draper in suit and Cadillac trapped in a novel by Le Guin or Bujold. It’s about the underclass, the people who are not the protagonists: ageing gay men, marginalized women with mops, handicapped people, racial minorities, members of unattractive species that do not have pettable fur or cute waddling walks. Cleverly set in the early 1960s, when all of these types were invisible or actively oppressed, the movie shows the underclass working together. While their overlords, the older white men, will stab each other in the back at the drop of a hat. It’s a reverse Snow White — it’s the male who is adored and trapped behind glass, and the princess, with her varied assistants, who has to open the coffin and give him the kiss. This is a very 2018 movie; it could not have been made in the year it is set, 1962.
There’s a deliberate contrast in the chunks of the plot, the dreamy and glorious inter-species romance set against the paranoia of Cold-War rivalries and the grim Darwinian battle to be a successful white man. And there’s a steady drumbeat of the culture of the period, the TV sitcoms and the music.
The film has been widely praised, especially for the performance of Sally Hawkins as the heroine. and raked in thirteen Oscar nominations. It’s surely a cinch for awards for the fantabulous visual effects and a Nebula, although probably not the Hugo — the Force is too powerful for that. I need to see it again to grip all the subtleties that I couldn’t grab the first time around. The use of water as a symbol (why is it that only the white men have glasses of water?); the significance of the food (pie, eggs), the real nature of the heroine — there’s tons of stuff going on in here under the surface, as it were. Science fiction movies have been thrillers and action-adventure and horror for decades. Now, finally, they’re art.