Whether you are for them or against them, there is no doubting the fact the Academy Awards are a very big deal, and they carry great significance within the industry. They are also useful for assessing some current trends within the industry as well as any shifts that may be taking place. One interesting one involves taking a look at the types of films that are up for the most prestigious award, Best Picture.
This is a category that is dominated by more conventional dramas with the occasional war or western film to break up the monotony. It is very rare for a sci-fi, fantasy or horror film to make the cut into the final nominations, and it is exceedingly rare for one of those to actually win the award; the three genres combine for a measly three wins out of a possible 89. Sci-fi and fantasy films just don’t get the type attention as more traditional film genres.
That may not be the case this year. Sure there are five outright dramas out of the nine nominated with a sixth being a comedy/drama and a seventh being a drama/war film, but there are also two films that are outside of the mold of a traditional best picture type of film. Get Out, the horror/thriller which came out of nowhere in February, and Shape of Water, the sci-fi-fantasy hybrid which has a very good shot of being named the best film of the year in March.
The fantasy genre seems to be mostly relegated to family films and animated features with the occasional young adult Harry Potter knock off popping up here or there. Shape of Water is far from typical, and stands as a possible watershed type of film for the immediate future and critical acceptance of fantasy films. Written and directed by Spanish auteur, Guillermo del Toro, Shape of Water is one the most unabashedly fantastic films in some time. Back near the turn of the century, The Lord of the Rings trilogy were making headway for fantasy films and critical acceptance, but they don’t really feel like fantasy films. They feel like a war or dramatic film stuck in a fantasy setting, or like a period piece with some elves walking around; tonally, they are far removed from the usual denizens of the genre.
Shape of Water is much more accepting of its genre with every second of the film unfolding like a fairy tale. The characters, the colors, the score and the overall narrative all work together to tell this magical story of a lady who wants to save a weird fish man that will occasionally eat a cat. At no point does the film care about being subtle or subdued for the sake of realism, instead opting to only ever become more fantastical and unbelievable at every turn. Sometimes a film can struggle to have the audience suspend their disbelief and accept all of the reality-breaking events that take place on the screen- especially ones that take place in somewhat contemporary settings. Shape of Water has no trouble with that, as each escalation of the plot and each new twist in our fairy tale is welcomed as if it were the most natural path for the film to take. “Ok, so mute janitor lady is going to block the cracks in the doorway with towels and fill the bathroom with water so that she can swim with the fish man; of course, what else would she do?”
Fantasy goodness alone would not have gotten Shape of Water this far. The film is carried by a series of terrific performances with Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins leading the way. Hawkins is tasked with being a mute protagonist, and thus needing to convey all of her emotions strictly through facial expressions, body language and some subtitled sign language serving as her dialogue. Body language and facial expressions are of paramount importance for the hearing or speaking impaired as it is one of the main ways they can express emotion- just look at how some interpreters are working to convey music. Other than a brief fantasy sequence, Hawkins has to convey all of her character’s emotions without the benefit of speech. Meanwhile, Jenkins serves as a sort of surrogate for the audience in the film as he is often shocked and aghast as the actions within the film escalate. But as with everyone else within the film, he too will eventually just roll with all of the events playing out and just accept how weird the world they occupy is.
The performances led by Sally Hawkins combined with the world created by Guillermo del Toro both serve to create a modern fairy tale.
The final major star of the film which delivers its merit is the direction and use of color. The film is filled with saturated, yet still soft and muted colors which give the film a feeling that is just subtly different enough to not be mistaken for a more traditional film. Combined with the retro-futurist setting of a cold war era science lab perfect for housing strange fish men and you have a setting that is simultaneously familiar and alien.
Through Shape of Water del Toro has once again proved that he is one of the genuine visionaries in the industry today. There are many people out there who can imagine worlds entirely separate from our own, but very rare is the one who can properly visualize those world and convey them in a way that still creates a compelling narrative. He did it more than a decade ago with Pan’s Labyrinth, and continues to build on his reputation through Shape of Water. He is one of the few filmmakers out there that can create a fantasy world that is filled with the types of maturity that allow it to stack up to the most respected dramas at the time, but also still brings the sort of magical realism that distinguishes fantasy films from their contemporaries.