Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is the first science fiction film ever to win an Oscar for Best Picture. This alone makes it worthy of a place in the annals of sci-fi. It’s also a great example of what makes del Toro such a fascinating filmmaker and storyteller. Like many geniuses, del Toro has an ability to look at the ordinary and see something extraordinary. His films often take familiar story tropes and make them feel fresh again. In The Shape of Water, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a janitor at a government lab in Baltimore, falls in love with a humanoid fish-creature (Doug Jones). In one sense, this is simply a twist on the classic “odd-couple romance” story, like Beauty & the Beast or The Frog Prince. However, del Toro does several things to make the story feel completely unlike anything that’s come before.
Guillermo del Toro’s films have a unique way of blending the fantastical and the mundane. He calls The Shape of Water a “modern fairy tale,” in part because, unlike most fairy tales that take place in a distant, quasi-mythological past, the movie is set during the early 1960s, a time within living memory. In retrospect, this was a relatively optimistic period in Western history. Most people still had faith in political and social institutions. Many science fiction writers, including Isaac Asimov, thought technology would soon solve our social problems. The future looked sleek and utopian (flying cars!). Looking back, it’s hard not to see this period as the calm before the storm of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and youth counterculture.
Yet, the film doesn’t focus on this popular, nostalgic view of the early 1960s. Instead, it shifts the focus onto the marginalized groups, the people who didn’t belong or were excluded from that version of the 60s. Elisa is mute, a disability that leads to her feeling alone and sexually unfulfilled. Her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is a black woman who works alongside Elisa as a janitor. Elisa’s friend and roommate, Giles (Richard Jenkins), is a commercial artist forced to hide his homosexuality. All of these individuals face discrimination at work and in their daily lives. They are neither the heroes nor the damsels in distress typically found in fairy tales.
This focus on marginalized individuals feels much more “modern” than the typical fairy tale. Most fairy tales end up reaffirming the dominant social and political norms. After defeating the proverbial dragon, things are restored to the way they were before. These stories teach respect for traditional hierarchies, like respect for monarchy, religious authorities, and husbands. Yet, in The Shape of Water, the old order does not work for minorities. In order to get their happily ever after, society must change or they must flee the kingdom. By contrast, Strickland (Michael Shannon), the white male “knight” most fairy tales would cast as the hero, is the movie’s villain. The protagonists in this film are the ones most in need of a fairy tale to help them find meaning in their troubled lives.
The marginalized position of the protagonists also helps sell the idea that they could plausibly befriend a creature that looks like a humanoid fish. The typical American in a privileged position probably wouldn’t find herself in a position to fall in love with a fish creature. One only need acknowledge the existence of Jim Crow laws to realize they wouldn’t be willing to look past the superficial physical differences. Yet, Elisa, Giles, and even Zelda recognize the need to empathize with the Other. Indeed, although Elisa’s inability to communicate verbally limited her ability to pursue romantic relationships, the creature does not judge her for her disability. I won’t quite say their romance feels “natural,” but it makes sense that a woman who feels isolated from the rest of humanity would be more open to a relationship with a non-human.
On top of all this, del Toro brings a keen eye for color and cinematography (there’s a reason he won an Oscar for Best Director). The film is a stunningly gorgeous study in colors and contrasts. Del Toro knows when to strive for realism in his shots, but he also knows when to give a shot an ethereal quality. For example, the shots underwater look like a fairy tale version of what it would look like to peer beneath the waves. Elisa’s apartment is generally shot in warm, earthy colors and shows signs of water, either in the form of water damage or wave-like patterns on the wall. By contrast, the government lab is shot in harsh green, representing a “future” dominating by technology. Every once in a while, del Toro will use bright red (most notably Elisa’s dress after her encounter with the creature) to indicate the potential for unbridled emotion. All of this combines to form a movie that is delightful to look at. Again, even if the broader story beats resemble familiar fairy tropes, The Shape of Water looks unique.
The Shape of Water isn’t my favorite del Toro film (that honor still goes to Pan’s Labyrinth), but it’s perhaps the one the best showcases his strengths as a storyteller to modern American audiences. Hopefully this win paves the way for other sci-fi films at future Academy Awards.