Dir: Guillermo Del Toro
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Sally Hawkins), Best Supporting Actor (Richard Jenkins), Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing.
Guillermo del Toro is perhaps best known for his largely overrated but imaginative 2006 feature Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s blend of dark fantasy / fairy tale set against the real life horror of the Spanish Civil War made it a film beloved by many (largely thanks to it’s striking character design and mood) despite the fact it didn’t hang together especially well as a film. After that success, and after cashing in on fanboy desires for another Hellboy movie, Del Toro made a move to try and play with Hollywood’s big toy box. Pacific Rim was essentially an artistic and stateside box office disaster. But it didn’t really need to be a success in the U.S. It was part of a wave of movies designed to see what kind of money could be extracted from Asian markets by Hollywood. Normally in any big monster, disaster style movie, the aliens land in New York or the earthquake happens in L.A. and it’s up to a taxi driver / ex marine to save the world because… you know… America is the most important bit of world (no wonder the aliens always land there first). Notably however, the action in Pacific Rim is centred around Hong Kong and as such, so was the box office. Despite not doing so well in the U.S. The movie raked in $114 million in China, breaking the $400 million dollar mark internationally also making it easily Del Toro’s most lucrative movie. Despite the distinctions between this and your average blockbuster, with it’s actually rather fun scenes of Asian cinema inspired Godzilla like alien sea creatures and giant Transformer like robots battling it out, everyone knew Guillermo had left his trademark style behind and created a pretty darn messy film. Plagued with the usual crash, bang, wallop and unnecessary things whizzing about the screen that movies of that ilk seem to demand, it wasn’t good. Fast forward to 2015 and Guillermo was back in his rightful territory again with gothic horror romance Crimson Peak. Not exactly the most ground breaking or highest example of cinematic excellence it was non the less blessed with a fun theme bleached in a strong colour palette with striking set design that had clearly been a work of passion for the director, and was certain to stir the interest of Guillermo fans. It was a bridge to what was to follow.
The Shape Of Water with it’s sets & colour grading that echo the kind of highly stylised world of Crimson Peak (this time less red and more green) is set in a fantastical almost comic book version of the early 60s. The story tells of the unlikely bond between a mute janitor Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins) who works in a top secret government laboratory and a sort of human like amphibian sea monster that is held captive there. She teaches the monster sign language as a secret romance blooms behind the backs of the monster’s cruel military minders, as they struggle to use the creature for some sort of an advantage in the cold war. When events threaten to harm the creature Elisa is forced to take action. The film is a bit silly and in the first instance the very quick to bloom relationship between mute janitor & sea monster is a little hard to accept. There seems to be scant reason for this union other than he is a sea monster so… you know… he doesn’t judge. However once you accept this romance is in progress, the film’s considerable heart does actually give you cause to care at several key moments. Sally Hawkins does reasonably well with a deceptively tricky non speaking part whilst Richard Jenkins who subsequently does most of the talking is cleverly understated despite having to be a chatterbox. The excellent Michael Shannon who doesn’t quite have as much to chew on as in some previous roles, formidably plays Elisa’s nemesis and all around twisted bad guy foil, as such Shannon does what he does best (and often), loom menacingly large, whilst very angry. Others like the always excellent Michael Stuhlbarg & Octavia Spencer (who is handed most of the comedic lines) round out a strong cast.
The visual style is appealing, Del Toro borrows heavily from the style of Jean- Pierre Jeunet & Tim Burton. The film liberally flashes elements of Delicatessen, alongside Amelie and Big Fish. Alexandre Desplat’s score is effective as is the use of popular music and images from the golden age of Hollywood. Several nods are made to golden big budget Hollywood prestige movie classics of yesteryear which might give one explanation as to why Academy voters are so enamoured with a sci fi movie about a sea monster. On the other hand the sea monster itself which is brilliantly designed and executed throughout is itself a nod to slightly less prestigious Hollywood classic in that it looks exactly like the Creature From The Black Lagoon. Said 1954 creature feature was perhaps the last great Universal monster movie character from it’s highly successful run that included Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein / Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy etc. Despite being looked down upon at the time, these horror classics are to Tim Burton & Guillermo what Foxy Brown and Vanishing Point are to Quentin Tarantino.
There are some drawbacks in the film. Despite it’s unusual premise it doesn’t offer anything startlingly new. Much of the time you can tell in advance what characters are likely to say or do in any given situation and indeed how events are likely to unfold. Guillermo can’t resist reaching for a bit of his usual hyper violence to try and artificially heighten the tension, and perhaps to try and make this slightly twee story a bit darker and more adult. In actual fact it makes the thing a little more juvenile. The central romance plot is actually crowded out by many of the supporting characters various sub stories, meaning non of the story strands actually come across particularly strongly. Generally the jokes are only mildly amusing and the surprises are only vaguely surprising. Aside from Guillermo’s usual slightly cheap short sharp shocks of violence and perhaps the overt sexual elements of the film, its perhaps a little too wistful to be a movie of real impact, it’s generally cloaked in a sort of faux nostalgia which will no doubt give the movie broad appeal. It’s certainly one of the better movies of 2018’s award season but not necessarily one that will cement itself as a widely loved or important movie in decades to come. A pleasant enough distraction though, and not just for 20 & 30 something Guillermo fans who have mistakenly labelled Pan’s Labyrinth “a classic”, but for wider and often markedly more mature audiences who would never have previously dreamt of seeing a Hollywood sea monster movie.
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