It seemed so unlikely at one point. While The Shape of Water is a beautiful fairy tale exquisitely composed, executed and performed under the direction of Guillermo del Toro, it had one major thing going against it: it is still a science fiction film.
Despite The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King‘s Best Picture Academy Award win in 2004, the Academy has never been kind to science fiction or fantasy films in the major categories, even when it gained a brief legitimacy in the early 1950s — just before it became a B-movie staple — or in 1968 with 2001: a space odyssey. Although, in the case of the latter, the film community despised the film during its initial release. In 1978, Star Wars was nominated for best picture, but lost to Annie Hall, cementing a long-standing tradition at Oscar time: science fiction films can receive nominations and technical merits, but can never represent the Academy’s view of the year’s best film.
And, for the moment, we’ll ignore how many Best Picture winners fade into obscurity after a year or two.
But the sci-fi barrier remained in tact for nearly 40 years as films like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Aliens appeared on the scene. Again, those films received nominations, like Sigourney Weaver’s nomination for Best Actress, but could not shatter the perception that sci-fi films were a lesser form.
This perception is key to understanding the Academy’s choices and why The Shape of Water is significant. In an era of Star Trek sequels and the sort of Star Wars knock-offs I discuss in my weekend column, Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, it is easy to see why the Academy’s voting body — known for liking grand epics like Dances with Wolves and The English Patient — would assume a sci-fi film of the 1980s or 90s would lack the layers, meaning and import of what the industry used to call a “Prestige Picture.”
With The Return of the King‘s win, it seemed the barrier cracked a little for fantasy, an even more maligned genre, proving it can be art. Unfortunately, that perception never really took hold as fantasy films are really hard to make; as proved by ROTK director Peter Jackson’s mishandling of The Hobbit ten years later. Also, many accepted that Oscar win as an acknowledgement of The Lord of the Rings as a whole and the mammoth undertaking of Jackson and his collaborators. In the years since, the Best Picture award went to films like Crash and No Country for Old Men; movies perceived as taking place in a realer, naturalistic world. Although, I’d jokingly claim Crash takes place in a world as equally fantastical as Middle-earth.
So what changed this year? What made The Shape of Water worthy of breaking the sci-fi barrier?
I think, for one thing, there is a single science fiction concept on display in the film: Doug Jones’ gillman character. The Star Wars galaxy or the voyages of the starship Enterprise ask the notoriously conservative Academy to accept a lot of fantastic concepts like FTL space travel, alien creatures and mystical energy fields. For decades, there was a belief that these sorts of pictures — with their imaginary settings — could not reveal the human condition and were mere ephemeral entertainments. To an extent, this is the perception of any genre film with Star Wars, E.T. and ROTK as the rare outliers. And as long as the Academy, as whole, feels too overwhelmed by science fiction worlds to see the artistry beyond the craft, a film with one single sci-fi idea will appear more palatable.
Beyond its sympathetic rubber monster, the film is also a love-letter to an older style of filmmaking. Del Toro himself repeatedly name-checks Douglas Sirk as a key inspiration behind the film. Sirk was a German director who fled the country in 1937 and eventually wound up making films in Hollywood. While highly regarded today, the female-driven melodramas Sirk made — like All The Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life — were considered examples of an unimportant genre (see the connection?). They also happen to be fantastic examples of the way Hollywood films were made and performed in an era the aging portion of the Academy longs to relive.
I also suspect the film’s acceptance was aided by the in-rush of younger members not as prejudiced against science fiction as a form. But I lack the numbers to prove it.
Combine the above with the film’s gorgeous visuals, superb acting and remarkable score and you get a science fiction film acceptable enough for the Academy while still weird enough to be notable for what it does within this film genre. If we look inward for a moment, we also find science fiction can be at home in more naturalistic worlds; requiring less world-building to deliver its story and message. Sci-Fi authors have known this to be true for centuries, but it seems the film industry is finally discovering you don’t need to go to Arrakis or Endor to tell a compelling science fiction story.
Hopefully, this means more movies with one-central and beautifully realized sci-fi theme will be made. There’s also hope that the Academy will be more accepting of wilder sci-fi films in the years to come. I know it’s a tall ask, but I genuinely did not believe The Shape of Water would get the recognition its earned in the last few months. And now that the sci-fi barrier has been broken, the genre may finally get the legitimacy it’s deserved for decades.
Also, if del Toro can make At The Mountains of Madness now, it will have all been worth it.
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