The other weekend my wife and I decided to go to the movies. It’s that time of year where all the stuff that was in limited release at the end of last year for Oscar consideration is starting to trickle out to our neck of the woods. We checked the listings and came down to seeing either The Post, the new Spielberg take on the Pentagon Papers, or The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s latest. The wife decided on the latter, figuring it was more the kind of movie that should be seen in the theater.
Boy was she ever right (as usual).
Mostly when I think of “see it in the theater” movies I’m thinking of the big, popcorn movies that dominate the box office most of the year – superheroes, big sci-fi/fantasy franchises, or action movies (the wife has a disturbing affection for the Fast and Furious movies). Things that really play into the “bigger is better” idea and make it worth dealing with the public to watch in super wide vision, rather than just on the TV.
The Shape of Water isn’t one of those movies. It looks beautiful, don’t get me wrong, and it has some praise worthy effects, but it’s not interested in them as an end, as so many big movies are. Rather, what makes The Shape of Water the kind of movie you want to see in the theater is that it’s the kind best experienced when you turn the lights off, shut out the real world, and give yourself over to it completely.
That’s because The Shape of Water is, essentially, a fairy tale. Voice overs at the beginning and end of the film make this about as explicitly as they could without just saying “this is a fairy tale.” It’s not a movie for your logical, rational mind; it’s for your heart or spirit or soul or whatever place it is where your feels live. That’s not for everybody – witness the low ratings from some IMDB commenters who ding the movie for not being “realistic.” Problem is, the movie never sets out to be realistic.
I mean, “realistic” isn’t a word that should be anywhere near a story about a mute woman who falls in love with The Creature from the Black Lagoon (or Abe Sapien – take your pick). Just so stories aren’t realistic – or else they wouldn’t be just-so stories – and that’s what this is. A collection of outsiders – mute woman, gay man, African-American woman, a communist – band together to save another odd outsider, battling all the way against forces of conformity.
By turning away from realism del Toro is able to give the film a lyrical, dreamlike quality. When a black and white musical number pops up in the second half of the film, it seems perfectly in place. Another scene, wherein the aquatic containment properties of the common apartment bathroom are pushed beyond all sense, works just as well. Del Toro, aided by an amazing cast, weaves a spell, but it has to be one you’re willing to fall for.
But don’t take it from me. The Shape of Water now had 13 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. You want to see it, and the best place to see it is in a large, dark room where you can let it completely absorb you.