A Better Aquaman: The Shape of Water

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I saw The Shape of Water recently and found it functioned like a beautifully rendered vision of someone’s dream. Someone who had either been reading a lot of Aquaman comics, or doing a fair amount of drugs while sitting in front of an aquarium. That’s the thing about movies: they are visions. Those of the director, the writer, the actors, the cinematographer, and a whole assembly of people who have come together to enact what was, at one point, a jumbled imagination in someone’s mind.

The Shape of Water executes his vision not flawlessly, but with cracked exuberance. There’s so much joy in its shots; those austere labs, tiny apartments, and diners. The movie spins Soviet intrigue, mad scientists, and the creature from the Black Lagoon together for… love. It works, and it’s fun to watch the plots whirl around because the cast does everything they can to sell their characters.

It all leads to a satisfying, if unsurprising end. I didn’t mind though, because what makes this movie so fascinating isn’t the main plot. It’s the intertwining lives of everyone involved in this madhouse.

There are little details strewn about this movie. Cracks filled in that would normally be left to the void in other films. We get a wholly unnecessary, and yet wonderfully appreciated side story involving the main character’s best friend: an out of work commercial painter. He’s trying to work up to spilling his affections for somebody, and happens to eat a whole lot of pie he doesn’t want to in the process. That, plus his difficult search for a job in this new world of photography, plays out in a few scenes that add a touch of color to the movie. The Shape of Water reminds you that this is all happening in a real world, where everyone has the same problems we do. It’s not Marvel Comics. World annihilation is not on the table.

But there is a water monster. One that obeys the horror movie principle by keeping its mysteries to the edges of the story, where we (and the characters) are free to speculate about what it really is.

So is The Shape of Water good? Is it worth seeing?

I think that depends on your appetite for imagination. There are certain boundaries that are stretched in films like these. In director Guillermo Del Toro’s other work too. If you like Pan’s Labyrinth, or even Hellboy, you’ll find plenty to enjoy about this one. If you find things that stretch realism, well, unrealistic, then perhaps the sight of a merman is enough of a giveaway that this one’s not for you.

There’s silly fun in seeing science-fiction oddities come to screen. To have them so widely nominated for Oscars, as the Shape of Water has 13 nominations currently. Seeing a whole vision come through all the Hollywood machinery intact is a delight in and of itself. Like going to an art gallery and spotting a master’s paintings. Even if they’re not your favorite, you can still respect the craft involved and take some joy in witnessing that kind of effort.

So there we are then. The Shape of Water is a master class in filming a fairy tale. I say go see it. I say open your eyes and ears to something little different, something that is by turns absurd and by other turns heartfelt and by most turns beautiful.