• Gabe Powers

Shape of Water Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)

The year is 1962. Hidden within the high-security government laboratory where she works, lonely Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is trapped in a life of isolation. Her fate is changed forever when she and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) discover a secret classified experiment. (From Twentieth Century Fox’s official synopsis)



So, Guillermo del Toro finally got his Oscar. Two of them, as a matter of fact – one for directing and another for co-producing Academy Award winner The Shape of Water. As a long-time fan who understood his most prominent shortcomings and hadn’t yet tired of his obsessive habit of reusing ideas, remaking themes, and restaging similar events, I had assumed his brand of filmmaking was too niche and visually-driven for total mainstream acceptance. Not that I put a whole lot of faith in the Academy or any other corporate award ceremonies, but am still, nevertheless, impressed.


The Shape of Water lovability is intrinsically tied to the trademarks and repeated motifs already established throughout del Toro’s career. It wasn’t forged in a creative vacuum and there’s little here to distinctly elevate it above his other great films. Like Cronos (1993), The Devil's Backbone (2001), Pan's Labyrinth (2006), and (for my money) Crimson Peak (2015), The Shape of Water is beautifully orchestrated, intricately designed, steeped in literary motifs, and brimming with imagination. What makes The Shape of Water an Oscar-worthy version of those trademarks (assuming we’re signifying ‘Oscar-worthy’ as a measure of quality) is its consistency and cohesion. This is a bit ironic, considering that it’s such a mishmash of recycled concepts (parts of the story were almost certainly recycled from del Toro’s abandoned Hellboy 3 and Creature from the Black Lagoon screenplays) and pop culture influences, from Frankenstein to E.T. (perhaps even Free Willy?). This cohesion extends to the central themes and subtexts. Instead of smuggling the most subversion via jokes (like the worthless walls that the monsters crush in Pacific Rim, 2013), as he does throughout most of his Hollywood/English-language work, Shape of Water steeps itself in mocking intolerance, bigotry, militarism, toxic masculinity, and capitalism, from its simple premise and straightforward statements to its richer metaphors and meaning (i.e. the heroine’s stringent daily routine and villain’s rotting fingers).



Almost all of del Toro’s films are rooted in fairy tales, but he has a habit of foregoing whimsy for creepy. This isn’t a problem at all – I happen to enjoy his version of creepy – but it is nice to see him embracing such unadulterated sweetness. The last time he wore his heart on his sleeve this conspicuously was probably Hellboy: The Golden Army (2008), which was otherwise mired in too many ideas and weighed down by the requirements of a large-scale action film (though I do quite enjoy that movie as well). Some of this whimsy recalls the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, which isn’t new for del Toro, whose career has circled Jeunet’s for years now in terms of imagery (both love the same red/gold/green color). Still, there’s a specificity to the shared imagery and tone this time, especially the instances where Shape of Water connects to Delicatessen (1991) and Amélie. I don’t think of this as a mark against del Toro, just another indication of his varied influences. It’s also an indication of how perfectly pleasant Shape of Water is and how its occasional lack of narrative originality can be overtaken by its considerable emotional impact. Though this comparison shouldn’t be taken to mean that del Toro’s film is structured as a series of episodic set pieces, as Delicatessen and Amélie are. He and co-writer Vanessa Taylor (known for her work on Game of Thrones and Everwood) interlock the continuity and present a complete, multi-character story arc that ties up the branches of its subplots. Again, I see this as a mark of growth on del Toro’s part, given the scatterbrained tangents and incomplete qualities of some of his bigger films.



Video

Shape of Water was shot using Arri Alexa XT digital cameras and is presented here in 1080p and its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Del Toro worked with his Mimic (1997) and Crimson Peak collaborator, cinematographer Dan Laustsen, who also took home an Oscar for his efforts. This marks the third time that the director has filmed using completely digital sources, following Pacific Rim (2013) and Crimson Peak. The highly detailed sets and costumes are captured with a mix of deep-set, wide angle shots (these often have slightly curled edges/corners, verging on fish-eyed, due to the lens choices) and close-ups that feature pin-pointed focus to draw the viewers into certain areas of the frame. Both types of shots depend on the digital format’s ability to alternate between sharp textures and soft edges. When coupled with the low lighting and deep blacks, this all could’ve easily led to patchy, bandy backgrounds, but this transfer is strong enough to only exhibit the minor compression effects throughout the smoothest blends. Del Toro opts for a water-friendly green and blue palette while still maintaining the vibrant reds and ambers he has highlighted throughout his career. Colors are rich and consistent not matter how bright or dark the frame appears.


Audio

Shape of Water is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and matches expectations for a typical del Toro supernatural romp, complete with over-pumped, deeply built ambience, crunchy violence, and plenty of multi-channel movement. The director and his sound design/editing team also managed to punch-up transition shots with clever and amusing sound effects overlap, like the moment when the rhythmic creaking of vigorous sex blends into the similar chugging sound of industrial machinery. Composer Alexandre Desplat earned the film’s fourth Oscar for his playful, yet dramatic score; the traditional French qualities of which also connect the film to the work of Jeunet/Caro. Occasionally, the music is a little intrusive in the way it demands that the audience knows how they’re supposed to feel, but it earns its Oscar status with memorable, early-Elfman-esque themes and it sounds big and warm on the DTS-HD track.



Extras

  • A Fairy Tale for Troubled Times (28:55, HD) – A four-part behind-the-scenes featurette with cast & crew interviews. Structurally, this is pretty fluffy EPK stuff, full of bite-sized clips, but it still covers quite a bit of the production, including creature design/fabrication, Doug Jones’ performance as the creature, production design, recycling sets from The Strain TV series, cinematography, and Desplat’s score.

  • Anatomy of a Scene: Prologue (3:14, HD) – Del Toro dissects the opening sequence, complete with on-set footage of the ‘dry-for-wet’ photography, storyboards, and special effects comparisons.

  • Anatomy of a Scene: The Dance (4:50, HD) – A similar look behind-the-scenes of the black & white fantasy dance sequences.

  • Shaping the Waves: A Conversation with James Jean (5:05, HD) – The artist discusses the film and poster he designed.

  • Guillermo del Toro’s Master Class (13:27, HD) – Samples from the director-hosted post-screening roundtable Q&A.

  • Three trailers and trailers for other WB releases




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