The Oscars and science fiction don’t exactly get along. Sure, there are certain categories where genre movies dominate like Best Visual Effects and or Best Makeup and Hairstyling. And typically, at least one sci-fi movie gets nominated for Best Picture — but no one really expected Dune, Get Out, or Mad Max: Fury Road to actually win.
With one exception, the only genre movie to win Best Picture so far this century was Return of the King, and that was more of a cumulative award for Peter Jackson’s entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. But of course, there is one big exception.
In 2018, Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water swept the Academy Awards, winning four Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director. With the movie currently streaming for free on Amazon, there’s never been a better time to watch it (or rewatch it). Here’s why.
The Shape of Water tells the story of a mysterious fish-man who winds up in a secret military laboratory — and the woman who falls in love with him. Sally Hawkins plays a mute cleaning woman at the facility who helps the fish-man escape. They develop a relationship, but the villainous Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) who captured the creature and wants to experiment on it, is in hot pursuit.
Doug Jones plays the fish-man in a captivating and silent performance. Del Toro’s fans were quick to point out that Jones also played a very similar-looking character named Abe Sapien in Del Toro’s Hellboy movies, and some have suggested this was the director’s attempt to disguise a comic book movie in a prestige costume. Arguably, it worked. (Then again, Jones also played the monster with eyes in its hands in Pan’s Labyrinth, so maybe Del Toro just likes working with him.)
But despite all its sci-fi trappings, the beauty of The Shape of Water is its simplicity. It’s a love story about two beings on the outskirts of society who somehow find each other and share a beautiful moment.
Still, it can be hard to believe that such a weird movie won so many Oscars. In his acceptance speech for Best Director, Del Toro recounted the first meeting where he pitched The Shape of Water to Fox Searchlight.
“In 2014 they came to listen to a mad pitch with some drawings and the story and a maquette,” he said. “And they believed that a fairy tale about an amphibian god and mute woman done in the style of Douglas Sirk, and a musical, and a thriller was a sure bet.”
The truth is, The Shape of Water was never a sure bet. But the fact that it succeeded the way it did should be a reminder to both the massive studios that run Hollywood and the aspiring filmmakers trying to share their weird little stories that science fiction can make it big in Hollywood. And maybe even win Best Picture sometimes.
The Shape of Water is free to watch on Amazon’s Freevee service.