Can't Buy Me Love: The Shape of Water vs. The Smell of Plastic
The Shape of Water’s Best Picture Oscar resonates for many reasons, not the least of which is story telling winning over commerce engineering.
Emerging among a host of excellent films surfacing at the end of 2017, this uncharacteristically small budget adult sci-fi/fantasy movie, The Shape of Water, was inspired in by the 1954 Universal classic, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Operating on that basic premise, writer/director Guillermo Del Toro reimagined the creature amid a dark and cruel Cold War laboratory. The result is a smart, layered, elegant, visually immersing, overtly sexual, and occasionally, shocking and violent commentary on love and power, ego and will, compliance and morality.
The Shape of Water is brilliant.
It comes in the same year as a new version of The Mummy, Universal’s bid to update and reboot their enduring (and once endearing) classic monsters franchise as the “Dark Universe”—and in doing so, initiate a whole new set of trademarks and copyrights as we draw closer to the Karloff and Lugosi classics slipping into the public domain. It is forgettable and got such a lackluster response that Universal has at least temporarily pulled the plug on the new franchise.
The Mummy is a video game and toy generator.
So, let’s take a moment to compare and contrast, to get to the reasons by starting with the budget:
The Mummy had a budget of $345 million, with $195 million for production and the rest for promotion and distribution. As of March 2018, nine months after the initial release, it had earned over $410 million in worldwide box office receipts plus another $15 million or so in disc sales. Simple math would suggest that would make it a financial hit, but it turns out the math isn’t that simple. About 1/3 of the total gross receipts came from China, where only a quarter of the take comes back to the studio.
(The trailer for The Mummy promises gunfire, explosions, predictability and pretty faces--and not much else.)
In contrast, The Shape of Water had a budget of less than $20 million and within a month of very limited release, it had pulled $22 million. More importantly, during that period, Guillermo del Toro took home Best Director at the Golden Globes amid several other nominations for the film, inevitably propelling a wider release, more money and more devoted fans. In the end, that is what The Mummy tried to manufacture with that $345 million—a fan base—not just for itself, but for a whole series of films yet to be made, but it was a passion project made at approximately 1/16 of the cost that has earned a loyal following.
(In contrast, The Shape of Water trailer promises characters in a hypnotic, alluring world . . . and much more.)
The Mummy seemingly had another advantage: a lowest common denominator talent formula. The film stars household names (Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe), familiar faces (Courtney B. Vance) and surging actresses (Sofia Boutella and Annabelle Wallis) who fit audience expectations for physical beauty—all minimum expectations in the blockbuster flicks.
In contrast, The Shape of Water features remarkable talents but with far less pop culture appeal. The film’s villain, Mr. Strickland (Michael Shannon) remarks that the heroine, Maria, (Sally Hawkins) is “no looker.” Perhaps the most likely talent to be known by name, Octavia Spencer, plays a pivotal but supporting role. A run through of the cast’s IMDB credits reveals some major TV and film credits, but for the most part we are talking independent films. But they are all actors as opposed to stars.
But one more essential comparison looms—critical reception. The Shape of Water won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Achievement in Directing, and garnered 13 total nominations. Del Toro also won the Golden Globe and BAFTA awards for direction . . . and this is just a small sample of over 100 awards and nominations the film earned. To make matters worse, The Mummy did not even get considered for Best Visual Effects, the one category you might expect all that money to buy.
Both films feature a visual reference to Universal's 1923 classic, The Hunchback
of Notre Dame, but Shape of Water uses it to develop character and empathy,
like the original, while in The Mummy it sets up yet another action sequence.
That’s not to say The Mummy has not gotten critical attention. Sure, it was forgotten by the Oscars, but it did manage three different “Worst Picture” nominations from other groups. Tom Cruise picked up a Worst Actor award from the notorious Razzies and best of all, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists gave the film two coveted prizes: "Remake or Sequel That Shouldn't Have Been Made" AND "Most Egregious Age Difference Between The Lead and The Love Interest."
So, if The Mummy had all the money and big names and set out to launch a revitalized and already beloved franchise, why does Shape of Water have all the awards?
The answer is simple: Del Toro sought to tell an engaging tale with depth, humanity and aesthetic vision while Universal was determined to birth a new artificially engendered cash cow.
This is not to say there is anything wrong per se with franchises or summer blockbusters, nor that an audience should not enjoy a good roller coaster ride. But with all the dash and flash comes a lot of trash--and an instinctive understanding that you are watching commerce engineering, not art.
In other words, you can get a decent meal at Appleby’s and enjoy it (I have done so myself). But in the end, at best, it is just this season’s mass produced special menu item, and you know it. You never confuse it with a hand-prepared chef's creation du jour at an atmospheric restaurant. And you will only think about one of those two again.
Which leads to the final point: the shape of water vs. the smell of plastic.
Poster from Stan & Vince for Mondotees.
The Mummy was a promise to ever-salivating fans of the original Universal monster franchises to give them a compelling addition to the cinematic cannon worthy of its progenitors and take the narratives in places the old Production Code would never have allowed. However, they blew it and overall, it is The Shape of Water that has excited those very fans. And this is truly terrifying for studio executives, because it means (1) they spent a lot of money for very little and (2) they have no idea who their audience really is and no amount of pyrotechnics compensates for that.
To be clear, of course, blockbusters build empires--but Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Jaws, and several others could have been stand alone movies because their efforts were directed toward story, not franchising. They became franchises because they were thoughtfully done.
And admittedly there is plenty of cheese in the monster films of the 30s and 40s, with lots of gimmicks, trend insertions and recycled plots, but the originals had characters—and monsters—audiences cared about and tight stories and nuanced environments through which those characters could evolve.
Furthermore, the heroes tended to be relatively regular people caught in an unfamiliar situation--not super heroes waiting for the next jump, fall or explosion--and the monsters were not as simple as they might appear on the surface. In short, despite whatever limitations films of that era have, they gave the audience a reason to care that seems to escape the Hollywood group-think blockbuster crowd.
That’s what Del Toro provides: a reason to care rooted in character, place, story and message. Moreover, he does so organically, doubly important in a film that questions our role as nature’s supposed master, and never leaves the audience thinking they are watching a slick money grab in progress.
In short, The Shape of Water offers much to think about, talk about and re-explore long after we exit the theater.
The Mummy is just something to do before heading over to Appleby’s.