In 1902, Georges Melies made a short film called A Trip to the Moon which, in some ways, invented narrative cinema. A Trip to the Moon was the first widely seen film to entirely dispense with anything that could be called realism, and longtime magician Georges Melies very well knew his film was fiction, but he would not and did not add the word “science” in front of “fiction”; at the time, even the pioneering authors H.G. Wells and Jules Verne did not use that term. Melies was happy to call his film “fantasy,” and that word has come down to us as an umbrella for all stories that cannot take place in the known world, featuring everything from vampires to werewolves to zombies to ghouls to demons to angels to elves to witches to wizards to superheroes to…“amphibian gods,” as Guillermo Del Toro described one of the leads of his film The Shape of Water.
Melies was ahead of the curve. It took 67 years for astronauts to catch up with his vision and put humans on the moon. And it took another 49 years after that – 116 years total – for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to catch up with Melies’ implied vision and name a science fiction film the movie of the year.
People asked Del Toro if his film was science fiction, and he said it’s really more fantasy. Well sorry, Guillermo, but I’m not going to let your water utterly re-shape this moment. And I’ll tell you why.
First you have to understand something that happened, uh, 49 years after A Trip to the Moon. In 1951, when The Thing from Another Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still were released, an American genre was launched. Oh sure, predecessors existed, such as German Expressionist films like Metropolis, such as the Universal horror cycle (Frankenstein, Dracula, Mummy, Invisible Man, etc.), but the fabulous fifties made science fiction famous, with all the B-movies and creature features and 50-foot women and giant ants and all the rest of it. Could you remove The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and its two sequels, Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), from that science-fiction canon? Relegate it to horror, or fantasy, or “monster” or something? I guess you could, but should you? Because if you shouldn’t, I don’t see how you remove what’s basically Part Four, The Shape of Water.
Perhaps all this talk of labels seems unimportant, but let me explain why it matters. Creature from the Black Lagoon – like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and a bunch of “Twilight Zone” and “Star Trek” episodes – is one tiny part of the reason that science fiction wasn’t taken seriously by film snobs for a very, very long time. They saw masterpieces like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Blade Runner (1982) and subconsciously, they filed them away with all those silly Universal Studios masks and gelatinous ooze. They said, well, we can’t give any Oscars to that sort of film. (And no, this wasn’t routinely done with horror, at least not of the gothic, realist kind; arguably Rebecca (1940) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991) are both horror winners.) And for us science-fiction fans, that sucked! We wanted our favorites to be taken more seriously.
You know how white people complain that if black people would just be color-blind, everything would be fine? Right, but the thing is, before black people are even allowed to grow up to voting age, they realize the world isn’t treating them color-blindly (teachers, police, ghettoization, et cetera), so that makes it a little hard for them to be color-blind in return.
Science fiction was a little bit like that. Sure, we could say Creature from the Black Lagoon is just another non-realistic film, but no, it was part of something. And that something made a long journey in Hollywood. Something made a journey from Blade Runner being ignored to its sequel winning two Oscars last night. Something walked a road from an ignored Road Warrior to Mad Max: Fury Road winning the most Oscars of its year. Something re-oriented our Gravity. And that something was science fiction. It kept producing strong film after strong film until, by 2018, it didn’t seem particularly remarkable for a film like The Shape of Water to win Best Picture. Assimilation is a terrific sign of success. And by all means, let’s celebrate assimilation…but let’s also celebrate the journey to get there.
Del Toro understands this as well as anyone. He owns a treasure trove of masks and costumes from peak 1950s sci-fi-horror. Guillermo, you did it! You brought your pantheon into the official canon. Don’t write this off as mere fantasy (which already won Best Picture when Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King did it 14 years ago). Don’t say that this is only some genre-busting (or genre-blending) admixture of comedy, drama, musical, and romance (although it is all that, too). This is the “endpoint and checkpoint” of a 116-year journey for science-fiction, so be proud!
And a toast to the next 116 years.
Personally, I thought the 90th Oscars was the best of old-school and new-school. I liked Kimmel. I liked the extended clip montages that some critics despise. I liked each Original Song having its own separate performance. I liked seeing Eva Marie Saint, Rita Moreno, and other older stars we rarely glimpse anymore. In these ways and others, the show harkened back to the Oscars I first fell in love with as a kid. Let the thing run five hours! The show costs less to produce than one episode of, say, “Survivor.” Let me know when the ratings get anywhere near that, or start charging less for the silly ads. But of course, I also loved the emphasis on diversity. Probably Kumail Nanjiani had the best line of the night (in a clip montage, yet!) when he said, “Some of my favorite movies are movies by straight white dudes about straight white dudes. Now straight white dudes can watch movies starring me and you relate to that. It’s not that hard. I’ve done it my whole life.”
One could make a case that The Shape of Water is the best of old-school and new-school. Like a lot of classical Hollywood films, it was rich in messy detail but straightforward in morality. When the original moguls ran Hollywood, we were often treated to an ugly duckling behind her mid-century winter coat finding love with an even more misunderstood man. The name “Eliza” took me to My Fair Lady, which came out in (and won Best Picture for) the same year that The Shape of Water is roughly set (1964). As the moguls lost their grip, we saw a lot of stories about a group of misfit renegades struggling to break free. Del Toro, for his part, has been telling anyone who will listen that this is a modern allegory, about love overcoming Trumpism, about disenfranchised people (a gay man, a black woman, a Latin American immigrant, and especially a mute woman) banding together against a paranoid government to achieve justice and understanding.
At my Oscar party, we served hard-boiled eggs and key lime pie slices. Like the Oscar-nominated Richard Jenkins as Giles, I still have a few slices of key lime pie in my fridge. They’re based on an old recipe, but they’re delicious right this minute. When I eat them, I will taste the new shape of Oscar. It will taste as though science fiction is, partly thanks to Guillermo Del Toro, as credible as any other genre. And that will be a sweet taste indeed.