Katya Austin fantasy illustration

by Katya Austin, Unslash

It’s tough enough for a movie which is rooted in dreams to even get a nomination for an Oscar. When they are, they almost always lose to the bigger, “sweepier” movies which have a stab of “reality” to them. Fantastical stuff like “Mary Poppins” gets nominated – but everyone knows it has no chance of winning the statuette, right? Fantasy? That stuff we’re all vaguely ashamed of liking, and keep on stuffing out of sight under rugs and behind curtains just in case somebody catches us out at it and we have to admit we like it? THAT stuff?
Doing a random trawl through the last thirty years or so, we have “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, the glorious fantasy archeological superhero kicks ass movie which lost to the admittedly deserving “Chariots of Fire.” But that was the last time that Indiana Jones got a look-in. The next year, “Gandhi” romped home ahead of “E.T. The Extraterrestrial.”  A little further on, “Ghost” got pipped at the post by “Dances with Wolves.”
While you might posit that “The Gladiator” had a touch of fantasy to it, it would be defended as a “historical” flick and it did lose to the glowing fantasy fairy tale of China that was “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.”  (I was delighted when my own novel, The Secrets of Jin-shei, was favorably compared to Crouching Tiger by a major reviewer,)
In 2001 and 2002 the first two Lord of the Rings movies were nominated but lost to “A Beautiful Mind” and “Chicago”, respectively; in 2003 someone gave the final LOTR movie the nod, possibly because, you know, it was its last go so let’s give the thing a prize for participation, maybe (although I have my own views on the LOTR movies, which are possibly the stuff of a whole ‘nother blog post, and don’t belong in this discussion…)
But in 2009, “Avatar” lost to “The Hurt Locker”, the same year that “District 9” did – an even handed defeat to both fantasy and science fiction in favor of Reality ™.  In the years since, the dark fairy tale of “Black Swan” bowed out to “The King’s Speech”. In 2011, fantasies like “Hugo” and the somewhat unlikely nominee of “Tree of Life” both lost out. Movies like “Gravity” and “Her” made it onto the nominee list, but failed to get anywhere.
In 2015 it was the turn of another fantasy/science fiction double whammy loss in the shape of “Mad Max: The Fury Road” (a movie which was touted as the most “feminist” of the Mad Max franchise but which to be frank – I watched the first fifteen minutes of and then simply switched off) and the unlikely megahit “The Martian” (you know, the one about growing spuds on Mars…). In 2016, it was the turn of “Arrival” to lose out.
And then 2017 season rolled around.
This year’s nominees included a movie about a somewhat uncomfortable relationship (“Call me by your name”), a couple of Reality™ based and more or less political movies (“The Post” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), a sentimental favorite (“the Phantom Thread”, because it had been announced as the end of a beloved movie actor’s silver screen career), an outlier like “Lady Bird”, and two World War II-rooted movies (“The Darkest Hour” and “Dunkirk”). “Get Out” was a nominee with an overlay of horror/dark fantasy tropes, but it was a film that gave people so much trouble that they’re still talking about the category it landed in as a nominee for other awards (comedy? Really?)
And then there was the dark horse, a movie that showed in scattered art house theatres with small audiences because it was what it was – a Guillermo del Toro twisted vision, a dark fairy tale, something probably considered as utterly “non commercial”.

But this year the dream, the fantasy, won.

Shape of Water photoUnexpectedly, “The Shape of Water” took the honors for Best Picture (the big one!) and Best Director. A dream, a fantasy, took home the Oscar. For once.
It’s a special movie. When I went to see it, it held me spellbound while I was watching it and captive afterwards because I could not forget it. I wrote a review of it in a blog post that became the most frequently read thing EVER on this site.  Enough people were breathlessly Googling “The Shape of Water”, and the luminous poem which concludes it, that my blog got an uncanny boost in visitors , right then after the movie was released in the small art house cinema in our little town. For, it was believed, a limited run. (You can read my original review HERE

For once, the fantasy – the dream – was dug out from under its camouflage, and people reveled in it. They walked into that dream and let it take them. As a writer whose stock in trade is fantasy and dream, I am genuinely delighted at the outcome.
More than that, I am happy to see a genre so often dismissed, ignored, demeaned, misunderstood and mocked (as “nothing but escapism”) come into its own because it has always been my contention that the purest of all truths are often told best while wrapped in the silver tissue of fantasy lies. That is true of “The Shape of Water” in so many ways –
“It is not human!” our heroine’s friend and co-conspirator says, in defense of his denial of help to the creature she has befriended. “If we do not help,” the mute girl signs frantically in response, her face a study in grief and passion, “neither are we!”
This is a story about a monster. It isn’t the one you think.
This is a story about what it really means to be human. This is a story about what a soul is, and who has one. This is a story about what happens when you live the fullest life that you can, when you give as much as you can, and how much you receive in return. This is a dark fairy tale, one of the best, and it reaches out and touches you.
Winning the Oscar is the least of its accomplishments, really.
That golden statuette is only a reminder.
A reminder that sometimes the dreams are far more valuable, far more real, than Reality™. And that it is really, really important to remember that, and to allow ourselves to sink into them, and to learn about the shape of water, and the shape of our own souls.

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