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Film Review: Aquaman

Aquaman (2018; Directed by James Wan)

Aquaman represents a golden opportunity to reconsider and discard an unfortunate habit of critical description whose demise is desirable. In an overdue gesture of belated enlightened sensitivity to those pervasive stigmas around mental illness that corporate-marketed public awareness campaigns tell me must be confronted and defeated (especially if it means larger quarterly profit margins in the process), I shall never again describe a movie with particular silly or unpredictable elements as crazy, nuts, unhinged, bonkers, or insane. Movies cannot be mentally ill, and it’s insensitive and even a little mean to real people struggling with those sort of conditions to suggest that a movie is mentally ill just because, oh, I don’t know, it happens to feature an octopus playing the bongos.

I don’t mean to congratulate myself for becoming woke on this point nor to suggest that this self-discipline represents any sort of sacrifice, but its timing, admittedly, is not auspicious. Giving up on the descriptive crutch of calling a movie insane just as one sits down to write about Aquaman is a bit like giving up alcohol before a comprehensive Scottish whiskey distillery tour. What else is one to do without it, after all? To reach for more neutral adjectives, then: James Wan’s Aquaman is wild, goofy, ridiculous, and ambitiously messy. It’s bad in the ways that every DC Extended Universe (DCEU) entry has been bad (with the blessed exception of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman): excruciating and unrevealing dialogue, overwrought and dull mythological exposition, stunted thematic and character development, insensible casting, stiff performances, and saturating CG action scenes with gigantic scale but zero real emotional stakes.

But unlike the leaden bores of Zack Snyder’s Superman-centred films (Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, Justice League), Aquaman is just woolly enough to manage to be fun, despite the flaws of its construction as cinema. A defining feature of the Snyderverse movies is that they really, deeply hate comic books, but Wan’s Aquaman (Snyder and his wife Deborah are executive producers on it) just loves comic books to bits, in all of their sophomoric, splashy, stilted, frothy, multicoloured glory. It would be wise to cultivate that sort of fondness for superhero comics at their pulpiest and most ludicrous if you’re going to make a movie about a goofball trident-wielding Prince of Atlantis, and Wan (best known before this for helming horror potboilers and the seventh Fast & Furious flick) gleefully does.

It also helps to have Jason Momoa starring as the titular hero of a movie given to such a tone. An impressively-proportioned actor of limited range but almost boundless infectious charisma who just seems chuffed to bits to be doing anything at all, at any time, really, Momoa is just unorthodox enough as a movie star – the long hair and goatee, the tattoos, the Native Hawaiian ancestry, the casual, un-self-conscious bro-ish ease – to be a proper fit as a superhero who, despite the screenplay’s many safe-minded attempts to skew his narrative towards convention, is inherently unorthodox in comparison to other genre figures.

Aquaman, whose real name is Arthur Curry, is a young man caught between two worlds, the son of a humble Maine lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and the runaway Queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman). The lighthouse keeper finds the queen on the rocks one stormy night and nurses her back to health, and the unlikely couple fall in love, sharing a few blissful years and bringing forth Arthur before Atlantean soldiers arrive to bundle her back to her betrothed Atlantean king beneath the waves. She fends off these troops (in the first and most memorable of the movie’s many, many fight scenes, perhaps made all the better by incongruously featuring Nicole freakin’ Kidman kicking undersea grunt ass), but realizes that she must return to Atlantis to keep her landlubber family safe. She promises to come back to them, but Arthur understands through his contact with Vulko (Willem Dafoe), a trusted advisor to Atlantis’ rulers who secretly trained the boy in the use of his Atlantean powers and combat techniques, that she was later executed for the treachery of bearing him as her son.

Arthur nurses this hurt at home in his Maine coastal town (where they apparently have Maori lighthouse keepers now; a brave new world), taking care of his dad but occasionally venturing out into the world’s oceans to superhero it up in a seemingly random manner. We see one such venture at the movie’s start, as Arthur foils the pirating of a Russian submarine by a strike force led by a father-son commando duo (Michael Beach and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) but in the process makes a revenge-minded archenemy in the form of Abdul-Mateen’s David Kane, nicknamed Black Manta. Soon after, Arthur is sought out by undersea warrior princess Mera (Amber Heard), who demands that he claim his birthright to the throne of Atlantis in order to prevent his currently-ruling half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) from forcibly unifying the kingdoms of the seas, declaring himself Ocean Master, and launching an apocalyptic war against the surface world in retaliation for decades of pollution and sealife hunting.

This is already pretty needlessly complicated, but Aquaman‘s plot only gets more so. Intricate Atlantean power politics and militaristic combat traditions are broken up with smoothly-transitioned flashbacks to Arthur’s training by Vulko, to Atlantis’ glorious history, and to heavy-handed but quickly-forgotten environmentalist criticisms of industrial-capitalist civilization’s awful damage to the oceans of the world and the preponderence of life that dwells in them. Meanwhile, Arthur and Mera travel to the sandy Sahara and to sparkling Sicily and to the deepest trench in the ocean on a video-game quest for various magical objects, namely the Trident of Atlan which when wielded by the one true king, etc., so on, you know the rest if you’ve read Arthurian legends or even seen the first Thor movie. They also, of course, fall in love along the way, which is a bit awkward seeing how Mera is betrothed to Orm and all, and even more awkward because they basically have no spark together at all, to be honest (Heard is kind of a blank, but her red wig looks great and that’s not faint praise because wigs are hard).

A big deal is made in the script how Arthur’s half-caste identity makes him an ideal King of Atlantis, and how he must be proven worthy before he can grasp the golden Trident. Aquaman, though, doesn’t show any sort of growth or transformation in Arthur Curry, though he broods on the meaning of mercy after his lack thereof later nearly gets him killed at the hands of the vengeful Manta. He comes into his own because the movie needs him to, and not for any other motivated reason. There are plenty of important personal connections to drive him: to his father, to his mother, to Mera, even to Orm. They’re all in the movie but they aren’t linked, aren’t used to build any impact or thematic or character crescendo. This is a common DCEU problem, and Aquaman does not solve it.

What it does solve is the creeping joylessness of DCEU movies. Aquaman is a wild time, its action scenes just massive and layered and richly imagined enough to work, from Arthur’s sub fight to his gladiatorial combat with Orm to a chase and fight in a sun-dappled Sicilian hill town between Arthur and Manta, Mera and Atlantean guards to the epically detailed climactic undersea battle sequence. The design and CG work on the underwater world of Atlantis and of its allies and rivals is tremendous and comprehensive, and Wan doesn’t skimp on giving his audience long, lavish views of its hugely expensive splendour. You could say that Aquaman is not only structured like a video game and feels like a video game, but looks like one too, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But it’s a damned cool-looking video game that you sure as hell want to play.

None of this, however, quite gets at how fundamentally, astronomically weird Aquaman is. This is a movie in which Jason Momoa has a “shining” telepathic moment with a whale. This is a movie that casts arthouse mainstays Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe, and Patrick Wilson as sub-marine aristocrats in shiny fish-scale armour. This is a movie with Dolph Lundgren riding a giant seahorse. This is a movie whose secondary villain, despite being named after a ray, dons a black-painted suit with a wasp-head helmet that shoots plasma rays out of its red eyes. This is a movie whose score, by Rupert Gregson-Williams, includes not only cornball hopscotch-strings cues during one of Momoa and Heard’s strained moments of romantic-comedic relief, but also an absolutely literal non-ironic “dun-dun-dun!” sting phrase after Wilson’s first utterance of the words “Ocean Master” (the funniest moment in the movie, including all of its intentional jokes). This is a movie that uses the twinkly bits of Sigur Rós’ powerful “Saeglopur”, but not the mighty, dynamic swirls of deep sound of its extended climax, and puts it in entirely the wrong place in the film. This is a movie with a goat reaction shot. This is a movie with a titanic crab-kaiju leviathan creature voiced by Julie Andrews. I’m no longer allowed to say this movie is insane, but good gravy, is it ever way, way out there.

Maybe, though, that’s why it mostly works. Aquaman is horribly flawed and insufficient in dozens of ways, and yet it still might be the second best post-Christopher-Nolan DC superhero movie after Wonder Woman (which, admittedly, is not saying much). Aquaman leans into the nonsensical frippery of its comic-book source, its pop-history synthesis of classical mythology and Arthurian legend and marine biology, its fevered imaginative urge to show us strange and fanciful shit that we’ve never seen before. Is Aquaman, properly speaking, a good movie? Of course not. Will you have a ball watching it? Can’t say that you won’t.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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