Film Reviews

Aquaman: Derivative Storytelling, Transcendent Visuals

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who automatically love any movie which includes an entirely serious and in no way comical shot of a giant octopus playing tribal drums in a tense moment, and those who wonder WTF? in response to such a bizarre sight. I might be more in the latter category, but that doesn’t mean Aquaman was a complete waste of my time.

“Monsters and mayhem—just the sort of movie that slays in China.”

That’s what Exhibitor Relations tweeted last weekend as blunt explanation for Aquaman’s record-setting performance in the second biggest box office market in the world. However, if Aquaman is the type of movie that slays in China where does that leave the rest of us? Stuck watching yet another language neutral action fest with perfunctory, noticeably derivative storytelling and an almost overwhelming supply of CGI wizardry.

Yet, while this is giving me deja vu, it’s not a deja vu back to any other recent bigger-in-China-than-anywhere-else blockbuster. Instead, this seems like James Cameron’s Avatar all over again. As with Avatar, the primary appeal of Aquaman is that it’s underwater visuals literally look unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, so much so that people might be willing to forgive the plot’s overly familiar, Thor meets Black Panther story beats. I’ve already seen Aquaman and know how flawed it is, yet when I re-watch the trailer I’m briefly reminded of just how gorgeous and off-the-charts insane the underwater scenes look.

In fact, that trailer is a fairly linear summation of the entire movie. There are three different prologues – one detailing Arthur Curry’s birth to an Atlantean queen (Nicole Kidman) and human lighthouse keeper, one depicting the first moment young Arthur realized he could talk to and control aquatic creatures, and then another in which a now-adult Arthur foils a submarine heist engineered by someone calling himself Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).

Amber Heard deserves double pay for the horrendous green costume she’s forced to wear much of the time

Once those entertaining introductions are out of the way, the film’s tale of Arthur being recruited by Atlantean princess Mera (Amber Heard) to help prevent his half-brother Orm’s (Patrick Wilson) planned war against the surface-dwellers starts. It, however, quickly gets bogged down in endless exposition and needless detours into even more of Arthur’s origin story via flashback, which is where Willem Dafoe’s character comes into play.

As a result, Aquaman is a film which starts strong before turning into a real slog of universe-building and video game logic. A quest narrative involving Arthur and Mera’s Excalibur-esque search for a mystical trident, even though he already has one of those, simply leads to one boss battle after another, each of which calls on Aquaman to use a different set of skills to prevail. Whenever we feel the strain of the exposition, Mamoa just rains down a bromide like “This is awesome!” to remind us how we should feel.

One obvious improvement over Justice League: it’s far easier to hear and understand the underwater dialogue this time.

Still, there are plenty of genuine thrills and laughs, my favorite being an early scene which teases a bar brawl before swerving into a fun-loving drinking contest. The comedy is not met with an equal level of drama as Momoa is too busy just having a good time for his quest for the throne to ever really land with any meaning, even as the film’s final third takes everything super seriously.

Perhaps I was a fool to ever expect anything more. The trailers mostly promised Thor underwater – brothers fighting for monastic glory in a fantastical kingdom – with Jason Momoa Aquabroing his way through everything, and that’s exactly what Aquaman delivers. However, in the past month as the world suddenly decided en masse to be super excited for an Aquaman movie and the early reviews dripped in promising a surprisingly good time my curiosity was piqued. Maybe director James Wan actually pulled off the impossible. Maybe he really did fashion a transcendent piece of blockbuster entertainment out of a character who for so long served as one of the biggest punchlines in all of comics.

Yeahhhhh…the James Wan who made the first two Conjuring movies only makes a brief appearance during easily Aquaman’s most effective underwater sequences. It involves Aquabro and Mera using their only source of light to barely scare off an underwater horde of monsters used to living in the dark.

On the other hand, the James Wan who made Fast & Furious 7, aka, the one where cars literally parachute down from the sky, is all over the damn place, except this time he seems to be huffing on some of Dom’s supercharged nitrous. As he told Den of Geek, “When you grow up making the smaller, low-budget films, the horror films that I do, you always dream, like: ‘I want to be able to paint on a much bigger canvas.’”

As far as canvases go, they don’t get much bigger than the entire ocean. Here, Wan treats the ocean much like Lucas treats space in Star Wars or Jackson treats Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings. It’s an avenue for endless adventure and discovery. Each new turn should reveal something new, be it an underwater hideout which is somehow free of actual water or yet another new kingdom with its own set of customs and aesthetics. We see the latter through Orm’s efforts to recruit each of the four underwater kingdoms, Atlantis included, to join his planned war.

The problem is Wan’s almost too in love with the underwater world, too excited to get to get to a final battle in which the entire oceans seems to fight itself, leaving us deeply confused as to who’s who and where our allegiances should lie other than the obvious Orm=bad, Aquaman=good. Imagine a version of the first Thor movie in which Thor, Loki, and Odin visited not just Asgard, Earth, and Jotunheim but also all of the 9 realms of the universe, some of them receiving just the faintest of explanations. That’d be a pretty bonkers way to tell a Thor story, right?

Not as far as Aquaman screenwriters Will Beall and David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick are concerned. It all gets to be a bit too much, which is possibly why the clear highlight of the entire film actually takes place above ground.

In the midst of their Excalibur quest, Aquaman and Mera are tracked by Black Mantis and some elite Atlantean soldiers to a quaint fishing village in Italy. What ensues is a rooftop chase sequence between Mera and the soldiers and an epic fight between Aquaman and Black Mantis. Both battles happen in different spots, yet Wan’s camera masterfully switches from one to the other, most notably as a simulated uninterrupted take where the camera simply zooms across the city from Aquaman’s fight over to Mera’s attempted escape.

It’s a truly thrilling bit of blockbuster filmmaking, the type of scene which makes it hard to for anyone to completely dismiss Aquaman.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Aquaman is clearly an improvement over just about every other recent DC movie beside Wonder Woman, but being better than Batman v Superman and Justice League is a pretty low bar. James Wan set out to not make yet another superhero movie but instead a globe-trotting fantasy-adventure narrative with dazzling visuals. Mission accomplished. A shame about that script, though.

RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS

  1. With Aquaman, Nicole Kidman (Batman Forever) and Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man) follow in Michael Keaton (from Batman to Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Michelle Pfeiffer’s (from Batman Returns to Ant-Man and the Wasp) footsteps as celebrated actors dipping their toes back into superhero cinema. This is kind of turning into a thing, casting 90s/early 00s comic book movie stars in supporting roles in these newer movies.
  2. Simple question: Orm and other regal Atlanteans wear capes. Why? What’s the point of a cape underwater?
  3. Post-credits alert: There’s just one of them, and it’s actually a mid-credits scene.
  4. Spoiler: Aquaman rides a Kraken into battle in this movie. It’s exactly as stupid-awesome as it sounds.
  5. Phrases overheard while walking out of the theater last night: “You have to understand, it’s escapist entertainment!” / “You actually liked that movie?” / “OMG, it’s so corny! They spent so much money – I mean, so, so much money – on the computer stuff. They couldn’t have spared a couple of dollars for a good screenplay!” / “I think I’m pregnant with Jason Momoa’s baby just from watching that movie”

What’s your take on Aquaman? Let me know in the comments.

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3 comments

    1. I can’t lie – there is an awful lot of Momoa’s dudebro talk in this, everything already in the trailers and more. But, at the very least, the visuals are pretty damn stunning and Momoa’s dudebro talk does go away almost entirely in the final third when shit is just too tense for him to be yelling about how badass everything is.

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