Film Review – Aquaman
The DC Cinematic Universe has had – at best – an uneven rollout. Outside of the fantastic Wonder Woman (2017), most of the connected films have not satisfied in the way many may have hoped. It’s hard to say what the future will bring for the DCU, but at least with Aquaman (2018), they’ve recaptured some kind of spark. Co-written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, with James Wan directing, this is a rip roaring, hilariously goofy movie that is nothing short of entertaining throughout its two and a half hour runtime. After all of the gritty, dark, brooding superheroes we’ve seen from the DCU on the big screen, it’s nice to see a production that actually remembers what it’s like to have fun.
And boy does it. The narrative pulls out all of the stops, being as ludicrous as it wants to be and not giving a damn what others may think. We’re introduced to an underwater world where human-like characters ride on giant-sized sea horses and humongous sea monsters are driven like they were battle tanks. The soundtrack contains a song by Pitbull that covers Toto’s “Africa,” because of course it would. By the time we see men fighting an army of crab soldiers like it were WWIII, you have to think to yourself, “Ok, we shouldn’t be taking this all that seriously.” But that’s exactly the appeal Wan and his team were going for, and it works. This has bits of Star Wars (1977) and Flash Gordon (1980) mixed together.
Aquaman, outside of comic circles, does not have the same kind of appeal in the mainstream as his fellow Justice League members (namely Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman), but with this version he has now elevated to one of DCU’s premiere characters. This is going to be Jason Momoa’s signature role, and he plays it like he knows it. Aquaman – or Arthur Curry – is a combination of a heavy drinking biker dude, a surfer, and high royalty. Miraculously, Momoa is able to pull off all of these aspects at the same time, even though his performance is fueled by how much fun he’s having.
Arthur is a half breed: son of a human man (Temuera Morrison) and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) queen of the underwater world of Atlantis. This makes him the rightful heir to the throne. However, his younger half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) longs to rule as well, and sets off on a mission to unite the seven sea kingdoms to invade the surface world. Given that this is your classic “reluctant hero’s journey” tale, Arthur comes to the realization that he must stop Orm before the whole world is taken over. With the help of fellow Atlanteans Vulko (Willem Dafoe) and Mera (Amber Heard), Arthur must travel half way around the world to claim a powerful trident and embrace his destiny.
Whew, that’s a lot of ground to cover, isn’t it? Not only does Arthur have to go on his quest, he also has to deal with other obstacles such as Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen III), a soldier and pirate who holds a personal grudge against our hero. All of these threads wrap together in a whirlwind, and the production should be commended for being able to juggle all of them coherently. Kirk M. Morri’s editing pieces the plot points smoothly. During epic battle scenes we never lose our sense of spacing, the narrative does a good enough job of keeping everything organized so that we know who’s doing what and where they’re doing it and why.
The imagination that’s put both into the creation of these environments and in the action is what makes Aquaman stand out. Instead of rapidly cutting between shots, Wan elects to extend his shots so that we can see what is happening. A rooftop chase in Italy is brightly lit and colorful, and Don Burgess’ cinematography gives us a chance to step back and really take in the visuals, even when everything is exploding around us. Atlantis is depicted like a neon colored metropolis, combining the ancient world with the technology of an alien planet. The abundant CGI is used as a positive. I don’t think Wan had any interest in making any of this look realistic, and instead tried to garner as much laughs as possible. During a gladiatorial showdown between two warriors, a rhythmic drumbeat can be heard. Wan makes sure to cut to that drummer – a giant octopus.
Aquaman is a perfect example of how a film can get away with just about anything as long as it respects the material its covering and the audience that’s watching. There really isn’t much that’s different between this and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999). But why is this a success where The Phantom Menace was a disappointment? It’s because Wan was able to tell his story sincerely while still maintaining an upbeat sense of adventure. As movie lovers, we know when a filmmaker isn’t fully committed or if they’re simply trying to take the easy way out. As long as they are fully invested in the story they’re trying to tell, we’ll follow them wherever they want to go. Thank goodness that happened here.