Aquaman (2018, James Wan)

Aquaman

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Having joined Batman, Wonder Woman and others in saving the world, Aquaman is now a famous superhero, but he’d rather live a quiet life. Then a woman from the undersea realm of his ancestors arrives and asks for his help…

Good guys: After a cameo in Batman vs Superman (2016), Arthur Curry (aka Aquaman) was properly introduced in 2017’s superhero mash-up movie Justice League. (Was he called Arthur in that film?! Honestly can’t remember.) He’s played again by Jason Momoa, who enjoys highlighting the character’s flippancy, sarcasm and reluctance to be a superhero. All this lightness helps distract you from the fact that, aside from a minor subplot about his mother, Arthur has no journey or emotional resonance in this story at all. He drifts through the film, being reasonably entertaining but rarely trying to achieve or learn anything. The film begins with a 1980s-set prologue showing us how Arthur’s parents – a stranded mermaid-type called Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and a laid-back lighthouse-keeper called Thomas (Temuera Morrison) – met, fell in love and had a child. It’s a lightly sketched sequence that isn’t too concerned with nuance or texture. In just a few minutes we race through a mini-episode that’s kinda reminiscent of 80s romcom Splash… if, you know, Splash had contained a 25-second shot showing its heroine beating up an invading force of mermen. The sequence then ends with Atlanna being taken away by some goons, back to her oceanic home of Atlantis… In the present day, Arthur is a grown man (a very grown man; seriously, check out his pecks!) but it seems he would rather forget his stint as a world-saving metahuman in the previous film. Then a hot, redheaded woman from Atlantis called Y’Mera Xebella Challa, mercifully aka Mera, shows up and he’s convinced to leap into superhero action again. She’s played by Amber Heard, who’s actually quite watchable despite bucketfuls of woeful dialogue and a character without much personality. Arthur’s help is needed in Atlantis, where Atlanna’s other son has taken control. He wants to combine the seven underwater kingdoms into one force, be ordained ‘ocean master’, become the commander of the greatest military might on the planet, and wage war on the land-based nations. But because Arthur is of royal blood and is Atlanna’s first-born he can challenge his half-brother to the throne. After Atlantean forces launch attacks on the countries of the world, using tsunami to fling battleships and garbage onto shorelines, Arthur and Mera head down into the depths, where Arthur challenges his brother to a ritualistic combat. The film then goes through several genre-movie clichés: fights and chases, cryptic messages and quests, MacGuffins and globetrotting locations, CGI environments and CGI monsters, a sibling rivalry between two men who have never met before and bullshit backstories explained with a straight face… While all this is going on, we also see flashbacks to Arthur’s childhood, where he was trained in the ways of the Atlanteans by a kind mentor type called Nuidis Vulko (a bored Willem Defoe), who also tells him that his mother was executed after she returned to Atlantis. Vulko is still around in the present-day scenes too.

Bad guys: The initial foe for Arthur is a high-tech pirate called David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who we meet while he’s attempting to steal a nuclear submarine. During the heist, though, Aquaman shows up, bests him, and cruelly refuses to save Kane’s father when he’s trapped under a heavy torpedo in a flooding room. So, now with a grudge against Arthur, Kane skulks off to the guy who’d hired him… who happens to be Arthur’s despotic half-brother, Orm Marius (Patrick Wilson, looking so rubbery under the post-production effect of being underwater all the time that he may as well be 100-per-cent CGI). He’s the boss of Atlantis and bobs around his undersea realm in a shiny suit of armour and Aryan hair. ‘The time has come to rise again!’ he says, movie-villain-generically. The culture he wants to dominate is one of those fictional worlds that makes such little sense that you question if *any* thought went into creating it. How can the Atlanteans talk underwater? Why do they speak English? Why do they wear clothes? Why can some people breathe oxygen and others can’t? How have they forged metal underwater? Why has evolution given them arms and legs? And hair? Where does all the light come from at the bottom of the ocean? It’s impossible to take  these scenes seriously. Anyway, Mera’s dad is often by Orm’s side – he’s called Nereus, is played by Dolph Lundgren (no, honestly), and mostly just stands– I mean, swims around saying doomladen things. Later, Kane returns to the story: he suits up in elaborate scuba gear that makes him look like a manta ray, so adopts the superhero-villain name of Black Manta and attempts to get revenge on Aquaman. 

Other guys: There are a host of forgettable characters around the coastline of the story – creatures from other undersea realms who presumably have detailed backstories and personalities that were worked out in story conferences and workshopped in rehearsals but then don’t translate at all into interesting on-screen storytelling. We won’t waste time cataloguing them here.

Best bits:
* Having been taken into Thomas’s home, Atlanna is spooked by a TV playing the title sequence to puppet show Stingray – so she chucks her trident at the screen.
* As a child, Arthur is threatened by some bullies at an aquarium – then they realise the shark in the nearby tank is attempting to smash the glass in order to protect Arthur. All the other life in the tank assembles behind him too, like a gang backing up its leader. (It hardly makes any sense, and the moment – like all moments of drama in this film – is rushed through as quickly as possible, but it’s a decent image.)
* David Kane is a fun bad guy. The sequence that introduces him – as he and his dad storm a submarine – is well shot and works nicely as a character introduction. ‘I’ll do you deal,’ he tells the captured captain of the sub. ‘I won’t tell you how to captain, and you don’t tell me how to pirate.’ There’s sadly then a really awful beat as – right in the middle of taking over a submarine! – Kane’s father decides to pause, give David a family heirloom and impart some parental homilies. It’s almost like he knows he’s not to survive much longer.
* Aquaman shows up! ‘Permission to come aboard,’ he says over his shoulder like he’s in a James Bond film. He then starts beating people up in gleefully cartoony ways.
* Aquaman has a drink in a bar with his dad. A huge, scary, tattooed man aggressively interrupts – ‘Are you that fish boy from the TV?’ – and it seems like a fight will ensue… But the guy just wants a selfie because Aquaman is famous! High-larious.
* The flashbacks to Arthur’s childhood training with Vulko feature an exceedingly irritating child actor giving a wide-eyed performance, but the film actually cuts between the past and the present with a bit of flair.
* It’s quite funny when, in the midst of all the pretentious portent of the Atlantean realm, Arthur is frustrated to learn that he must fight Orm in front of thousands of onlookers. ‘Shit,’ he says to himself.
* Arthur and Mera are in a sportscar-like submersible, being chased by Orm’s henchmen. ‘Heads up, we’ve got a bogey on our six!’ he says. Mera: ‘What does that even mean?!’ Arthur: ‘Bad guys behind us.’ Mera: ‘Well, just say that!’ Arthur, in a high-pitched voice because he’s worried: ‘Bad guys behind us!’ (Momoa and Heard are a pretty good double act. They deserve a much better script.)
* Kane gets an A-Team-style montage as he builds his Black Manta cybersuit, complete with a Depeche Mode song on the soundtrack.
* Needing water to kickstart an ancient hologram machine that they’ve found buried under the Sahara, Mera uses her magical powers to delicately extract a drop of moisture from Arthur’s forehead. ‘Could have just peed on it,’ he later says.
* Hanging out in a picturesque square in Sicily, Mera eats some flowers (because being an ocean-dwelling isolationist means she doesn’t know what they are, I guess).
* Black Manta’s armoured suit looks both cool and ridiculous at the same time.
* Some of the action sequence in Sicily is quite exciting: Mera running across slated rooftops, Manta crashing through walls, that kind of thing. (It’s such an action-movie cliché, though, isn’t it? Characters visit a Mediterranean country? Gotta run across the rooftops! See The Living Daylights, The Bourne Ultimatum, Quantum of Solace, Taken, Skyfall…)
* Mera smashes the facemask of a Atlantean bad guy’s helmet while they fight on dry land. As he can’t breath without the water that’s now drained away, he solves the problem by… plunging his face into a nearby toilet. (Aquaman is basically a kids’ film tarted up with a blockbuster budget.)
* Arthur’s mum is still alive! I did not see that coming when they cast a really famous actress for what seemed quite a small role! She’s been hiding out all alone for several years in an uncharted area of sea near the centre of the planet (I think), so is this film’s equivalent of Ant-Man and the Wasp‘s Michelle Pfeiffer.

Review: One of the most important elements of any film is its tone. Get your tone wrong or a bit off or inconsistent, and you’re sunk. While watching Aquaman – the sixth film in the extremely variable DC Extended Universe series – you start to feel like the filmmakers have approached this issue by attempting 17 different tones all at once. The movie is occasionally so portentously po-faced that you can’t help but giggle (‘You wield our mother’s trident. Powerful, but flawed. Like her. I wield my father’s and it has never known defeat!’). Other times, there’s actually a sweetness and a charm about the characters. Elsewhere, it’s a slapstick comedy, a bombastic action movie or a collection of filler scenes from a computer game. It’s a terrible film. It really is. And it’s not just that it can’t decide on a unified mood; other faults keep piling up too: the dialogue that’s so awful it could have been written by someone who’s never heard human beings speak, the drama scenes done as swiftly and perfunctorily as possible, the self-important characters impossible to find interesting, the fight scenes that lack any impact or consequence, the musical score than hammers home every single point imaginable, the over-reliance on sudden explosions as a way of ramping up the tension, the final third that just becomes white-noise of meaningless action… However… Because the film contains some attempts at humour, and because we get two half-decent actors in the main roles, it is more diverting and slightly more enjoyable than most of the previous movies in the DC series.

Five drumming octopuses out of 10

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