Running Time: 143 minutes
Written by: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall
Directed by: James Wan
Featuring: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Nicole Kidman
Arthur Curry:“My father was a lighthouse keeper. My mother was a queen. But life has a way of bringing people together. They made me what I am.”
After the complete failure of the “Justice League” (2017), the last entry in the DCEU franchise, in almost every conceivable way it may have appeared that any goodwill built up by the success that was “Wonder Woman” (2017) may have been burnt off, much like many other franchises that have started strong but ended up little more than a wet blanket. So it was with curiosity, as well as a little trepidation that I dipped my toe back into the DCEU with the release of a movie that promised so much in “Aquaman” (2018) with a massive budget, a huge cast, a known as well as successful director as well as a leading man in Jason Momoa who genuinely embraced the role, but who did not shine as a guest player in the two previous DCEU movies he appeared in. What may have been expected with this relatively unknown character would be to lower the budget as well as create a more modest origin story to try and broaden the audience base to attempt to relaunch the DCEU especially as that is what “Wonder Woman” seemed to do. This is almost the exact opposite of what Warner Brothers have done, seemingly doubling down on the budget, increasing the use of CGI, embracing the idea that a coherent story seems to be out of question to be replaced by action set piece after action set piece with little need to bring some kind of logic into the fray, instead like many of the previous DCEU movies to market the movie at the lowest common denominator. However the difference between “Aquaman” and “Justice League” (2017), not forgetting “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) is that despite the weight of all these issues it does succeed at being an all around audience pleaser if you leave your brain at the door, treating it like a ride rather than an actual movie. As an audience you should know the level of a movie when the opening scene has a man explaining to a woman how to drink a cup of tea, oh dear.
What the filmmakers have decided to do is take elements from ‘Aquaman’s’ comic book origins, splicing them together with some of the DCEU movies that have come before, then adding storylines as well as maguffins from a variety of other successful non-related fantasy as well as generic action movies to produce a bloated two and a half hour reimaging of a comic book movie, that audiences will forget as soon as they exit the cinema. Throughout the running time there is a deep thread of “The Lord of the Rings” (2001-2003), “Jurassic Park” (1993), “The Lost World” (1925), “TRON” (1982), “Blade Runner” (1982), “Warlords of the Deep” (1978) not forgetting a huge H.P. Lovecraft aspect that literally rears its head and so many more that in my mind the writers and director just threw anything they could think of into the movie and did not have a strong commitment to leave anything out. Make no mistake these are not knowing nods or homages to other greats of the past but just ripoffs as well as made bland.
What is surprising is that a director like James Wan, who has had huge success in horror as well as action movies, such as “The Conjuring 1 & 2” (2013-2016), “Furious 7” (2015) and a lot more, could deliver something so big as well so unoriginal which is a missed opportunity to make something that is truly memorable. Not only has Wan changed what the horror movie is with both “Conjuring” movies, but also with “Saw” (2004) a decade earlier. As I said this is not inherently a bad movie, but it lacks any real depth (no pun intended), there are inconsistences throughout, very little is explained and when it is what we see onscreen is generic and nonsensical, like Arthur’s actual origins, what undersea dwellers can breathe on land seems random at best, the third act is such a mess, where are the other heroes in the world, there is little said about the immense loss of life on land as well as under the ocean, do Atlanteans have powers different to each other, there is a hidden ocean in the middle of the planet, please and so much more. Wan’s actual direction is good, although the action is messy especially in the final battle, as is the first fight between Ocean Master and Aquaman, it lacked any real jeopardy as well as there being far too much CGI and master shots, it was just like watching two Mexican jumping beans fighting each other. The storytelling was another aspect that made the narrative feel like we were stuck in molasses, for a movie that is so big and visual there seems to be many characters whose only job was to stand around and explain elements of the story to the audience so we knew what was going on at every step, it seems like that was the only reason for the existence of Mera and Vulko, such a waste of the talents of Willem Dafoe, especially just coming off an Oscar nomination. It seems that if there any problems with the movie the answer to fix it was to throw money at it, which explains why the budget sits at US$200 million as well as not being the way to actually solve real problems.
“Aquaman” begins in 1985 Maine, lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry rescues Atlanna, the princess of the underwater nation of Atlantis, during a storm. They eventually fall in love and have a son named Arthur, who is born with the power to communicate with marine lifeforms. Atlanna is forced to abandon her family and return to Atlantis, entrusting to her loyal advisor Nuidis Vulko the mission of training Arthur. Under Vulko’s guidance, Arthur becomes a skilled warrior but is rejected by the Atlanteans for being a half-breed and ultimately leaves Atlantis behind. From here the story really gets bonkers introducing too many villains as well as subplots involving becoming a King getting an all powerful trident as well as balancing wars between brothers, the surface world and the underwater world not forgetting wars between underwater kingdoms and a giant crab, you have to see it to believe it.
The movie is led by Jason Momoa who does his job well in a part you know he enjoys playing, it’s a role he has been playing for most of his career (not Aquaman, but the archetype) so you would expect him to be good at it by now. Of course he is the party man-child you have come to expect, someone who knows about ancient civilisations while at the same time being a careless thoughtless lout, something that was not present in the comics but has been introduced to show he is really just a ‘bro’ at heart. With big budget movies there is always a deep supporting cast that are all mostly too good for their two dimensional roles, however with the casting of Amber Heard and Patrick Wilson it seems like they have found actors suited to their roles. Willem Dafoe shows up slumming it, with little to do but act as a Gandalf/Obi-Wan character who knows all but seems happy to keep his knowledge mostly to himself. Then there is Nicole Kidman as Atlanna who looks genuinely lost but is a pro and knows how to play up to the camera although really has little to do but show up and spout just enough storyline so we know where Aquaman has to go next. I don’t believe the weakness of the characters is down to the actors but to the script, which is as routine as they get.
“Aquaman” shares its overuse of CGI with all the other DCEU movies in that almost every environment is a construction, most look fine but at times the technology is obviously stretched to breaking, in particular in the third act where things do start to look a little ropey, not only is speed used to disguise this breakdown but it starts to replicate the issues that were faced in “Man of Steel” (2013) with a huge body count and destruction on such a scale that it has a numbing effect, I lost interest for this entire section, not a good thing in a super hero movie. There are few scenes filmed on location and when they do appear they look so out of place especially with the undersea characters that are so much larger than life that I was taken straight out of the movie, again not a good thing. This is also one of the first DCEU movies where the age reversing special effects have been used for a long period of the movie, in Aquaman’s father played by Temuera Morrison, this effect sometimes looks good but for a long period look extremely false with little expression, plastic looking especially when compared to his appearance later in the movie.
I have no doubt that there will be people who will love this movie, it is full of special effects, humour, action and it is after all a super hero movie, so it does tick a lot of boxes for movie goers, especially those that want to feel like they received value for money. The unusual thing is that this is not an inherently bad movie, there are so many more that are worse, some of those exist in the DCEU franchise. On the surface of it “Aquaman” could be considered a good movie, but dig into it and it becomes apparent that it really is a case of the Emperors new clothes, there are inconsistencies throughout as well as tropes that this should be beyond, it is a routine story that offers no real surprises with needless death and violence that is never really commented on. If you want to see how a movie that is part of a franchise, uses a lot of CGI and does have violence but is original, is actually funny, has some heart and looks and sounds great then go and see “Bumblebee” (2018) a far better proposition for all.