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Aquaman (2018)

DIRECTOR: James Wan

CAST: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, Temuera Morrison, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Dolph Lundgren

REVIEW:

Like Wonder Woman, Aquaman might look better in comparison by virtue of being an entry in the DCEU (DC Expanded Universe) that isn’t an abject trainwreck, but that might also be doing a slight disservice to the film, which like many a comic book flick, is silly but entertaining. Aquaman is style over substance, but a visual feast for the eyes and a fast whiz-bang pace make it a fun, if flawed, ride.

Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) already made his bigscreen debut with a cameo in Batman v Superman, and then shared the screen with Ben Affleck’s Batman, Henry Cavill’s Superman, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, and Ezra Miller’s Flash in DC’s Avengers wannabe Justice League, but now he finally gets his own origin story as the “half-breed” son of a lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and the Queen of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman), who washes up on shore one day. After a quick skim through of their romance and boy Arthur talking to fish, we pick up in the present day, where Arthur’s half-brother, the Atlantean King Orm (Patrick Wilson) has forged an alliance with his rival King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren) to declare war on the surface world. Orm’s right-hand man Vulko (Willem Dafoe), who trained teenage Arthur and is secretly plotting to thwart Orm, dispatches Nereus’ daughter Mera (Amber Heard) to recruit Arthur to come to Atlantis and challenge Orm for the throne. Arthur doesn’t want anything to do with any of this, but after witnessing the destruction wrought by Orm firsthand, he accompanies Mera to the underwater kingdom for a gladiator-style duel with his brother. But when Arthur finds himself outmatched and is narrowly rescued by Mera, the two are sent on a quest to track down an ancient trident that can grant the power of “Ocean Master” to whoever proves worthy of wielding it. Meanwhile, they are pursued by Orm’s henchman, the pirate Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who has a score to settle with Arthur for an earlier encounter.

Perhaps the most welcome thing about Aquaman, in light of its membership within the troubled DCEU, is that it fully embraces its comic bookyness with a panache that one has a hard time imagining Zack Snyder helming. Refreshingly in comparison to the dark and dreary slog of BvS, the movie is bright and colorful, isn’t afraid to crack jokes (in fact, it sometimes does so excessively), and isn’t afraid of its own borderline ridiculousness. It’s not every movie that you get to see warriors riding into battle on sharks, or a drum-playing octopus, or a Kraken-like monster voiced by Julie Andrews—yes, really (Andrews isn’t the only “name” who makes a vocal cameo; the Brine King is voiced by John Rhys-Davies, and the Fisherman King is voiced by Djimon Hounsou). Director James Wan, playing far against his past association with the supernatural horror genre, captures some striking visuals, and this can stand alongside the likes of Avatar and Ready Player One as one of the fairly few movies where a wall-to-wall smorgasbord of CGI serves the material and is not a detriment. Atlantis is a pretty and vivid place to visit, and actually with the exception of a protracted fight/chase sequence in Sicily, the Atlantis scenes are more interesting than the surface ones, due in large part but not solely to the striking visuals. The climactic battle royale is visually spectacular, and while the final mano-a-mano verges on wrapping itself up in contrived and overly “neat” fashion, the way it’s resolved is at least slightly different from what we might typically expect.

On the negative side, Aquaman is significantly flawed. The tone is sometimes erratic, some of Arthur/Mera’s banter feels forced, the dialogue wavers between undistinguished and cheesy, and a couple of Arthur/Mera’s one-on-one scenes slip into feeling like we’ve wandered into a bad rom com, complete with cheesy “comedic scene” music that feels jarringly out-of-place (along with a brief but still too-long snippet of Pitbull butchering Toto’s “Africa”). The early scenes whisk through the romance of Arthur’s parents in too rushed and perfunctory fashion for it to generate any effect, and the makeup and/or CGI de-aging effects on Willem Dafoe and especially Temuera Morrison are unconvincing and sometimes distracting (for that matter, so is Morrison’s all-over-the-place attempt at an American accent). A “surprise reveal” is transparent and easy to see coming early on for all but the most naive theatergoers. The middle act goes into wannabe Indiana Jones territory with Arthur and Mera trekking across the Sahara and Sicily seeking ancient artifacts, that drags the pace down a bit.

The visual spectacle and action can be counted among Aquaman‘s strengths, but acting is not. Jason Momoa, who looks and acts like a WWE wrestler, is not a particularly appealing leading man. Someone like Dwayne Johnson might not be a top-flight thespian, but he possesses an innate likeability that compensates, at least to a point; less so for Momoa and his dudebro version of Aquaman (though Kekoa Kekumano, who mercifully only gets one scene as a teenage Arthur, makes Momoa look positively Shakespearean by comparison). Amber Heard is no better, coming across like a live-action Little Mermaid cosplayer and delivering her exposition in a monotone. The weakness of the acting level and the lack of chemistry between these two makes their budding romance unconvincing. Nicole Kidman (picking up an easy paycheck in a big tentpole flick in between critically-acclaimed indies like Boy Erased and Destroyer) and Temuera Morrison make walk-on roles, and Willem Dafoe is relegated to the thankless part of the expositional mentor, a part Dafoe is neither challenged by nor seems particularly enthusiastic about. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Black Manta is a somewhat interesting secondary villain, but gets more buildup than pay-off; after a whole origin story subplot, he drops out of the movie after the admittedly fun fight scene in Sicily. Patrick Wilson’s misguided Orm is thinly-developed as comic book villains often are—his anger at mankind for polluting the ocean is paid no more than shallow lip service—but Wilson imbues him with a forceful presence and a sense of conviction. Almost alone among co-stars who are either weak performers (Momoa, Heard) or phoning it in (Kidman, Dafoe), Wilson seems to be doing his best to treat the pulpy material with a level of seriousness and more than once, I found myself wanting to get back to Orm’s machinations after too much time traipsing around with Arthur and Mera.

Aquaman’s surfeit of eye candy only partially makes up for its generic narrative, though the movie is more entertaining than it perhaps has any right to be, following up films as weak as BvS and Justice League, telling the origin story of a less than top tier comic book superhero, and starring weak leads. It’s not a great movie, or even a great comic book movie, but it’s a fun ride boosted by James Wan’s spectacular visuals.

* * 1/2

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