A film review by Craig J. Koban January 4, 2019

AQUAMAN jjj
    

2018, PG-13, 144 mins.

 

Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry / Aquaman  /  Amber Heard as Mera  /  Willem Dafoe as Nuidis Vulko  /  Patrick Wilson as Orm Marius / Ocean Master  /  Dolph Lundgren as King Nereus  /  Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as David Kane / Black Manta  /  Nicole Kidman as Queen Atlanna  /  Temuera Morrison as Thomas Curry  /  Ludi Lin as Murk  /  Graham McTavish as King Atlan  /  Djimon Hounsou as The Fisherman King  /  Natalia Safran as Fisherman Queen  /  Michael Beach as Jesse Kane  /  Randall Park as Dr. Stephen Shin

Directed by James Wan  /  Written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall

 

 

 

SCREENED IN
3D

Let's face facts: 

Aquaman has never been considered as - for lack of a better word - cool as his other DC Comics super heroes like Batman and Superman.  

The notion of an orange and green costumed man that can breath underwater and talk to various aquatic life makes this hero a difficult nut to crack on the silver screen while not making him the butt of easy jokes.  Considering the somewhat shaky ground that the DC Extended Universe has been on lately - after the highest of highs with the critical and financial success of WONDER WOMAN and, after that, the so-so reaction of the box office under-performing JUSTICE LEAGUE - Warner Brothers placing faith on the frankly absurd world of AQUAMAN as their next entry in the DCEU - and one that they hope will continue the franchise's course correction - is a risky gamble, to say the least. 

When one considers how woefully wrongheaded an AQUAMAN film could have been under the wrong guidance and hands, it's somewhat miraculous that the resulting film is, on a purely conceptual level, pretty awe inspiring and staggeringly ambitious.  It's a visionary epic unlike just about any other comic book movie that I've seen from either the MCU or DCEU.  As a technological marvel that fully realizes the marine world of its comic pages roots, AQUAMAN deserves worthy comparisons to AVATAR.  Its writing, on the other hand, is decidedly wobbly at times and the overall narrative suffers from the momentum issues.  Yet, AQUAMAN is not a dialogue driven affair, but rather an audio-visual nirvana that works stupendously as a piece of visceral escapism.  And unlike so many other comic book films, it never takes itself too seriously and instead fully embraces the sheer ludicrousness of its titular character and his world with a giddy reverence that never feels like its mocking the source material.  On that level, AQUAMAN is the most joyously comic book-y entry in the DCEU to date, and it's all the more entertaining as an underwater extravaganza because of it. 

 

 

The film opens with a nifty and highly economical prologue - set in the 1980's - that introduces us to future-Aquaman-mom-to-be Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) that has escaped from an arranged marriage back in her home waterworld of Atlantis.  She winds up wounded and unconscious near the home of a kindly lighthouse keeper named Tom (Temuera Morrison), who takes her in and nurses her back to health.  Predictably, the pair begin an inter-species romance, which produces a child of both the water and land world in young Arthur (played as an adult by Jason Momoa).  When Arthur is just a boy Atlantis soldiers come out of no where to launch a surprise attack of the banished Atlanna, hoping to drag her back to Atlantis.  After she more than handles herself against her assailants (in one of the film's many breathlessly choreographed action sequences), Atlanna and Tom decide to part ways for the safety of their son, who is left under Tom's care to be raised by him, but he's clearly unlike any other normal boy with the strange new abilities that he begins to develop that mirrors his mother's. 

Flashing forward several decades to the present and we hook back up with Arthur - the media dubs him "The Aquaman" based on his aquatic gifts - who now spends most of his time helping those in need of oceanic rescue, and when he's not playing the part of a hero he's back at home chugging beers with his aging father.  Things back in Atlantis are getting dire, seeing as its ruler in Orm (Patrick Wilson) wants to initiate a massive war between the ocean and surface world, which doesn't sit well with his fellow leaders.  Realizing that Orm has lost it, a determined Mera (Amber Heard) decides to seek land and recruit Arthur, who's revealed to be Orm's own brother and a possible savoir to Atlantis.  As the pair decides to join forces to seek out a powerful and mystical trident that would give Arthur the edge against his sibling, they soon realize that defeating Orm will be no easy task.  Complicating matters immensely is the appearance of a sea pirate named Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who has a very personal bone to pick with Arthur stemming from a previous altercation between the two. 

Helmed by a supremely confident James Wan (INSIDIOUS, THE CONJURING, and FURIOUS 7), AQUAMAN is an unqualified show stopper, with sensational production values and bravura art direction that thrilling brings the mythical and larger than life world of Atlantis to life.  From a perspective of raw spectacle, AQUAMAN shows endless amounts of imagination in envisioning the grandeur of Atlantis, replete with boisterous bioluminescent hues and a sublime attention to detail in creating underwater creatures of Atlantis tech that really make the film's 3D truly pop.  Like the best of George Lucas' STAR WARS films, AQUAMAN fills the screen with an abundance of environmental details that flesh out its strange and beguiling world (one viewing of this film won't be enough to drink it all in), and it's that sense of inviting visual discovery that makes Wan's water soaked epic proudly separate itself from many other large scale comic book adaptations.   

The film deserves serious props for playful inventiveness as well, especially when it comes to the troubling business of making its multitude of Atlantis-based characters speak underwater (they verbalize by moving their mouths while at deep ocean depths, but they remain audible, albeit with a mild bit of a bubbly echo in their inflections).  And because Arthur and Mera, for example, can move at superhuman speed and dexterity underwater, it makes the battle sequences simmer with a breakneck pacing that's not impeded at all by the crushing weight of sea water. The aquatic life itself is almost a secondary character in the film, with Mera - at one point - sporting an exquisitely beautiful dress made up of illuminated jellyfish.  At one point - during the opening of a gladiatorial square off between Orm and Arthur - war drums are heard in the background, provided by an octopus with an ear for music.  Again, part of the pleasure of watching AQUAMAN is how bloody weird it is as a super hero adventure, but it never laughs at its inherent silliness; everyone on board here behind and in front of the camera seem in tune with the type of film they're making, all done with a sly wink to the audience that they're in on the joke. 

Too seriously handled and AQUAMAN would have been a waterlogged slog to sit through, but too nonsensically campy and the film would have been too loony for its own good.  I think it takes great care and handling to make a film this bonkers about a half-man, half merman Atlantis prince that holds up its silliness like a badge of honor, but is also done with an imaginative grandeur that's inspiring.  Wan deserves special credit, as he seems equal to the Herculean challenge of this film to deliver the goods, and the manner that he conjures up many of the film's truly inspired action sequences (above and below water) is pretty remarkable, especially with a mid-movie set piece in Italy that has Black Manta nearly destroying a village to take down Arthur and Mera, all done in long and breathtaking long takes and not cut up like so many other hatchet jobbed action films that feel like they were edited together by someone with attention deficit disorder.  AQUAMAN's climax is also thoroughly mesmerizing, with Wan launching a jaw-dropping deep sea war between good and evil forces that's as grand as anything I've seen in a super hero film before. 

I haven't talked much about the impossibly rugged and handsome Momoa in the lead role, who's rock star like visage, professional wrestler build and surfer dude charm makes Aquaman a compellingly likeable super hero protagonist.  He's the - no pun intended - anchor that keeps the film jubilantly afloat.  He's paired nicely thoroughout with the equally photogenic Amber Heard, who provides the DCEU with another worthy and kick ass female hero after Wonder Woman.  Together on screen, Momoa and Heard are almost distractingly attractive, but they impart in their characters a warmth and easy going camaraderie, even when the script gives them some pretty clunky dialogue during their flirtatious verbal foreplay that feels like it's been ripped from countless other forgettable romcoms.  

AQUAMAN has a few other issues, like being perhaps crammed with too many characters that are introduced and then forgotten about, only to reappear later when convenient.  The film is arguably a bit too long by 10-15 minutes, with its middle sections being stretched out a bit too broadly.  Ultimately, these are minor quibbles, because AQUAMAN exists as a magnificently - and thanklessly -  engineered state of the art CGI spectacle that wholeheartedly delivers on wow factor (it's not only highly worthy of big screen consumption, but in 3D as well, which, again, is used to great service to accentuate Arthur's beguiling Atlantis roots).  AQUAMAN doesn't quite achieve the high echelon achievement for the DCEU that was WONDER WOMAN, nor does it take the risky - albeit admittedly polarizing -  gambles a BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, but Wan's comic book adaptation is filled with so much unbridled and passionate imagination and raw showmanship that's it's hard to dismiss.  

And it makes the once dismissible and laughable oddness of Aquaman...pretty darn cool in my books.  That's no easy feat to pull off. 

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