THIS REVIEW OF ‘AQUAMAN’ CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.
by Jarrod Jones. Slick, vibrant, and boisterously silly, James Wan’s Aquaman is milk from a room-temperature bowl of Froot Loops that you can inject into your eyeballs. It’s colorful. In places, it can be sweet. And any sugar high that comes from it is followed by a swift and painful crash. (Splash?)
Lousy analogies aside, it’s hard to pick on this movie too much. Wan clearly had his work cut out for him when he decided that his first cinematic superhero foray would be directing the King of the Seven Seas. (His first DC offer was for a big-screen stab at The Flash.) It’s been nearly twenty years since George Lucas tossed us into the deep end of the Gungan seas in The Phantom Menace, but where have all the technological advancements in underwater trickery been since? Aquaman pushed the director to innovate, and that herculean effort is evident in nearly every digitized shot of the film. But all the swaying hair and gurgle-y audio effects can’t erase the uncanny sensation that comes with watching Willem Dafoe’s head float precariously atop a shell-encrusted body straddling a hammerhead shark. There was no way this thing was ever going to achieve — and please, pardon the pun — total immersion.
Luckily, Aquaman doesn’t really aim for immersion. It favors bombardment. It swings (and swings hard) for the fences and hopes that this Tron: Legacy meets Avatar meets whatever-works sandwich will sate film-goers who thought Justice League was at least a film that exists. And it succeeds — provided you water down your expectations. By the gallons.
You’d figure that after *counts fingers* five movies in the can Warner Bros. would finally let its DC freak flag fly, and for the most part Aquaman does exactly that. It innovates a whole new world under the sea (Disney jokes!) but it does not wipe away the stain that these DC films have smeared all over Time Warner’s precious DC IP. It’s just as broken a film as Justice League was, if not in cohesion then at least in tone, largely because Aquaman doesn’t know what kind of film it wants to be. Is it a screwball romance? A bad-ass superhero flick? Dramatic neo-myth?
It aspires to all of them, at least. Not for nothing, it begins with a semi-sweet flashback sequence that kicks off this tiresome origin story. Temuera Morrison (Jango Fett, once) plays our hero’s lighthouse operator dad and Nicole Kidman (of all people) stars as Atlanna, from actual, for-really-real Atlantis. They hook up, have a kid, get ambushed by a kingdom none too pleased with with a queen that chooses to make time (and babies) with a land-dweller. And after a kinetic action sequence that promises better ones to come, Atlanna goes home only to be seemingly executed by her betrothed.
The film carries on, oh boy does it carry on, with the now-very-healthily-grown Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) and his post-Justice League antics, which include a modestly amusing action sequence inside a Russian submarine that introduces sub-baddie Black Manta and his father (who perishes under circumstances that recall producer Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel). The film doesn’t make much time for Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II); it has larger aspirations for Arthur’s full-blooded Atlantean brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), though the film does set Manta on a collision course with Arthur for a possible, presumably more focused, sequel. (And wouldn’t you know it, Chinese markets have all but made those prospects an inevitability.)
Wilson’s fine in his fifth collaboration with Wan; his Orm is a suitable prick, and his performance commands a frothing desire to see this would-be Ocean Master get his toned, hairless ass kicked all over the Seven Seas. (The resulting final battle feels ripped from Ivan Reis and Joe Prado splash pages — and also possibly from the ending of Metal Gear Solid 4.) Lucky for me, Wilson spends most of the film conspiring with Dolph Lundgren’s Nereus, father to Mera (Amber Heard), who is poised to rule in some capacity in Orm’s new world order. As for Mera, she fancies her chances with Orm’s half-brother (because environmentalism, or something), and decides to bust loose from Orm’s paranoid watch to set Arthur on his own path towards King-dom.
It’s all perfunctory stuff. What’s worse is that Heard works her Jolly Rancher-colored wig off making Momoa look halfway serviceable in his unwanted regal role. Heard’s good in this film, and fares far more ably than the many, many A-listers collecting a paycheck in this seaside spectacle. (Willem Dafoe, especially, all but disappears by the time the film’s climactic battle rumbles into frame.) But Aquaman makes its capable female lead stop kicking all of the asses just to prop up this wishy-washy surfer-dude, and it has the nerve to make her fall in love with him, to boot.
It’s a computer algorithm’s idea of romance. A sanitized version of Roman Holiday. With kraken. Y’know, a thought occurred to me while I watched Momoa attempt to swagger his way through this movie — why isn’t this movie sexier? For a good majority of its running time, Heard and Momoa — two ludicrously gorgeous people — are set next to each other and yet there are absolutely zero sparks flying around. (And you can’t blame it on the water this time.) There’s no kink in Aquaman, no glimmer of sexuality in a film that’s banking on the inherent sex appeal of its leading man. Hold on to the hope they figure this out by the time its sequel rolls around — a bit of heat would reap mad dividends for Momoa, who otherwise rocks his character’s iconic golden scales with earth-trembling aplomb. As it stands, he, and the movie surrounding him, is a total drip.
Directed by James Wan.
Produced by Peter Safran and Rob Cowan.
Screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall.
Story by Geoff Johns, James Wan and Will Beall.
Starring Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Nicole Kidman.
Rated PG-13 for undersea havoc, some slashing of blades, and lots of wet bodies.
6.5 out of 10