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~Review by Grawlix (December 2018)
Ever hear that story about Henry Kissinger? You know, the one in which he assigns an aide to complete a report. And the aide turns it in and after a little while Kissinger calls him in and asks “Is this the best you can do?”. So the aide takes the report back and makes revisions and submits it again and Kissinger calls him back in and asks again: “Is this the best you can do?”. And this goes on a few more times until the exasperated aide finally exclaims:” Yes, this is the best I can do! I can’t possibly improve it any further!” to which Kissinger replies, “Good, I’ll read it now.”
I’m thinking there’s a reason Aquaman reminded me of that anecdote. Watching Aquaman’s individual scenes, one can almost imagine earlier versions where the director asks “It’s fine, but what more can we add to it?” As such, Aquaman is a movie that wears many hats, sometime several at once. It’s a very busy movie, arguably too busy for its own good at times, but one thing it never is, is boring.
Aquaman begins as a standard superhero origin story. Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is the superpowered son of Atlantean noble Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and a human lighthouse keeper named Tom (Temuera Morrison). In his formative years he’s trained by Atlantean Vulko (Willem Dafoe) and things seem idyllic. But displaced nobles have a tendency to not stay displaced forever, so when Atlanna is dragged back under the waves, and Arthur hears that she has subsequently been sacrificed in some arcane ritual, he washes his hands (uh, metaphorically speaking) of Atlantis and his heritage for good. But, again, displaced nobles…, and in due course he is contacted by a redheaded Atlantean named Mera (Amber Heard) with news that his half brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) is attempting to unify the undersea kingdoms to foment a war with the surface. Since only another noble can challenge Orm’s supremacy, Arthur reluctantly dives back in (so to speak) to try to find a better solution. This moves the proceedings into more Game of Thrones style courtly intrigue (so at least Momoa is still in somewhat familiar territory). Apparently there are two ways to assume regency over the oceans. Either subjugate its inhabitants through force of arms, or claim a, possibly mythical, magic trident, Excalibur style. As Arthur is a bit light on allies, he opts for the second option (while Orm pursues the first) morphing the film first into an Indiana Jones type puzzle adventure, and then further into Romancing the Stone territory as his relationship with Mera blossoms. Then we get some Lovecraftian boat horror somewhat in the vein of Deep Rising, and then a Braveheart/Lord of the Rings style mass battle, before winding things back up in familiar superhero origin territory. And I’m leaving plenty of stuff out.
So yeah, a lot of things happen during Aquaman that make its two plus hour runtime seem to fly by. Director James Wan, who mainly directed horror pictures prior to this, seems almost obsessively cognizant of the movie’s pace, to the point that, more than once, he elects to just start blowing things up if he feels he’s in danger of losing his audience to too much dialogue. Combined with the rapidly evolving story that never stays in one place for long, and you have a viewing experience that sometimes feels more like a roller coaster ride than a movie. Are there story inconsistencies? Plot holes? Eh, probably. But things move much too fast to dwell on any one issue overlong.
One things that helps this approach along immensely is that Aquaman uniformly looks fantastic. Bucking the trend of relentlessly drab palettes of prior DCEU movies, Aquaman is often a riot of color, with undersea locales, as viewed through Atlantean eyes, rendered in bold neon bioluminescence. Naturally there are ample blues and greens as well, but these too are rendered with a vibrant larger-than-life sheen. And of course there is Mera’s bright red hair that stands out against nearly everything and draws the eye whenever she’s on screen, which may sound like a small thing, but believe me it’s not. The costuming is similarly striking, to the point that it would’ve honestly looked absurd in a less committed environment, but set against the rest of the film’s visuals, it fits right in.
The action is solid and fluid and thankfully resists the urge to just bury everything in quick cuts, like so many films do these days. Instead there are some satisfying longer tracking shots, even in fights that take place in close quarters. Also, kudos to whoever put together the hand-to-hand choreography. Tridents might not be the next lightsabers, but the movie manages to make them look damn cool in motion nonetheless. But even when people aren’t trying to punch and stab each other the movie is more or less in constant motion. Wisely eschewing the weird “temporary-air-bubble” idea from Justice League, Aquaman keeps the underwater scenes fully submerged, meaning that there is a constant wispy billowing of hair and clothes that the movie does not try to hide or mitigate. It’s a real showcase for just how far effects have come since 2010’s Inception in which Ellen Page had to wear her hair in a tight bun to eliminate the need to render any rogue hair strands in that film’s considerably less prevalent weightless environments.
Even the soundtrack was enough to specifically get my attention more than once. I’ll forgive the inclusion of Pitbull due to the unexpected appearance of Sigur Rós. And the score, credited to Rupert Gregson-Williams, often evoked Daft Punk’s great work on Tron: Legacy in the best possible way.
The only real problems with Aquaman aren’t really problems per se so much as consequences of its selected method of storytelling, though that doesn’t mean the choices the screenplay made were always the best ones. The movie’s breakneck pace is enough to make one’s head spin and sometimes prompted the question of whether the movie even could slow down if it wanted to. Much of the dialog that isn’t strictly expositional is a mixed bag, particularly the attempts at comedy, which almost always fall flat, and the sober discussions of fish-based politics scan about as well as one might expect. I mentioned that Wan usually shunts these scenes aside in favor of more action as soon as he gets the chance, which is certainly… a solution, but it would have been nice to see a little more effort put towards improving the dialogue instead of just jettisoning it as a lost cause whenever possible.
Probably the greatest triumph of Aquaman, to me anyway, is that it’s a whole movie about Aquaman. I grew up watching reruns of The Super Friends and let me tell you, throughout the 80’s and 90’s Wendy and Marvin were probably more popular characters than Aquaman. I’d been aware of DC’s efforts to give the character a bit more dignity over recent years, but this is the first time I’ve found myself becoming convinced. I have to credit this mainly to the casting of Momoa, who I always felt had the charisma and presence to be a leading man, but after 2011’s Conan the Barbarian (which I enjoyed) flopped I was worried he’d never get another chance. The fact that he’s a well stacked slab of meat that runs around shirtless for a good portion of the film probably didn’t hurt its crossover appeal, neither. But ultimately everyone plays their parts well, and the production supports them from every angle. Aquaman is a movie that often feels like it’s forging ahead solely on the strength of its gumption alone, and while this approach doesn’t work all the time, it works here.
There is a mid-credits scene. Nothing special, but it shows Warner has hope for the franchise.
Final Grade: B+
Aquaman sometimes blatantly avoids difficult scripting situations, but it invariably fills the gaps with hi-octane action and tons of it. The end result is a sustained fireworks display of a movie that still maintains enough cohesion to make sense. This is the very essence of blockbuster filmmaking.
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