IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 143 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In 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, Arthur, who’s born with the power to communicate with marine lifeforms. The already betrothed Atlanna is forced to return to Atlantis, entrusting to her loyal advisor Nuidis Vulko the mission of training Arthur. Under Vulko’s guidance, Arthur becomes a skilled warrior nicknamed Aquaman who rescues sailors who run afoul of the sea’s many dangers, but is rejected by the Atlanteans for being a half-breed. However, when Atlantean princess Mera tells Arthur about a brewing threat from his usurper half-brother Orm, the reluctant heir to the throne is drawn into action.…
Despite the very positive commercial and critical success of Wonder Woman, there’s no doubt that DC is still in some trouble, from the messing around with and then flopping of Justice League, to Ben Affleck leaving the role of Batman, to even the postponing of the Wonder Woman sequel. Misjudgment and even incompetence have resulted in only one decent film out of five, and I believe that even Wonder Woman was somewhat overpraised because it featured a female superhero and was a DC film that wasn’t shit. Therefore a lot is riding on Aquaman, which has been in development for ten years. Will it save the DC Universe, or should I say the DC Cinematic Universe [on TV DC’s doing very well], or is it another disaster of a film? Well, I’ll say one thing right away – Aquaman is so close to being a Marvel film that if you didn’t know any different you really would think it came from that studio. Whether you think this is a good or bad thing probably depends on whether you liked the style and tone of Zach Snyder’s outings and Suicide Squad or not. DC certainly did attempt to differentiate from the Marvel films stylistically before seemingly realising that more people preferred the lighter, brighter Marvel approach – though it’s worth mentioning that all of their films were major hits even if they were very divisive. The likes of Batman Vs Superman were just terrible movies for a whole assortment of reasons aside from just being dark, serious and moody, things which in themselves aren’t automatically flaws.
In any case, for me Aquaman is the best superhero outing since Logan and easily outclasses this year’s other entries. For someone who tired of characters in spandex some time ago, I was quite surprised how much I enjoyed it. It’s a non-stop, breathless parade of fantastical settings, eye-popping action sequences, superhero cliches and mythological elements. Similarities to both Thor and Black Panther are obvious very early on, but then again the template for these films is really quite restrictive when you think about it and Aquaman gains brownie points for borrowing not just from The Little Mermaid but from much older sources such as the legend of King Arthur. It also manages to deliver some genuinely striking visuals in a genre where filmmakers and visual effects artists are obviously struggling to show us something new and generic blandness has begun to set in. At its best, Aquaman really takes the viewer on an amazing trip in an almost dreamlike fashion, exploiting to its full the underwater setting of much of the film, while its frequent action is far less samey and repetitive than what we got in Avengers: Infinity War. The only possible flaw in this respect is that maybe there’s a bit too much of it. I’d have sacrificed two or three set pieces to spend some more time with some of the characters, some of whom are given short shrift, and much like Avengers: Infinity War, portions of the film do feel rather rushed despite its great length, though not to as great an extent. But the plot is always clear and is able to incorporate a bit of political commentary and environmentalist messaging without it hampering the fun.
In flashback and voice over, our hero relates the story of his birth, and I could have done with this being longer, though we do get to see Nicole Kidman, as Arthur’s mun Atlanna, getting to do some jumping around and fighting as she battles some Atlantean troops sent to bring her back to the underwater, after which she may actually break your heart as she reluctantly leaves for her home land in the first genuinely emotional scene in a DC film in a very long time – and just this once I’m including the ones before Man Of Steel. It’s just such a joy to have, and beautifully photographed too. Then we switch back to the present day and Aquaman saves a submarine full of people from pirates, and his dispatching of them is really quite brutal, though one of the cuts made by the BBFC for the ‘12A’ rating is very noticeable as the music score seems to jump forward part of a bar. Despite having a chance to save the pirate leader, Arthur fails to do so, making an enemy of his son David who vows revenge. As with Temuera Morrison as Arthur’s dad, this character’s screen time feels a bit cut down, a shame as Yahga Abdul-Mateen is admirably intense in the part. Arthur is then visited by Princess Mera, who pleads with him to go to Atlantis and take his rightful place as it king. Mera and royal vizier have found a clue that may lead Arthur to the lost trident of King Atlan and therefore take the throne from his half-brother Orm. Meanwhile Orm is trying to unite all the underwater kingdoms so he can wage war on the surface dwellers who pollute the seas as well as the land, along with the help of Nereus, played by Dolph Lundgren – and I never thought I’d see the day when the old action star would be in two major movies on at the cinema at the same time!
The film soon resolves itself into a series of action sequences in a variety of locations as Arthur and Mera go all over the place to find this trident. There are rather too many moments when we get a few minutes of quiet only to be suddenly interrupted by an explosion or attack in what is basically director James Wan doing the equivalent of the jump scares he likes to do in his horror films, but it happens so often that it becomes rather amusing – and I presume unintentionally so. There are deliberate laughs in the film dotted throughout, like Arthur revealing that he got Mera and himself to go inside a whale because he watched Pinocchio, so despite us being treated some goofy things like the sight of a large octopus playing the drums, things thankfully never fall into the Marvel trap of playing so much for laughs that the humour becomes intrusive and a smarmy feel develops. Thrill-wise a battle between Arthur, Mera and some Atlantean soldiers which wrecks a Sicilian village is a highlight, especially since it seems to rely a bit less on CGI than is sadly becoming the norm. A shipboard assault by creatures called The Trench is also a high point, as is the duel inside ‘the ring of fire’. Gravity defying fights like this are nothing new, but there’s a wonderful sense of freedom to some of the ones here, as if anything can happen. At one stage our couple end up at the centre of the earth, one of several pleasing throwbacks to Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs – though why tease us with some brief shots of dinosaurs but don’t have Arthur and Mera interacting with any of them? We are still treated to a variety of underwater creatures and even people riding on them. There are breathtaking shots of some of the locales, such as a bit where three lines at the bottom of the sea prove to be three huge entrances to Atlantis on which masses of people are moving – and as someone who’s been fascinated with the whole Atlantis thing for years, it was nice to see a flashback showing why and how it was sunk. Of course it all ends in a huge battle, but we don’t tend to see these things underwater.
Despite the film’s big commercial success, directorially Wan didn’t fare too well in his Fast And Furious outing, falling into the familiar trap of editing the action so tightly that it was hard to follow. Here, he treats us to lots of long takes, the camera continually going round characters, following combatants and taking us into strange realms while just about avoiding vomit-inducing ‘shakycam’. There were times where I wished that things would relax a bit in this respect, but there’s no doubt that Wan has used the huge budget to really show off what he can do. The film could have done with having more time being spent showing how Arthur is torn between two cultures and not accepted by either, but Jason Momoa is really very likable in the role, only really going full-on with the swagger in the early stages when it’s understandable. He’s certainly improved as an actor since he played Conan. Momoa and Amber Heard have no chemistry whatsoever of the romantic kind which hinders things a little in that respect, but they are good together as a bickering team, and Heard really is quite good in her part too. I also want to praise Rupert Gregson-Williams’s score because some may think that I’ve been hating on modern film music too much of late. As he did with Wonder Woman, Gregson-Williams comes up with a very good effort despite being restricted by the Remote Control-style template that he and other composers have to work within. He provides a decent theme for the title character and some nice lashings of guitar, voices and even Jean-Michel Jarre-style synthesiser stuff dotted throughout.
Aquaman does suffer from some seriously ropey dialogue at times, plus some instances of dodgy green screen,though that’s almost par for the course with these films. It’s also just a little bit tiring. But then it’s obviously trying very hard to be the biggest, most epic superhero film ever, constantly throwing as much ‘f*** me’ spectacle at the viewer as it can jam into its running time. It does have its brief calm moments and things to say, and I cared just enough about the characters, but when it comes down to it it’s really all about delivering as much bang for your buck as possible, and because the creators really seem to let their imaginations run away with them at times, the result is not just a film that’s DC’s best but one that’s better than most of Marvel’s too. Mr. Feige, the gauntlet has finally been laid down.