Aquaman

"What could be greater than a king?"
"A hero."

SPOILER WARNING: There will be a brief non-spoiler review to start with, then I'll discuss the film in depth for those who've seen it.

Also, SARCASM WARNING: For whatever reason, I was in an extremely sarcastic mood when I wrote this review. As a result, I use sarcasm here. A lot.

By nature I love brevity: Absolutely gorgeous in every shot and action-packed, Aquaman is full to the brim with moments that will make die-hard comic book geeks and casual fans alike say things like, "Aw, YEAH!" and "That was awesome!" While there are a few themes, they don't do too much. All in all, it doesn't have a lot of depth, which is surprising for a movie set primarily on the ocean floor.

In Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Zack Snyder stuck Jason Momoa in an aquarium tank and filmed him for ten seconds. In Justice League, he used green screen to depict underwater action that sound exactly like it really would to human ears - dampened and unintelligible. For Aquaman, James Wan has been handed the task of trying desperately to make Aquaman look cool. Perhaps a more traditionally-minded director, Wan wisely decides that the decades-old tradition of great filmmakers deciding that scientific accuracy is for losers (and Nolans?) and not really caring what human ears would actually hear is probably not a thing to abandon at this time.

The result is what Neil DeGrasse Tyson might call 'disregarding science' and what I might call 'making an entertaining film.' The underwater action is engaging and epic, and every single frame of this film looks like a freaking Van Gogh as far as color goes. Where Snyder's DC offerings employed the vast range of color one might find in, say, a zebra, or a weekday newspaper, Wan uses revolutionary new techniques like 'orange,' 'bright blue,' and 'not actively desaturating your entire film.' He's got a keen sense of colorful beauty and contrast, and the movie is stunning.

Don't expect a particularly interesting plot; the quest and the story as a whole were fairly by-the-numbers. Neither should you anticipate any clever dialogue; the characters stumble their way through unnatural lines and gobs of exposition in a good half of the film's key exchanges. What you should expect to see, but not be blown away by, is some themes. I'll get into exactly what those themes are in the spoiler section below, because they are somewhat spoilery. And you definitely won't guess the entire plot by the end of the first act.

Though Aquaman isn't too deep, it's a heck of a lot of fun to watch and quite an enjoyable experience. I really do recommend that you go see this movie, if you enjoy fun action and pretty pictures. Also if you are a person who likes to mock the character of Aquaman, because I'm 90% sure that's the target audience.

3 out of 6 pretty pictures.

Friendly neighborhood Aquaman:

This film is not too family-friendly. There is a fair amount of swearing and foul language. If you want a fun movie you can take your kids to, go see Spider-Verse.

SPOILER ALERT: The review will discuss spoilers from here on out.

I mentioned that this film has some themes to it, which aren't exactly clear or well-realized. The first and most obvious of these is the uniting of two worlds which are completely alien to one another. This is the theme that is central to the first and last scenes of the film. In the former, a man from our world meets a woman from theirs as Aquaman narrates about ships meeting each other without any discernible force to propel them. The clash of cultures is evident in the opening sequence more than in any of the rest of the film. In the film's closing moments, too, we see these two representatives of completely different worlds coming together at long last, after what we know has been many years of waiting and longing.

The issue is that this particular theme doesn't really come across very well in the rest of the film. There are loads of situations and dynamics that on paper carry the theme, but in the context of the movie and the way it felt, it doesn't come through almost at all. Aquaman and Mera, themselves a pair from two worlds, are chased by both surface dwellers (Manta) and Atlanteans. They fight both on land and in the sea. And Mera clashes with the humans' culture almost as much as Arthur does with the Atlanteans'. Yet because the quest itself is entirely Atlantean in nature, and because the classically sci-fi world of Atlantis isn't too far off from other sci-fi worlds, which do center around humans, we don't really feel the blending of two worlds. Had the Atlanteans felt more alien, and the plot involved the human world more significantly, this theme would have been much more strong a presence.

The other theme I feel warrants particular scrutiny is that of a great unifier - or a hero - de-escalating conflict instead of escalating it. Interestingly enough, this unifier/hero is not Aquaman. The film's central character always escalates the conflict, at every turn of the plot. It is instead Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) who truly exemplifies this. If you think about it, every effect the character has on the film is to bring peace and unity, not chaos and conflict. She leaves Tom and Arthur in order to protect them. She tries to teach Orm and Mera, and Arthur when he finally meets her, to be better. And in the end, she arrives to end the conflict, saving the life of the film's antagonist. At key points, Atlanna brings people together and gets them to be more peaceful.

The issue with this theme is also that it's not overt enough. For this to be real and feel like it matters, Aquaman would've had to oppose it more directly at the start, and be convinced more significantly to act otherwise by the end. Instead, Arthur fights his way out of every situation right up until the end, and doesn't really show enough signs of having grown. The only thing he does even remotely displaying a change is his refusal to kill Orm, which is a more merciful act than his abandonment of Manta's father early on. Yet this is not particularly great, nor does it have much of an impact as his chance to kill Orm immediately disappears after his initial reluctance. Even with Mera and Atlanna encouraging him to learn throughout the film, he never really does in any way that matters.

A few other themes were present, but weren't really intended to make much of a difference. These include the bits about ocean pollution, which were not as heavy-handed as one might have expected and subsequently been annoyed by, and the bits that deal with duty to one's people. Both themes were present but not overpowering, and were quite tasteful in their execution.

Real quick, let's talk about the final battle. As I said before, I kind of feel like the target audience of this film is people who mock the character of Aquaman. The reason it feels that way is that all the things that Aquaman gets mocked for - talking to fish, riding seahorses, throwing water while underwater, etc. - appear in the third act as epic moments. It feels like the filmmakers just made a list of all the things Aquaman gets mocked for and then intentionally set out to make his scoffers cheer for those very things. Which is kind of fun.

Acting is acting like you're not acting:

The performances in this movie were neither outstanding nor terrible. They all pretty much hovered in the middle of the spectrum. At the high end were Nicole Kidman's Atlanna, Amber Heard's Mera, and Temuera Morrison's Tom Curry. At the lower end were Patrick Wilson's Orm, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II's Manta, and Dolph Lundgren's King Nereus. So, you know, all the bad-guys. Jason Momoa (Arthur/Aquaman) and Willem Dafoe (Vulko) hung out near the middle of the pack. One thing was reinforced in my mind by this film - no matter what character he plays and no matter how much of a good-guy that character is, there is nothing more terrifying than Willem Dafoe smiling.

Pensees:

-So, can we talk about how much Michael Beach (Manta's Dad) looks and sounds like Steve Harvey in certain shots? I'm just saying, I had a really hard time taking him seriously when I could so easily picture him hosting Family Feud.

Survey says: You're dead.
-I was totally not expecting the Karathen to speak. That took me by surprise. Also, that was Julie freaking Andrews!

-Randall Park plays Dr. Stephen Shin after playing a character in Ant-Man and the Wasp. Interesting franchise leap, and for that role, too?

-There are a total of six actors listed as playing Arthur in this movie, not including Jason Momoa and his stunt doubles.

-Interesting choice, going with the 'quest based on a specific series of nonsensical instructions' plot that you most often see on animated children's shows.

-I wish they'd left Manta out of this film and saved him for a sequel. His character didn't have enough of a good role in this one to justify his inclusion.

-The final battle is probably the first cinematic battle between sharks, crabs, and... Attack seahorses? Attack seahorses. Alrighty then.

-Apparently, James Wan was offered the choice of directing this or the practically non-existent Flashpoint. He made the right decision, apparently, since Flashpoint seems cursed to lose all its directors.

-Despite anti-Snyder measures such as color and a non-confusing storyline, the Snyder slo-mo still remains. Which is perfectly fine; that was never my problem with Snyder.

Quotes:

Guy in the bar: "You that fish-boy from the TV?"
Arthur: "It's fish-man."

Arthur: "We've got a bogey on our tail!"
Mera: "What does that even mean?"
Arthur: "Bad-guys behind us!"
Mera: "Why didn't you just say that?"
Arthur: "Bad-guys behind us!"

Arthur: "Redheads. You gotta love 'em."
*jumps out of the plane*

*Mera pulls water from Arthur's skin and uses it to activate the device*
Arthur: "Show-off. I could've just peed on it."

Mera: "You based our exit strategy on a children's book?"
Arthur: "I didn't read the book. I just saw the movie."

Arthur: "I'm no leader. I came because I have no choice. I came to save my home, and the people I love."

3 out of 6 Attack seahorses.

---
CoramDeo likes to review movies and television. He thinks he's getting good, but he can handle criticism.

7 comments:

lazybasterd said...

As soon as Mera mentioned in the Pinocchio scene that she'd never heard of anyone talking to creatures, I knew that was going to be a big part of the resolution.

CoramDeo said...

Lazy, much of my experience watching this film can be summed up with the formula 'As soon as _______ mentioned ___________, I knew that ___________ was going to happen.' I think during that scene I was mostly thinking about Finding Nemo, though; same when they talked about 'The ring... Of FIRE!!!'

Diogo said...

"I wish they'd left Manta out of this film and saved him for a sequel. His character didn't have enough of a good role in this one to justify his inclusion."

I see your point, but speaking as someone for whom Manta is one of his favorite DC villains, I disagree. Given the current crumbling state of the DCEU (they don't even call it DCEU anymore!, it's "World of DC" or some nonsense) there was no guarantee Aquaman would ever get a sequel... so I understand that they thought "well, if we only have one shot, we might as well include the most popular and iconic of all Aquaman villains even if he doesn't get the role of the main villain, otherwise Aquaman fans might be disappointed if he doesn't even show up"-

Aaron Studer said...

Nice review. I for one loved Patrick Wilson as Orm. Simply put, I love villains like Orm that are just so over the top and zealous, regarding their performance.

Lamounier said...

I liked this movie a lot. It was entertaining, gorgeous and fun, produced with the confidence of an MCU movie. I would even rewatch it (I think I have to now that I know Julie Andrews had a voice role in it and I didn't notice it was her).

Also, great review, CoramDeo. I mean:

"it doesn't have a lot of depth, which is surprising for a movie set primarily on the ocean floor."

Great line.

I disagree with you regarding the theme of a hero de-escalating conflict, though. I thought it was well explored through Aquaman himself. Yes, his methods are not peaceful, but he is forced into most of the violence he enacts. And even if he uses violence, he does so to prevent a much bigger, more damaging conflict from happening. However, I agree with you that his journey from merciless to merciful could have been deepened.

Re: Manta. I understand why they would include Manta's origin story in this movie, and his connection with the Atlanteans was well done, but his presence was more distracting than interesting, specially in the second half of the movie.

I had no idea people were so dense about Aquaman and the universe surrounding this specific character. Do people really mock it that much? I loved it, it's a fictional universe, for crying out loud, it has the freedom to create its own rules.

Last but not least, I *loved* that the Atlanteans' first wave of attack included returning all garbage that humans threw in the sea. Inspired.

Henrik Bennetter said...

I was pleasantly surprised by this movie, I was expecting a dud but got a pretty good one!

I have one huge gripe though - that there are so, SO, many innocent lives spilled in this movie. Humoungus amounts!

CrazyCris said...

Great review! I thought the movie was fun, and not much more. Was happy with it being pure entertainment. And I too loved that the first attack wave was a plastic invasion!!!

Has no one else considered that this is basically a King Arthur story? Here's why:
King Arthur of the Seven Seas