Spoiler-Free Review: Aquaman (2018)
Title: Aquaman (2018)
Genre: Superhero/Sci Fi/Action
Director: James Wan
Stars: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe
Bias: This is the third outing as Aquaman by Jason Momoa (the second with dialogue) and I still don’t understand, or especially like, whatever it is he’s doing.
In A Nutshell: Arthur Curry/Aquaman is the son of an Atlantean queen and a surface-dwelling father. Caught between these two worlds, he’s enlisted by Mera to take the throne from his evil half-brother, Orm, who is consolidating power and planning to invade the surface world.
The Critique: While watching Aquaman, a question keeps coming to mind: What is this movie? The answer is…I don’t know. The problem is, the filmmakers don’t seem to know, either. There are stretches of over-the-top melodrama - particularly the love story between the hero’s parents, Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) and Atlanna (Kidman) – screwball comedy, CGI spectacle, Shakespearean political intrigue, and ecological allegory. You have sailors on a submarine getting viciously gunned-down in the same film that has an octopus playing drums, a racial allegory about being caught between two identities in the same film as pee jokes and cheesy one-liners. It’s all over the place. There are moments in all of those that work, to varying degrees, but the overall effect feels like a less-successful version of Marvel’s quipping-during-tragedy tone (or DC’s own far better Wonder Woman from last year). The superhero film it reminds me the most of is the Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern outing from 2011. As with that film, there are things I like and things I don’t, and the sum doesn’t quite work for me, but I found myself far more bothered by it in Aquaman.
I’m going to start with what worked. First, the visuals. The underwater world of Aquaman, unquestionably the largest challenge for the film, is beautifully and imaginatively realized. There are different underwater kingdoms, each different from the last, and each looks great. There’s a level of design and world-building that shows the level of thought that went into the technical side of this movie.
Additionally, the visualization of the action, both above and below the water, is fantastic. There are large scale battles and one-on-one fights that are excellently staged. In particular, there’s a sequence in which Mera (Heard) and Aquaman (Momoa) are fighting off a nighttime attack on a ship that is genuinely thrilling, and a split chase/battle in Sicily that showcases imaginative uses of the various parties’ powers.
Aside from that, the secondary villain – Black Manta (Abdul-Mateen II) – is fantastic, both in motivation and design. What could have just been a mustache-twirling baddy in a cool suit (think Yellowjacket in Ant-Man or Ares in Wonder Woman) has a strong motivation that both drives his character and affects Aquaman (though the initial heavy-handedness of the set-up had me rooting against the hero for most of the fight).
The performances (and, to be fair, a script that doesn’t do the actors any favors) are where the problems start for me. I mentioned Momoa above, and if you liked his take on the character in Justice League you’ll like it here just fine. For me, it’s something that might work in a film that feels more tonally-consistent or as part of an ensemble (both were the case with Justice League). Mera is pretty bad-ass in the film, but Heard never feels otherworldly in the way the character should and she’s stuck with the worst wig in a superhero movie since Kate Mara’s third act Sue Storm wig in Fantastic Four (2015).
The effect is a character that never feels convincing enough for me to buy into either their chemistry together or the Atlanteans as something alien. There are also some jarring de-aging effects on Morrison and Kidman that start the movie, some dodgy CGI (in the land-based scenes, of all places), and, well, there’s just a lot.
The sum is that the film has a story that I never felt engaged in, characters that I never felt invested in, and a feeling that I could never quite tell what tone the film was shooting for. The two hour and twenty minute run-time didn’t help, and I found myself mentally checking-out quite a bit. Aquaman isn’t a terrible movie, and based on the box office and many of the reviews, it’s a movie that a lot of people are enjoying, and that’s great. The action and visuals, and especially their culmination in the third act (which is the strongest) are almost enough to make me recommend the film. But I think it’s very much a YMMV movie, and there are just too many things that, for me, fall flat.
Shout-out: The enthusiasm and commitment. Regardless of how I felt about the final product, I think it’s great that this movie just fully leans in and embraces everything about Aquaman, from the absurdly silly to the cool and bad-ass.
To Go, to Rent, or to Stream: Purely for the visuals and action, it’s probably worth checking out theatrically. If those aren’t that important to you, or if you have a nice enough home theater set-up, I’d wait and check it out there.