Aquaman (Cert 12A)
US (2018) Dir. James Wan
Of all the comic book superheroes Aquaman was probably the last one fans expected to get a live action film but here it is. Having made appearances in Batman vs. Superman and Justice League, this watery warrior gets his own big screen outing that takes us right back to the beginning.
The story starts one stormy night in 1985 when lighthouse keeper John Curry (Temuera Morrison) rescues a woman (Nicole Kidman) washed up on the rocks. When she wakes, she reveals herself to be Atlanna, Queen of Atlantis. She and John fall in love and have a baby, Arthur but their peaceful existence is shattered when, fearing for Arthur and John’s safety, Atlanna is forced to return to Atlantis.
In the present day, Arthur (Jason Momoa), having inherited Atlanna’s aquatic abilities, has become a media sensation dubbed Aquaman for his heroics, the latest instance seeing him protecting a Russian nuclear sub from hi-tech pirates. Arthur is then visited by Mera (Amber Heard) who implores Arthur to return to Atlantis with her and assume the throne as king to stop his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) from uniting the seven seas and declare war on the people of the surface.
Aquaman first appeared in 1941, making him older than most of the more iconic comic book heroes beloved and revered today, yet remains something of a periphery character in terms of mainstream recognition. This is partly due to his special powers being water based like being able to breathe and speak underwater, swim ridiculously fast and talk with marine animals.
So, this film is an attempt to give Aquaman some agency and credibility within the comic book hero milieu, but this is a DC film and their track record hasn’t exactly been great. Under the aegis of James Wan, a director noted mostly for horror films like Saw and The Conjuring, this is every bit the bombastic, everything-including-the-kitchen-sink CGI fest we’ve come to expect from this genre, succeeding in overcoming many of the limitations of Aquaman’s briny brawn but with the usual caveats.
The origin of Arthur’s existence is dealt with inside the first 10 minutes before beginning the story proper with the raid on the Russian sub. Likely to upset the diversity brigade, the pirates are all black (yes, coming the same year Black Panther), with Aquaman leaving the leader for dead as his son David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) pleas for his help.
Straight away, we have a conflict of sympathies – this scene is accompanied by a stirring, emotional overture designed to tear at the heartstrings as David is forced to condemn his father to death whilst making Arthur look like a total heel. But they are pirates and killed innocent people so eye for an eye, right? Realistically we should empathise with David but he is the bad guy, so how should we feel?
It’s irrelevant though as David is shifted to the background as Arthur deals with Orm, who stages an attack on Atlantis to gain the support of Mera’s father Nereus (Dolph Lundgren) in his war against the surface. Another dilemma – Orm hates the surface because we pollute the seas and harm marine animals, as many of us do too so again, even as the lead villain, shouldn’t we support Orm’s ecological concerns?
Brief flashbacks show Arthur being trained to use his abilities by Atlanna’s trusted advisor Nuidis Vulko (Willem Dafoe) but, in the eyes of Orm and other Atlanteans, being a half-breed disqualifies Arthur from becoming King of Atlantis, despite being the Queen’s first born, – the sibling beef in a nutshell.
However the true power of the rightful king lies in the trident of Atlan which is hidden away somewhere, sending Arthur and Mera on a global trek to decipher the clues of an old map, during which a predictably awkward frisson develops between them although Mera is betrothed to Orm – another cliché to tick off the list.
Whilst the story is very busy, it is overloaded to its detriment, with the David Kane subplot really needing to be a separate film (spoiler: in the post credits scenes, they hint that Kane aka Black Manta isn’t done with Arthur so there’s your sequel). That would reduce the 143-minute runtime to something less bum numbing at least or allow the time do be devoted to fleshing out the world and mythos of Atlantis a little more.
Visually you know this is going to be a feast for the eyes and with ILM at the helm that is a given; thankfully they don’t disappoint and Atlantis is something to behold, resembling an underwater Blade Runner meets the Star Wars prequels. Fight scenes, and there are plenty of them, are typical of the genre, each one bigger and more ludicrous than the last, executed at a frenetic pace.
Unfortunately some of the costumes are a bit risible, like Black Manta’s which would be more at home on Power Rangers, whilst the modernising of Aquaman’s famous orange and green outfit is probably the best they could do, but in truth, he looks more bad ass in his regular state. Also, while they create floating hair for the underwater scenes, there are no oxygen bubbles when they speak. Seriously!
Momoa is no actor; his lines are annoyingly mumbled for gravitas and his personality has been lifted from Chris Hemsworth’s Thor but he looks the part. Amber Heard is the Black Widow of the cast, i.e. the kick ass eye candy whilst Nicole Kidman should rethink the Botox as she has just one facial expression throughout – or maybe that is her trying not to squirm at the cheesy dialogue.
If Aquaman is guilty of anything, it is trying too hard. The story is straightforward enough but with too many distractions that should have been saved for a sequel. But as dumb, spectacular entertainment, Aquaman delivers that much, setting itself apart from other comic book film through the unique oceanic themes alone.
Rating – ***
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