In what seems to be one of the strangest holiday seasons yet, there is yet another early access showing; this time in conjunction with Amazon Prime membership. So far in what is one of the most packed Decembers I can recall where we have Bumblebee, Mortal Engines, Aquaman, Spider-Man, and Mary Poppins all coming within two weeks of each other; all of them have had early showings except Poppins. I think this is combination confidence and ego on the party of Disney knowing the name alone will carry a lot of weight. Steven Spielberg of all people went “I’m out” and moved Alita: Battle Angel to an uncontested Valentines day slot. The others all are all competing for early release positive buzz and need it desperately in the cases of Aquaman, Bumblebee, and Spider-Man as the brand they are representing (DCEU, Transformers, and Spider-Man) don’t have the best track records in the cinema. Spider-Man proved not only to be worthy, but the best animated movie of the year and possibly one of the best Spider-Man movies ever put to screen.
Is Aquaman worthy?
The movie violates my Three Writer Rule out of the gate, with Will Beall (Gangster Squad, Training Day TV series), director James Wan (the Saw, Conjuring, and Insidious series) , and Geoff John’s (DC’s version of Kevin Fiege ie the head of the “movie studio”) having story credit; then Beall and David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (Red Riding Hood, Wrath of the Titans) on screenplay. By their powers combined they have created a hot mess. To be fair to them, the work of Snyder before and the Justice League movie didn’t give them as much room as a team coming in fresh and thats where some of the narrative choices come from and were not handled deftly. From a purely cinematic universe standpoint the average movie goer won’t know half of whats going on or missing so I can’t and won’t call them to task. Comparing to the comic is like comparing to a book. Changes need to be made, so be it. What I can call them to task for is trying to do too much and not doing all of it well as a result; with plot threads left dangling, characters who feel like they were supposed to be more important and vanish; and most critically a lack of consequence along the way that really shouldn’t be ignored as the meta narrative of the movie put such an intense focus on rules and ancient laws.
The story itself, isn’t so much an issue. Arthur Curry’s, aka Aquaman, mother was the Queen of Atlantis, made a child with a Lighthouse keeper. Then had to return home or they die. She has a son with the King. This son, Orm, later in life wants to wage war on the surface for indistinct reasons and conspires to do so. Meanwhile Mera, someone loyal to the Queen seeks out Arthur in an attempt to have him usurp the throne and prevent all out war between the surface and Atlantis. A McGuffin must be found to give Arthur legitimacy as he is a half breed and the clock is ticking as Orm advances his plan to become the Ocean Master.
The plot itself isn’t the issue. It really isn’t. It’s the beats and how they were architected, its those hanging moments and characters that vanish and other points that just take away from the whole. Logical fallacies within the world that continually don’t add up. I am not talking the suspension of disbelief that you have to take a heaping dose of for the movie to work, I am talking violating that suspension. The movie does it time and time again; and I am not sure why. Wan is a competent director and writer and has shown to be better than this. I wonder if this is a curse of bigger budget with talented directors ruins them somewhat. There are some truly inspired shots and action sequences in this movie. I’ve been beating up on it thus far and it’s not all bad. There are some really good moments, but not enough of them. There’s some great camera work, but not enough of it.
From an acting perspective, sorry folks, I know Momoa is pretty to look at. He is eye candy for those who enjoy that aesthetic and I appreciate that is the reason many people will go see it. I know he wants to maintain and showcase the ties to the Maori and he does so through the movie more than once; and the Haka at the premier was beautiful. He doesn’t have the charisma to pull this off, or someone told him not to use it. He *should* work as Aquaman, but doesn’t. He comes across as a “Biker Bro” who has powers. He would have been a great Lobo with this performance, but I don’t buy him ever becoming the King of the Sea with it. Amber Heard (Drive Angry, The Danish Girl) is far more compelling as Mera and is the Mera I know from the material I’ve come across who doesn’t take anything from anyone. Between the two of them there was absolutely no chemistry and I can’t be certain if it was her recent life events in dealing with toxic masculinity and abuse or just it not being there at all. Willem Dafoe phones it in, but its still better than most of the cast. Patrick Wilson (Insidious, Watchmen) is engaging as King Orm and tries, with the script doing him no favours. Nicole Kidman was allowed to be bad ass as Queen Atlanna, but also seemed vaguely exasperated or confused that she was there. Also what a waste of a Julie Andrews voice. Black Manta was treated well overall and handled about as well as one can expect.
The production design. This is as about a mixed bag as the rest of the movie is. Bill Brzeski had the unenviable task of creating Atlantis and the other kingdoms of the seven seas. Overall it was beautiful, but at times it was muddled by the motion and camera choices. More wide shots were needed, like the scene in the trailer with the flare and the boat. More awe was needed to show the power, expanse, and majesty of Atlantis – and sadly it wasn’t all there. Costuming, a category I don’t often bring up, fell to Kym Barrett, who was nominated for over a dozen awards for her work on Cloud Atlas. She also worked on the Matrix and Speed Racer. She did create original designs or was able to successfully translate comic designs to film in almost every case. Mera’s costume during one scene was literally the most inspired I’ve seen for an aquatic movie. Mera’s costume the rest of the movie left me confused. The clothing was theoretically designed to be form fitting, but quite regularly there were gaps between clothing and skin that were really glaring to me; almost as glaring as the High Heels.
The woman who lives underwater is wearing high heels.
Just let that sink in for a moment.
Don’t even get me started on the red wig they had her in. In a rare moment, let me say Justice League treated her better than the movie she was the main player in. Don’t believe me? Look. Also please note the superior costume for Justice League – which takes place before this movie.
I want to rant about the music being odd and switching between the current trend of 80’s Synthwave, standard scoring, and weird Pop songs in the movie I haven’t seen outside of a YA movie or Evanescence in Daredevil back in the day; but this review is already getting too long.
Surprisingly, despite its laundry list of flaws the movie still manages to be somewhat entertaining. It isn’t as patently offensive as Man of Steel has become to me, or BVS, its production values exceed that of Justice League; even if the story beats and acting are rougher. It isn’t as good as Suicide Squad (to me) and definitely not in the league with Wonder Woman. There is a movie here begging to be made to be made well, another pass on the script, another wave of clean edits, a second look at the costuming and music all could have elevated this uncontested into the #2 slot of the DCEU.
Instead we get something just above mediocre through raw effort on everyone’s part that is not more than the sum of its parts, but isn’t falling apart either. A series of baffling decisions both in and out of narrative leave me wondering about the motivations of the characters and why I should care at all. Just a few lines of dialogue here or there really could have solved more than a few of this movies problems so it’s other issues wouldn’t have been as glaring.
Should I see it?
I can tell you no. Most people are going to ignore me and go “But Momoa is pretty.” So I won’t even bother. When this comes out next week it will be competing with a Mary Poppins sequel and Transformers movie, both of which will be reviewed when I see them before this ones release.
Currently the verdict is: If you were going to see it regardless of this review I hope you enjoy it. I truly truly do. There’s more than a few moments to enjoy and I did have a good time, but I might have had that same good time watching it home later.
So not seeing it again then?
No. I’ll be seeing Spider-Man and Anna and the Apocalypse at a minimum before seeing this again.
*deep sigh* Maybe. Probably. Again its deeply flawed, I have trouble giving it a firm recommendation, but it’s not dumpster fire. Wow….my bar for the DCEU is low.
Anything else to add?
It’s a solid filmmaking effort, and I can see that effort was put in. They tried. Tried and failed on a lot of points, but they tried and I have to give them credit for that. No one in the crew phoned it in and the director did all he could saddled with five prior films of baggage that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. The mistakes in the film shine like spotlights to me but may not to most audiences so there’s that in the movies favour.
Aquaman was the most joked about member of the Justice League for decades. His movie could have been far worse so I will take it for what it is.