AQUAMAN is about a Superfriend, but it’s much more than a comic book movie. Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa, Baywatch) is the son of a lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison, STAR WARS II, THE MARINE 2) and the Queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman, BMX BANDITS). After his mom was taken away and possibly killed by her kingdom, Arthur grew up a landlubber, but with some clandestine swim and fight training by the vizier Vulko (Willem Dafoe, SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL). Like Arthur, the movie is a bridge between two worlds, that of an action movie and an epic fantasy. And Momoa, having been so good in BULLET TO THE HEAD and BRAVEN, but more known for Game of Thrones and CONAN THE BARBARIAN, is the perfect actor to do that.
Arthur, a.k.a. The Aquaman is a beer-stein-pounding lout and freelance swimming vigilante living in a small coastal town. In the opening he rescues the crew of a submarine from high-tech pirates – his version of stopping a grocery store or mini-mart robbery. Though he can communicate with fish, he’s your basic rowdy tough guy complete with black duster and slo-mo glory shots accompanied by rockin guitars just this side of “Bad to the Bone.” So he’s resistant to all this heir-to-the-throne-of-Atlantis shit, but by the end he’s given the beast-riding, lightning-throwing, fantasy painting god opportunity that CONAN failed to provide for Momoa.
Director James Wan is the SAW and THE CONJURING and INSIDIOUS guy who also directed FURIOUS SEVEN, and you definitely think of the FAST movies when, say, a cheesy Pitbull song that samples “Africa” by Toto plays over drone footage of an exotic locale. Or during the great rooftop chase in Sicily. Or best of all when the villain pulls up beside our heroes and glares at them while they’re cruising around in Atlantean hot rod subs. There are also some cool camera moves that follow bodies being flipped like Wan did in the fight between Jason Statham and The Rock. Good job, cinematographer Don Burgess (BLIND FURY).
Also straight out of an action movie: sub-villain Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Cadillac from The Get Down) gets a montage where he modifies and pimps out his Atlantean tactical armor. Kinda weird that it’s set to a Depeche Mode song, but it works.
I like the fights, which often involve long takes and a series of staccato choreographed moves with the heroes calculating how to maximize the use of their surroundings and powers. Aquaman likes to lift people up and slam them through ceilings and walls. His mom seems fond of flying head scissors. I was surprised and impressed to read that her big fight scene was “a true one shot scene” according to the fight coordinator, 87Eleven’s Jon Valera (JOHN WICK, ATOMIC BLONDE, MAN OF TAI CHI).
When the music (score by Rupert Gregson-Williams, THE LEGEND OF TARZAN) kicked in on the first fight it definitely made me think of BLADE. Aquaman is a little bit like Blade in that he’s traumatized by the loss of his mother, he’s disdained as a “half breed” by his secret brethren who live beneath the sugar-coated topping, and he has no love for them either. He is the Landwalker, with all of their strengths, none of their weaknesses.
Nah, that last part is not true. Any Atlantean with royal blood can breathe air, so it’s not the hugest deal. Their troopers wear high-tech armor with water inside the helmets (like a badass Fish and Flips from Sweet Pickles), but those are fun and easy to smash.
Anyway, he’s a guy who you’d go to for tattoo or motorcycle advice. Then suddenly while he’s trying to drag his passed-out pops into the truck after a long night of drinking, the cartoon-gorgeous Princess Mera (Amber Heard, NEVER BACK DOWN) steps out of the water with her primary red hair and green scale armor and cuts right to the chase that “Your half-brother Orm is about to declare war on the surface world. Billions will die. We must stop him.” These two just met in a scene in the movie JUSTICE LEAGUE, and they’re already at the impromptu-mission-giving stage of their relationship. I love this tone, this willingness to go full-bore ludicrous, knowing it might be laughed at and still walking straight ahead, head high, middle fingers raised.
Aquaman has his share of joke moments and lines, some better than others, but there’s an impressive lack of winking. I love GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and THOR: RAGNAROK, but it’s refreshing to see such a fantastical world taken more seriously. Arthur may be cynical at first, but he knows his Atlantean heritage. He knows he’s Aquaman, so he has to respect it. During the reluctant hero part of the story he doesn’t act like Atlantis is beneath him. His worry is that because he’s never even been there, nobody would take him seriously as a leader. He doesn’t want to be a phony.
Wan doesn’t build things up to deflate them with humor. He prefers crescendos of awesome. When Arthur emerges triumphantly from a waterfall having earned the king’s trident and iconic orange armor, it doesn’t get interrupted by a punchline. Only applause.
Let’s take a moment to thank whoever (possibly Zack Snyder) came up with this casting. We all remember the cartoon Aquaman, a paragon of blond clean-cut blandness. And they chose a rowdy long-haired guy covered in tattoos, with a scar on his face from a bar fight, known for playing barbarians. It’s counter-intuitive, and it’s so much better. Kinda cool, too, that his Hawaiian-German heritage stands in for Surface-Atlantis.
Let me tell you something else. Dolph motherfuckin Lundgren is in AQUAMAN. He plays Mera’s father King Nereus, and it’s a much bigger role than I expected. He rides in on an armored sea horse, and it’s not a joke. It’s awesome. That’s your test right there. If you don’t have the joy in your heart to appreciate that, I’m not sure AQUAMAN is gonna work on you.
There’s way more imagination crammed into to this fantasy world than the other DC movies required. Ancient temples, futuristic cities and vehicles, also flashbacks to a pre-sinking Atlantis that already had advanced technology (including mechs!), and a legendary first king (Graham McTavish, RAMBO, COLOMBIANA, CREED, GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS 2). There are seven tribes – some human, some fish-people, some crabs. Some ride sharks or giant alligators. Orm (Patrick Wilson, BONE TOMAHAWK) is trying to unite the kingdoms so he can lead them in a war against us land jockeys. I mean, it’s justified (there’s a scene where giant waves dump all our garbage and military machinery on the shores as a fuck-you), but his fascist methods (a false flag attack, murders of rival leaders) make it obvious that all he really cares about is becoming “Ocean Master.”
Yeah, so what? You got a problem with a guy calling himself Ocean Master? I suppose you also wonder why they can talk underwater. I assumed they’d pull a HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, we’d see them communicating telepathically and then it dissolves to them moving their mouths and it’s all symbolic. Nope. They just talk underwater. In a flashback young Aquaman is surprised by it, but nobody tries to explain how it’s possible. So yeah, you get used to Jason Momoa in casual conversation, his locks floating around in the waves like Ariel’s. (Orm and Vulko pull their hair back tight, perhaps as a courtesy to the visual effects team.)
Occasionally this reminded me of TRON: LEGACY because there’s lots of glowing stuff underwater and the score has a good mix of bombast and computery synths. Like that movie (but moreso), AQUAMAN sets up its defiantly goofy vibe and never gets lazy, it just keeps delivering and delivering. I couldn’t stop smiling. There’s a sequence of swarming, piranha-toothed beasties that I expect will be one of those things that traumatizes the young ones. There’s a scene where a cartoony crab man voiced by John Rhys-Davies (FIREWALKER) refuses to bow down to the Ocean Master. I’m pretty sure there’s a visual reference to Thundercats. You probly heard there’s an (AQUATIC DETAIL SPOILER) octopus playing drums. I had that spoiled too except I pictured it differently. I thought they were telling me he played a drum kit. In fact they’re war drums and he’s wearing war paint, some FURY ROAD shit. [note: I wrote that before reading that Wan was indeed inspired by the Doof Warrior]. Also I believe this is the first movie where Julie Andrews plays a giant monster.
It’s almost comical how dedicated it is to keeping things moving – there are four, maybe five dialogue scenes that are suddenly interrupted by an explosion so they can go right into a big action sequence. But to me there’s enough humanity in there too. There’s a thread about the responsibility of fathers to instill good values in their kids. Arthur was raised by a single father and takes after him in kindness and alcohol tolerance. Orm was raised by (and then lost) a real prick of a father who he seems to take after. Mera has disagreements with hers and pushes against him, but he seems to be well-intentioned at least. Black Manta and his father (Michael Beach, THE ABYSS, DEEP BLUE SEA 2) do the ol’ piracy together. When Arthur realizes that he says “He’s your son? You should be ashamed of yourself.”
The women of AQUAMAN, Queen Atlanna and Princess Mera, are confident and powerful on land. They can fight, they have awe-inspiring abilities they use to protect people from aggressors or disasters, they pick their own men and steal their hearts. Back home, though, both are expected to marry kings they don’t like. (That they’re betrothed to one pair of father and son but prefer another pair of father and son I choose to take as coincidence or Curry appeal, not destiny.)
I suppose the third woman of the movie is Karathen, the octopus dragon kaiju kraken who also escapes her prescribed duties to be with Aquaman, though I believe that one’s platonic. And there’s the minor but memorable Princess Fishlady (okay, I looked it up and her character name is “Fisherman Princess,” played by Sophia Forrest [THE WATER DIVINER]). Forced to lead her country after her father is murdered in front of her, she’s not as subservient as Orn expects. I hope we see her thrive in part 2.
This may be blasphemous, but in at least one way this is a better movie than WONDER WOMAN. She’s probly a richer character, her banter with her man is definitely better, and some of the emotional moments are stronger. But it would be hard to deny that WONDER WOMAN devolves into an uninvolving FX-based finale that’s the worst part of the movie, whereas AQUAMAN builds to epic outlandishness of a scale and level of detail rarely seen.
(Relevant note: second unit director John Mahaffie also had that job on the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy.)
The script is credited to David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (ORPHAN, CONJURING sequels) and Will Beall (GANGSTER SQUAD), story by Wan, Beall and Aquaman comic book writer Geoff Johns (Blade: The Series, former assistant to Richard Donner). Apparently they did not use the separate script written by Kurt Johnstad (300, ACT OF VALOR, 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE, ATOMIC BLONDE), which surprised me because this has some of the badass mythological swagger he excels at.
It’s strange that I’m a horror fan and Wan is known for his six horror movies, five of them huge hits, but it’s his three non horror ones that I like him for. I still recommend DEATH SENTENCE to people all the time. He’s always had chops, but AQUAMAN is a new level for him. I can’t imagine other directors doing it the same way, or pulling it off so well. Directors I like have fucked up on DC movies that seem like easy home runs, but he took the one everybody thought was a joke and made something truly special out of it. Obviously Wan has many interests and should go wherever his passions take him, but I’ll be excited if he’s the one who has to figure out how the hell you expand on this. And I hope he gets Lynn Shaye in there as a mermaid or something.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.