"KEEP BUSTIN'."

Aquaman

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.

This entry was posted on Friday, December 28th, 2018 at 3:28 pm and is filed under Comic strips/Super heroes, Fantasy/Swords, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

23 Responses to “Aquaman”

  1. Out of all the DC films so far, I’ve only seen Wonder Woman. Had no plans to see this one anytime soon but then I have to admit the Black Manta pursuit scene across the rooftops and through buildings caught my attention. That’s how you grab people with a trailer, I must say.

  2. I really enjoyed this one and am surprised many others are as well. Leaving the Early Access Screening I was pretty sure this was going to go the way of JUPITER ASCENDING or something and it would be one of those movies that everyone goes ‘What were they thinking!?’

    I mean I am running into more and more who hate this movie and something tells me they’ll become a vocal minority in due time but for now. I’m happy I can talk to others about this goofy ass ridiculous movie with a smile on all our faces and I don’t have to go into defensive mode.

    Looking forward to the spinoff with the Octopus and the prequel that focuses on Dolph!

  3. Vern, I’m surprised you didn’t mention the awesome SPOILER ending where love triumphs over hate between brothers and mother! It’s not exactly fight brotherhood yet, but the way Aquaman tells Orm “when you’re ready, let’s talk” seems like the shit you’d love. T’Challa and Killmonger didn’t get that.

  4. I loved that too! T’Challah tried that, but Killmonger was too proud. That’s why it’s better down where it’s wetter under the sea.

  5. The Undefeated Gaul

    December 29th, 2018 at 12:03 am

    Yes! I loved AQUAMAN and it has been frustrating reading the many negative reviews brushing the film aside as silly bullshit, as though it was on the level of your average TRANSFORMERS movie or something. There is so much obvious quality here, the action, the music, Momoa, the pacing, just the goddamn joy of it all and critics see one guy riding a seahorse and then just immediately close their eyes to all of it. Indeed it’s like they want to punish Wan for doing something inherently crazy like this and taking it seriously (i.e. not using the jokey Marvel style). I just don’t understand – different people, different opinions sure, but with this it feels like a lot of people are making a conscious choice to not (let themselves) enjoy it. Hell, plenty of reviews even called out the action as being boring, overdone, nothing special… it’s fucking baffling. You say shit like that, you just disqualify yourself as a critic immediately.

    So, loved reading this review, which acknowledges all the awesome parts of AQUAMAN ignored by so many. Warms my heart!

  6. The Undefeated Gaul

    December 29th, 2018 at 12:08 am

    One thing I’d also like to mention: the movie looks fucking beautiful. It’s got that pre-MAN OF STEEL Zack Snyder quality, where you can almost grab any random shot and it’s like this perfectly framed picture of comic booky greatness that would not look out of place on your wall.

  7. Amber Heard looks stunning in this. The visuals are incredible. The film is lightweight fun and that’s just fine by me.

  8. I really liked it, but didn’t love it. The action was filmed cleanly, and were the best parts of the film, for sure. I have two minor complaints. I felt like the voice over in the beginning and end were unnecessary, we were watching what was happening, no need to tell us as well. Secondly, I don’t like the habit of making older actor’s look younger. I knew (spoiler) that since Nicole Kidman was his mom, she wouldn’t die. If they would have just cast younger actor’s in those roles, there would’ve been a little more mystery for me. As it was, I was waiting the entire run time for the reveal that his mom was alive. I’m also tiring of CGI worlds, there is no tactile quality to them, no matter how well they are done. I know this is all pretty much personal aesthetic, so take it with a grain of salt. All in all, I really enjoyed this, and hope this is a sign of even better things to come in the D.C universe, i.e. letting Wan really let his freak-flag fly. Peace and love in the new year guys!

  9. Was waiting on this review before deciding. Now I’ll for sure go on Monday morning. Sounds like what I’ve wanted from these DCEU joints since MAN OF STEEL.

  10. This was such a goofy movie, but I dug it. It really was all over the place, and it was occasionally sloppy. I’m glad Vern mentioned that four or five different conversations were interrupted by the bad guys just randomly showing up, as if the movie just suddenly got sick of hearing these characters yammer on.

    This occasionally brings up unnecessary questions. Like when Aquaman, Mera, and Willem Defoe are speaking in that sunken ship, Mera mentions that they’re well hidden down there. But somehow the bad guys show up, and it wasn’t clear to me how they were discovered.

    But also, there’s an octopus playing drums and a giant battle under the sea, so I guess everything evens out. And I couldn’t help but think about the fact that Defoe needs no makeup to make him look like a fishman.

  11. That’s what I’m talking about. There’s a fair amount of “velveeta” in the mix, and there were certainly misgivings about the “Aqua-bro” characterizational direction, but layer of cheese and “My man”s aside, Aquaman pulls off selling the reality of it’s world/characters in a way that vapidities like Guardians of the Galaxy can’t be bothered to. And it executed the *take you to a fantastic new world* thing, in spectacular fashion. And the action… sad to say at this late a date into the Super hero film renaissance, but I don’t quite have to use all my fingers to count the number of times where the “action” on display made me go, “YEAAAH! THAT’S WHAT A SUPERHERO FIGHT’S SUPPOSED TO LOOK LIKE!!!” . Aquaman, makes that cut in spades.

  12. The movie has problems (some bad acting, some bad dialogue, some strange musical choices, too long), but overall it’s just too entertaining to dislike. I was particularly impressed with the authentic superhero comic book feel. There were a bunch of shots and lines that felt like they were straight out of a comic book. I’m talking about shots like Ocean Master turning around and GRIMACING during final fight and lines like “I scavenge the seven seas, you’re the Aquaman. We were bound to meet at some point!!”

    Credit to James Wan and Jason Momoa for making this work. Momoa continues to come off as a charasmatic nice guy bro who you’d want to have a drink with (there’s a fun little bar scene that illustrates this perfectly). Oh and here’s another thing Aquaman has in common with Blade: both movies have stars that are good at striking dynamic superhero poses.

    Wan clearly put a lot of thought and care into the look of the movie and the action scenes. I was impressed with the hard hitting nature of the action (so many shots of people getting SLAMMED into things HARD…) and all the unique camera moves. Every action scene has a ton of things going on and is very easy to follow.

    I’d also like to point out that this is a movie where every major character announces their comic book name to the audience.

    “Call me… BLACK MANTA!”

    “Call me… OCEAN MASTER!”

    “CALL ME… AQUAMAN!!”

  13. You guys, do you think they digitized Amber Heard’s eyes to make them bigger, like Alita the Battle Angel?

  14. Amber Heard sure is stunning in this.

  15. I think they definitely smoothed out Patrick Wilson to make him look more idealised, (which confused my a little as to why he was the only one to get that treatment when they weren’t trying to make him younger) so it wouldn’t surprise me if they Disneyfied Amber Heard a little.

  16. Heard had a body double.

    Amber Heard's body double Brianna Walton almost rejected Aquaman gig

    Playing Amber Heard's body double in a blockbuster movie sounds like a dream. 

  17. Considering I’m a big fan of almost everyone involved in this movie, I can’t believe I disliked it as much as I did. There’s stuff I really like (the love story between the parents, a couple of the action sequences, the few times Momoa’s charm shines through…) but they’re sprinkled few and far between a ton of bloat and yet another globe-hopping, Macguffin-chasing story that feels all too familiar. I know nerds love saying “Superhero Fatigue” isn’t real, but I don’t think it can be denied that if this movie came out when we were still getting one superhero movie once a year or such, it’d be pretty incredible. Groundbreaking, even. As is, it feels like a 3rd rate knockoff that steals almost every plot beat from Thor and Black Panther (and apparently Ant Man and the Wasp).

    What happened to Amber Heard? She was one of the best sidekicks ever in Drive Angry, and commanded the screen in John Carpenter’s The Ward and Three Days to Kill. This literally feels like a performance from a first-time actress; her and Momoa have negative chemistry- their attempted Romancing the Stone banter is flat and painful (like alot of the clunky attempts at humor in this movie). Wilson is one of the most forgettable comic book villains yet (where was the villainous Patrick Wilson from The A-Team?) Even Momoa, my main reason for seeing this, feels neutered. He just doesn’t seem as interesting or as engaged as he did in even DTV stuff like Braven and Road to Paloma. Dolph Lundgren turns in the most convincing performance in this movie which sounds like a joke but he’s honestly rock solid in it which I can’t really say about anyone else.

    BTW, I like that Momoa has a big monologue about how he shouldn’t have killed a guy, and how killing is essentially never the best option, and then ten minutes later he kills about 200 hundred people, none of which were evil or even aware of what was going on. (Aquaman’s mother and Mera also kill a ton of innocent soldiers who are following orders and have no idea they’re working for a bad guy, but they kill them in KEWL ways so I guess it’s ok?) Normally this would bother me (it was kind of a dealbreaker for me in Black Panther), but I was so detached from the movie that at this point I didn’t even care. I did kinda wonder why Patrick Wilson got arrested at the end. I mean, I know he’s a bad guy but it’s not really clear what Atlantean rules he actually broke; it seemed like he did pretty much everything by the book and they just hauled him off to jail because that’s what you do in movies like this.

  18. Well, he staged a false flag attack as a pretext to start a war, murdered the Fisherman king and hired mercenaries to kill his own brother.

  19. Vern – sorry, I meant WE as the audience know why he’s bad, but the rest of the kingdom has no idea he was behind the false flag. To their eyes, Aquaman (the guy who ran away from a to-the-death gladiatorial match, killing multiple cops in the process) suddenly shows up riding a giant Kaiju, kills EVERYONE indiscriminately left and right (including getting his Kaiju to eat giant Star Wars-style cruisers that could have had Willem Defoe on it for all he knows), then defeats Orm in combat and everyone’s like “yeah, arrest Orm!”. I’m not saying we needed someone to secretly record Orm making evil plans and play it to the whole kingdom or anything, it just seems weird the plot puts Aquaman in a “wrong man”-style story and then never bothers to vindicate him.

    I do like the “when you’re ready, let’s talk” line afterwards, though. It seems like such a Momoan/Swayze-ian line that shows sensitivity, maturity, and completely contradicts the 20 minutes of CGI overkill preceding it.

  20. Goddammit, I really wish I saw this one in theaters (had a cough most of the winter and I have too much respect for the theatrical experience to put my fellow patrons through that), because it’s a feast for the eyes of the kind we rarely get nowadays, when every visual effects spectacular is trying to “rooted in reality.” This one starts at fanciful and builds steadily through stages of ridiculousness until it is slapping you right across the face with great glorious slabs of technicolor bombast the likes of which the weak-hearted champions of realistic cinema could never even comprehend. That finale is a fucking sight to see. And I love that Aquaman’s true superpower isn’t strength or fish-talking but simple humility.

    My one complaint is I truly fucking hate the fantasy genre’s reliance on prophecy and lineage. Prophecy is just lazy screenwriting; you can’t think of a believable motivation for your protagonist so you give him a cheat sheet telling him what he needs to do. If I never see another prophecy plotline, it’ll be too soon. But even worse is the movie’s attitude toward royalty. It’s bad enough you got a scene in here where two badass queens raised to rule from birth tell some drunken schlub that only a true king like him can save the day. I can only imagine the actresses were just mentally counting the zeroes on their paychecks while they spewed that drivel. What really bugs me is that the film makes literal the idea that there is something inherently special about noble blood. You can literally breathe more rarified air when you’re a noble than when you’re a commoner. It’s bullshit. I don’t know why we continue to allow our fantasy worlds to be driven by such retrograde sentiments that are utterly at odds with contemporary ideals. There’s gotta be a way to tell this kind of thing without tossing democracy and equality into the garbage. If someone applied half the imagination to the story and themes that they did to the visual effects, we’d have an all-timer here.

  21. What if Aquaman had eaten a crown instead of that rose? I kid. Solid points, Mr.M.

  22. Mr M: I’m with you on the lineage and royalty part. That can go away forever. But I do like the prophecy stuff because I like the idea of some Joe Average, going along with their normal, probably boring and maybe even pathetic life, suddenly getting swept up in something that is way bigger than them and having to step up to do something great. But, you are right, they can do that same thing with different motivation than they are The Chosen One. I still don’t mind the prophesy shortcut.

  23. I finally got around to seeing this last night and by god I liked it! It was dumb and loud and obvious and just a hell of a lot of fun. I felt like all the actors were on the same wavelength (heh, water puns), it looked fantastic, and it used the environment and the superpowers in really cool, inventive ways. If only the plot and dialogue hadn’t been brick stupid, it would have been a total homerun for me.

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