To paraphrase Chris Pine’s ‘Darwin Tremor’ character from Joe Carnahan’s horribly underrated flick Smokin Aces – ‘Sometimes…Life just up n fucks ya.’ I say this because recently I’ve been distracted from my normal pace of review out-put by a Priority Situation in that a serious medical issue that has befallen someone very dear to me (Love ya, Dad!) and its ripple effect has been palpable. It’s a tough time right now and my family and I are soldiering through it, but even when my life bares some semblance to normalcy, the ‘situation’ is always lurking in the back of my mind. Given that I live a geographically inconvenient distance from where the care and treatment are taking place, sometimes I can’t help but to fixate on the usually-negative ‘what ifs’ that my overactive imagination tosses in my path. Today was a day that found me in the mood for a distraction, something to dial down the stress that I’ve understandably felt settle in over the last couple weeks. And it just so happened that Aquaman, the DC Universe’s latest potential stumble, tore out of the gate just yesterday. So on a drizzly Sunday afternoon before Xmas, I popped down to our local cinema, donned a pair of 3D glasses and flipped my brain to ‘Off’, fully prepared for DC to shit the bed, yet again.
I have a lot of respect for director James Wan, going back to his introduction in 2004 with the cheap-but-effective Saw; the flick that arguably gave birth to the largely tasteless genre known as ‘torture porn’ (Yea, thanks, James! You dick. ; ) that dominated the mid-to-late ’00s. He’s proven time and again that he’s a master of his craft and a force to be reckoned with in the upper-echelon director circles. As any reader of my past reviews can note, I’ve thus far been less-than-impressed by DC’s ludicrously transparent attempt to mimic that which Marvel Studios has honed to an exquisite art-form. Leaping headlong into a combined cinematic universe, without a well-established narrative back-bone (ie the stand-alone flicks), is a wasteful and juvenile way to attempt setting up a long-lived and profitable franchise. So the first batch of these attempts, namely Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Suicide Squad (2016) both fell on their faces…badly. DC was a laughing stock in ’16! But then they surprised everyone with the Wonder Woman stand-alone in 2017, which actually kicked a fair amount of ass and largely had everything that a comic book movie should. So there was hope.
Even though ‘Arthur Curry’ / ‘Aquaman’ (Jason Momoa) has been featured in the Zack Snyder-verse DC flicks, he’s never really impressed me as a character. He’s just been a meat-head bro-dude dumbass who ‘whoops’ it up like an idiot during action scenes…but then…James Wan got his hands on him.
Aquaman opens in 1985, as a lighthouse keeper named ‘Tom Curry’ (Temuera Morrison) finds a beautiful and unconscious woman of Atlantean royalty named ‘Atlanna’ (Nicole Kidman) washed up on shore during a storm. They eventually fall in love and she gives birth to a son, who they name ‘Arthur’. Early on, it becomes evident that ‘Arthur’ is gifted in the ways of the Atlanteans, as he’s able to communicate with sea-life, breathe underwater and swim incredibly fast. Fast forward a number of years – during the hijacking of a Russian submarine, ‘Arthur’ pops back onto the scene, following the unintentionally hilarious events of Justice League. During his take-down of the murderous pirate forces, ‘Arthur’ runs afoul of ruthless pirate leader ‘Black Manta’ (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who swears revenge. While that brews, ‘Arthur’ is contacted by an Atlantean princess named ‘Mera’ (Amber Heard), who implores him to return to Atlantis to defeat his wayward half-brother ‘Orm’ (Patrick Wilson), who intends to control the undersea kingdoms in order to wage war on the surface in retaliation for the decades of pollution (c’mon, let’s be fair…we do kinda have it coming). And…game on!
This was a really fun movie and exactly what I needed to brighten up my not-so-rosie outlook these days, even if just for a couple hours. If there was any doubt before about the trajectory of James Wan’s career in Hollywood, there definitely won’t be now. He has delivered the ‘Marvel’ movie that DC has been craving. Yes, in all fairness to director Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman was pretty kick-ass and came close to those ‘Marvel’ heights… but not as close as Aquaman does. This is a gorgeous-looking movie with characters that are actually kinda fun to be around (unlike pretty much EVERYONE in the dour and sour Snyder-verse), and, with a 2 hour and 23 minute run-time, was well-paced and engaging the whole way through. It also knows how silly it is, at its core, and it revels in it. It’s the embrace of this inherent absurdity that makes this movie as much fun as it is. In lesser hands, this material has the potential to turn out hokey and laughable, but Wan knew where the line was and straddled it the whole way, while peppering numerous nods to many other classic movies along the way. One thing about this movie is the sense of spectacle that Wan conveys…there are tons of gorgeous long-shots, both for Establishing and Action shots, and the sense of scale was clearly communicated. I also saw this in 3D and will admit that the third dimension did add to many of the grander compositions but sometimes wasn’t as immersive as it could’ve been (a common complaint I have). From a visual stand-point, a logical comparison would be to James Cameron’s Avatar, with the slick use of bio-luminescent lighting for many sequences and expansive fields-of-depth in the alien landscape shots, but there were some missed opportunities to go as deep as that trend-setting film did. Something else Aquaman does right is Action. There are some kick-ass, riveting action scenes scattered throughout this movie, right from the get-go and in a variety of differing scales. We get gritty, violent close quarters combat, single location action (like a boat in a storm besieged by snarling creatures, for example) and wide vistas of epic underwater carnage…and they’re all handled well. One thing I liked was the clean shifting of perspectives during a few of the action scenes, where we move from character to character as they each navigate their own part of the flowing action sequence. I also really appreciated how props and settings were seamlessly incorporated into the action, while also looking spontaneous and natural. Much of the choreography was what I would deem ‘clever’ or ‘inventive’ and it was all very cool stuff. I also liked how Wan pushed with the PG-13 rating, giving of the action and violence a little more heft. And some of the music score was terrific, with some cool use of 80’s-sounding synth-wave to spruce things up. I also liked the obvious shout-out to the work of HP Lovecraft (even having a paperback copy of The Dunwich Horror featured prominently in the foreground of an early shot) and, given some of the awesome, gnarly beastie designs they have on display here, I’d LOVE to see a James Wan-adaptation of Lovecraft’s work.
If I had to gripe, there really isn’t that much to gripe about. I will admit that this movie did feature one of my all-time pet-peeves and that’s sharks that fucking roar like lions underwater (or anywhere, for that matter!), but this is also a movie that features freaky underwater warriors racing around on giant sea-dragons and what could easily be mistaken for a Cthulu-style monstrosity of gargantuan size, so I’m prepared to give the stupid sound effects a pass. Another small thing was the brush-over of small details like, if they’re in a hidden world as deep as we’re led to believe, where the hell are the pretty streams of light coming from?! Little things like that, mostly hiding in the backgrounds, popped to mind from time to time. But there was enough ‘cool’ going down onscreen that these bitchings are easily cast aside.
All in all, I had a really good time with Aquaman and, dare I say it, it SEEMS that DC MAY actually be starting to get their shit together. They need to learn from the lessons of Wonder Woman and Aquaman, and just concentrate on telling good, stand-alone stories and then, in about a decade, if set-up correctly, bring them all together for an event film. But for now, we’ve got this one, and this one’s got fun characters, exciting action, imaginative and expansive world building, a cool music score, a surprisingly accomplished cast, just enough humor and very user-friendly pacing. This is a Summer Tent-Pole Blockbuster at Christmas and it’s worth the money to see it on The Big Screen. 3D was fun and I can recommend it, but 2D will still be a hoot too. If you simply like well-crafted and fun comic book adaptations or fantasy / sci-fi / action flicks…then you will be well served diving into the depths with Aquaman!