Aquaman, the sixth film in this unfolding DC cinematic universe, gives the aquatic comic book superhero his first-ever solo live-action feature. With the ups and downs, and downs, that this film universe has offered up thus far, it’s only natural that an air of intrigue, excitement and skepticism surrounds a big-budget movie about a guy that can talk to fish.
After bursting onto the horror circuit with his attention grabbing Saw and kicking off two more franchises with Insidious and The Conjuring, Australian filmmaker James Wan made his first foray into the big-dollar mainstream realm with Furious 7. That film became the Fast & Furious franchise’s biggest hit and worked well as popcorn entertainment, a feat made more impressive with the fact that one of its stars had died during filming. Not wanting to take the easy route, Wan’s Furious 7 follow-up is a chapter in a comic book-adapted universe that has proved severely polarising, to say the least, with the likes of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad and Justice League failing to hit that Marvel level of success and rampant fan love.
Aquaman kicks off with a look at how our hero, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), came to be. Atlantis princess Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) washes up on the shore during a storm and is saved by lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison). The two fall in love and Atlanna soon gives birth to Arthur, a half human and half Atlantean, with the power to breathe underwater and communicate with sea creatures. While more on his upbringing is unveiled in further flashbacks as the film progresses, the lead present-day narrative finds him reluctantly joining Atlantean Mera (Amber Heard) to stop King Orm (Patrick Wilson), his half brother, from bringing armies to the surface and destroying humans for polluting the oceans and destroying sea life.
Ambitious. That’s the word that quickly comes to mind with Aquaman, a film that endeavours to offer up a lively, ultra-colourful spectacle after the darker visual and tonal palette we’ve been given in previous DC films. When it comes to rousing energy and grand visuals, the film hits the mark quite often, showing off CG-driven wonders with picturesque landscapes, slickly crafted action sequences (the foot chase in Sicily features some great long-take shots), and a war finale that goes for broke, peppering the screen with all matter of underwater mayhem that begs for the biggest screen that you can find.
Indeed, when it comes to bang for buck, Aquaman tries to tick off as many boxes as possible. As far as world creation and visual creativity, the film is crammed with ideas, almost bursting at the seams with what feels like multiple movies’ worth of locations and creature designs. I have to mention the sequence where Arthur and Mera head to The Trench; the night time sequence is thrillingly crafted, the unsettling creature designs are great, and it features some awesome shots that look as though they’ve been lifted straight from the comic panel. There’s a lot on offer here, but… here’s the thing when you throw in as much as you can: some of it will work, some of it just won’t. Sometimes you’ll laugh and open your eyes wide at some of those visuals; other times you’ll cringe and those eyes will get a rolling workout.
Aquaman doesn’t come together too well as an overall package, particularly in retrospect. While Wan keeps the energy high and the plot moving at a solid pace, the story here is simply too thin for the extended, locale-to-locale jumping trajectory the narrative takes. It’s as though screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (Orphan, The Conjuring 2) and Will Beal (Castle, Gangster Squad) were given must-have locations, action sequences and plot points, and were told to write the screenplay around them – as opposed to crafting a plot that brought up its own elements organically.
It’s lucky that the creative team here ensures the light, popcorn-adventure tone is often infectious, because the dramatic beats don’t do much to drive our emotional investment. You know 99 percent of the time how these films will end, which goes without saying, but having us feel the threat of the villain’s dastardly plans and propelled along by dramatic urgency comes down to how much you really care for the characters. While the leads are lighthearted and charming, and Momoa and Heard fill the roles adequately, they’re little more than conventional personas that are palatable enough to spend time with.
Apart from a few moments of introspection here and there, our lead hero is surprisingly underserved in his own film, left – like everyone else here – to be a delivery or receiving vessel for exposition galore. As the villains, Orm and Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) arguably aren’t as poor as some past DC baddies (Steppenwolf and Enchantress, anyone?), but they’re still lacklustre creations. And the dialogue everyone has to deliver, it must be said, hits that cringe mark way too often. When the momentum slows down and it’s time for some banter, one liners, or, say, flirting between our leads, it can really hurt.
It’s a film driven by formula, although that is something that actually helps soften the negatives here. Aquaman takes a ton of well-versed tropes and nods to other properties (Star Wars, Tron, Indiana Jones, among many others) that have worked well and delivers a lot of them appropriately, which should help give general audiences an easy-to-take film on a night out. It’s easy to see that Wan and the huge creative team really wanted to deliver an entertaining, grandiose time at the movies, and while the film would have been better served with less swagger and more focus, they more often than not manage to deliver on that overused word: fun.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★☆☆
‘Aquaman’ hit the US on December 14 and arrives in Australia on December 26.