Skip to main content

Something something trident.

Aquaman
(2018)

(SPOILERS) If Aquaman has a problem – although it actually has two – it’s the problem of the bloated blockbuster. There's just too much of it. And the more-more-more element eventual becomes wearing, even when most of that more-more-more is, on a scene-by-scene basis, terrifically executed. If there's one thing this movie proves above all else, it's that you can let director James Wan loose in any given sandpit and he’ll make an above-and-beyond castle out of it. Aquaman isn't a classic, but it isn’t for want of his trying.


One of the biggest compliments I can give the picture is that Wan for the most part really does make the inherent corniness of much (all?) of the plotting, characters and dialogue work for the its greater good in a way only someone who understands how George Lucas playing it straight in Star Wars was fundamental to its success could. 


And there's real artistry here too, both in terms of the construction of the action sequence and in the use of CGI, that you just don't get generally observe in the average blockbuster. A set piece – and there are a lot of set pieces – in Sicily, so an Arthur out of water, is giddily virtuoso as Wan zooms in and out from separate slices of rooftop (and ceiling-crashing) mayhem involving Arthur (Jason Momoa) and Mera (Amber Heard) respectively. It's so confidently, effortlessly impressive, I had to catch myself at one point realising a whole part of it was devoted to an incidental antagonist running through wall after wall after wall below in order to catch up with Mera above. 


Soon after, the duo leap into a Lovecraftian abyss (nicely prefigured, Raimi style, by a foregrounded copy of The Dulwich Horror in the prologue) as Trench creature upon Trench creature piles upon their boat; as they descend with a flaming flare for protection, the ocean forms a bubble of the multitudinous creatures around them. It’s an extraordinary visual, and a delight that Wan has the freedom to bring his greater artistic sensibility over from his horrors (the mis en scene of The Further in Insidious, for example) to a lavish blockbuster (certainly, while I had a blast with Fast & Furious 7, it didn’t allow him this degree of licence). 


We’re an hour into the movie before the Indy/National Treasure quest begins, during which we've had a luxury prologue concerning Aquaman's origins, his talking to the fishies (mercifully The Phantom Menaceelement is dispensed with quickly), the origins of Black Manta (Yayha Abdul-Mateen III gets an amazingly cool costume, comic-booky in all the right ways, but he's entirely handicapped by the most generic character in a movie overflowing with generic characters), establishing the antagonistic agenda of Arthur's half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson, fine, but not especially indelible) by way of a false-flag attempt to bring about war with the humans (although, in this case, one has to agree with Orm that we're entirely culpable for shitting all over his oceans) and a hasty challenge to the throne by Arthur that sees him sent packing in the manner of any good hero's journey (the movie’s an embarrassment of riches as far as fights are concerned); Aquaman is bursting at the seams, such that you feel there's already been a movie's worth of action before Arthur leaps out of a plane over the Sahara. Which amounts to poor structuring really, unless you want your main audience for home viewing… which in the long run, I guess it probably will be.


Later, we're served an abridged history of Atlantis (taking in such elements as its destruction through misuse of energy devices and mutation of Atlantean forms, both of which have some basis in the Edgar Cayce readings, give or take actually taking up residence under the sea), and the, to use Arthur's phraseology, awesome decision to visit the centre of the Earth, where Arthur's mum Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) has not so much been hiding out as trapped for three decades. After all this, I'll readily admit that the idea of a CGI-bonanza ultra-battle climax didn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm, but while it's easily the least engaging part of the movie, it does at least avoid going on ad nauseam. It's almost made worthwhile too by the somewhat hilarious choice to have Orm's plotline resolved by mum's return; it’s simultaneously the corniest thing ever and completely "Yeah, what else is he going to do, short of bawling his eyes out?" 


The bigger problem than the bloat, though, the issue preventing the movie from hitting a homerun, is that most of the cast just don’t pop. Dolph Lundgren (King Nereus) and Willem Dafoe (Vulko) are great in smaller roles – seriously, Dolph is dynamite – but they don’t get much that's really interesting to do. And why the effects guy saw fit to smooth out young Vulko's wrinkles when Dafoe is the very exemplar of the guy who looked about 50 when he was 25 is beyond me. Kidman is okay – it's not exactly a taxing part – while Temeura Morrison provides a nice line in parental acceptance as Thomas Curry (that said, while the movie doesn't depend on it, it's nice all the same to see Atlanna and Thomas reunited at the end, even if the scenario is very reminiscent of Ant-Man and Wasp earlier this year).


As for the leads, I really needed convincing Momoa was a good fit for Aquaman, as I didn't warm at all to his Aquabrah persona in Justice League; Zach Snyder's choices seemed like a desperate attempt to over-compensate for a character generally seen as a bit laughable. So the good news is that he’s fine and likeable – and a brah – and that he can wield a sense of humour as well as a trident. There's a water-off-a-duck's-back flippancy to even his sincerer moments (noting that he made an enemy of Manta by opting not to save his dad, Momoa plays it straight, but you could quite believe, given another beat, he'd just shrug and move on, and I love his "We’ll talk" to Orm as the latter's taken off in cuffs, as if he'll visit him in solitary with a couple of lattes). But for all that, he can't go that extra yard to make Arthur someone to see the movie for, to root for. Amber Heard is… well, she's fine too, but you'll be hard-pressed to remember anything about Mera aside from her costume come the end credits. 


Wan brings a good deal of humour to the table (a squid playing drums, Mera eating roses, the classic barfight scenario turning out to be a request for an autograph), has come up aces in the production and costume design departments (the "stormtrooper" outfits are some of the best we've seen this side of the era Wan's hearkening back to; I think I detected a hint of Krull there) and has overseen CG world-building that for the most part looks the business; it was an ongoing gag in Entourage that James Cameron was going to make an Aquaman, but on this basis the watery Avatar sequels have a genuinely high bar to surpass. Rupert Gregson-Williams also provides a surprisingly great synth-heavy soundtrack, suggestive at times of Jean-Michel Jarre and Daft Punk’s elegant work on TRON Legacy (although, ultimately, Aquaman’s a little too busy for that kind of accolade).


Admittedly, I'm not overly enthused by the prospect of a rematch with Black Manta, unless they seriously up the guy's wit and charisma, although I suspect he'll be a supporting baddie again, since he's utterly outmatched by Arthur, even with Atlantean tech on his side. Of which, the DCU has now established a similar dilemma to the MCU, with an isolationist pocket of the Earth. You can understand the Atlanteans shunning their surface cousins, but it does rather beggar belief that they'll willingly swim about in muck when they can simply deposit the entirety of the oceans' plastic on dry land at a whim. Takes all sorts, I guess. Hopefully, they'll explore this element further in sequels. 


So colour me impressed. James Wan has more than broken the at-best-mixed streak of WB/DC properties post-Nolan's Batverse. Sure, this is still mixed – it really needed protagonists you were fully behind to break out into the Raiders-affair it has its sights on – but its director has done everything right. He's also made the best-looking superhero flick of the year in Aquaman, which gets him even more kudos. In the end, though, even he couldn't work miracles with his raw materials. 


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

And my father was a real ugly man.

Marty (1955)
(SPOILERS) It might be the very unexceptional good-naturedness of Marty that explains its Best Picture Oscar success. Ernest Borgnine’s Best Actor win is perhaps more immediately understandable, a badge of recognition for versatility, having previously attracted attention for playing iron-wrought bastards. But Marty also took the Palme d’Or, and it’s curious that its artistically-inclined jury fell so heavily for its charms (it was the first American picture to win the award; Lost Weekend won the Grand Prix when that was still the top award).

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

The world is one big hospice with fresh air.

Doctor Sleep (2019)
(SPOILERS) Doctor Sleep is a much better movie than it probably ought to be. Which is to say, it’s an adaption of a 2013 novel that, by most accounts, was a bit of a dud. That novel was a sequel to The Shining, one of Stephen King’s most beloved works, made into a film that diverged heavily, and in King’s view detrimentally, from the source material. Accordingly, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep also operates as a follow up to the legendary Kubrick film. In which regard, it doesn’t even come close. And yet, judged as its own thing, which can at times be difficult due to the overt referencing, it’s an affecting and often effective tale of personal redemption and facing the – in this case literal – ghosts of one’s past.

It’s like being smothered in beige.

The Good Liar (2019)
(SPOILERS) I probably ought to have twigged, based on the specific setting of The Good Liar that World War II would be involved – ten years ago, rather than the present day, so making the involvement of Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren just about believable – but I really wish it hadn’t been. Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay, adapting Nicholas Searle’s 2016 novel, offers a nifty little conning-the-conman tale that would work much, much better without the ungainly backstory and motivation that impose themselves about halfway through and then get paid off with equal lack of finesse.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012)
The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984)
If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisions may be vi…