“Aquaman” Movie Review

In this movie, there’s a giant, ancient Kracken voiced by Dame Julie Andrews hanging around in the deep sea. If that doesn’t let you know what kind of movie you’re in for, then I really don’t know what will. This superhero adventure film was released in theaters worldwide on December 21st, 2018, marking the sixth official installment of the DC Extended Universe franchise. Against numerous expectations, the film has managed to gross over $978 million worldwide at the box office, against a budget of around $170 million. Much of that intake comes from overseas in places like China, beating out other films in its genre recently and easily becoming the highest-grossing entry in its franchise. It also broke pre-sale ticket records for the service Atom Tickets and also made a lot from pre-screenings seen by Amazon Prime members. Directed by James Wan, the same man behind Saw and The Conjuring, Warner Bros. had planned for a long time to bring the titular character to life. Aside from a canceled T.V. show on the W.B., the studio hired Will Beall and Kurt Johnstad to write two separate scripts on dual track but only one would be selected. Beall’s edition was ultimately chosen, with David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick attending to some rewrites. It was ultimately pushed back from its originally planned release date for the summer of 2018, but that doesn’t seem to have harmed it too much. Taking place about a year after the events of Justice League, the story follows Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry/Aquaman, a half-human half-Atlantean warrior keeping the Seven Seas as safe as possible. Heir to the throne of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, he is reluctantly drawn into a conflict where his half-brother Orm, played by Patrick Wilson, is attempting to mount a massive invasion of the surface world. Arthur must find the courage to claim his rightful place beneath the ocean and lead his people towards peace. I still remember when I was a young child that Aquaman was considered something of a joke. A blonde man in a green-and-orange jumpsuit communicating with underwater creatures is inherently hard to take seriously for a lot of people. It wasn’t until the last few years that he was reinvented as a total badass and turned out to be one of the most powerful characters in DC Comics. I’ve always been curious to see what a feature-length movie would look like centered on the Atlantean Prince. James Wan’s horror background on great movies like the original Saw worked well, but I wasn’t sure if his sensibilities were fit for a swashbuckling high-seas adventure, as he has described it. At the end of the day, Aquaman has many problems with it, but it’s still surprisingly entertaining and diverting. My main issue with it is how the film feels too conventional for its own good a lot of the time. This is supposed to be an absolutely weird world we discover, packed with crazy monsters and whatnot. While there are certainly some designs and concepts that are really out there, the overall story structure is one we’ve seen so much and strangely doesn’t have much problem flowing through it. I’d actually respect Aquaman more if it went all-in on its balls to the wall ridiculousness, with nothing held back. It runs at 2 hours and 23 minutes, but there’s nothing in the plot to convince me that that runtime is justified. But hey, we do get to see a whole fleet of underwater humans using laser sharks to fight an army of sentient crab people. And in some ways, that’s good enough. Jason Momoa is pretty inspired casting for the titular hero, a far cry from his brutal role as Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones. He has incredible charisma and physical strength befitting of the hero, cranking out numerous cheesy one-liners like a good old action star. He uses his half-Native Hawaiian background to the fullest advantage to internalize the struggle of someone torn between two worlds. Amber Heard is mostly able to subvert the trope of being a damsel in distress as Mera, Arthur’s primary Atlantean ally. Her bright red hair and green suit reminded me heavily of Ariel from The Little Mermaid, although this time, it definitely felt like she had more control of her agency. Wan’s frequent collaborator Patrick Wilson is also noteworthy as the main villain Orm. While his motivations and craziness are pretty typical for a comic book villain like this, Wilson does a good job at containing a lot of it but can’t quite make it memorable enough. Other players include Temuera Morrison and Nicole Kidman as Arthur’s long-separated parents, Willem Dafoe as his conflicted mentor, Dolph Lundgren as the King of a vital underwater nation, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as a bitter and violent sea pirate with a major grudge out on the titular hero. Some are able to leave better impressions than others, but I can’t quite say that anyone was actually bad in their roles. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Aquaman are pretty damn sweet to swim through. Robert Zemeckis’ longtime cinematographer handles the camerawork here, to some nice results. The camera almost always feels like it’s roving around or exploring the unique world with a certain fluidity. Although, it gets kind of cheesy as there are several shots where the actors make obvious poses. Kirk Morri’s editing job works well to move between the action scenes with enough cuts to keep it engaging without making it incomprehensible. The biggest thing propelling this film are the visual effects. Containing just under 2,300 VFX shots, the environments underwater, particularly the Kingdom of Atlantis, are actually quite beautiful and vibrant. The work done by Industrial Lights & Magic and a handful of other production companies isn’t too shabby, as there are convincing movements of characters underwater. Very few scenes take place on the surface world, so it can become a little obvious after a while. But in fairness, it is rather easy for me to see why the director was mad the film didn’t make the Best Visual Effects shortlist. Rupert Gregson-Williams composed and conducted the instrumental film score, and it’s one of the better ones from a superhero film this year. A surprising number of tracks involve synthesizers for its backbone, especially the main theme for our hero and when we first see Atlantis. It infuses pretty well with conventional instrumentations like trumpets, strings, and electric guitars to get an “out-of-this-world” feeling. Also, for some reason, the film ends with an orchestral pop ballad called “Everything I Need” by singer-songwriter Skylar Grey. It utilizes deeply booming percussion and repetitive piano chords as its main medley. But aside from Grey’s lovely vocals, it’s an entirely forgettable song that just doesn’t really fit with the rest of the soundtrack. Neither terribly awful nor remarkable enough to be superior to many other entries of its genre, Aquaman is a colorful and enjoyably diverting high-seas adventure that never fully takes advantage of its weirdness. James Wan is surely capable of a superhero epic behind the camera, and you can tell he and the cast had a fun time making it. It is refreshing since it doesn’t forcibly setup a big teaser for the next Justice League, as the DCEU is still on course correction. But there’s still something a little unsatisfying about the whole thing. Oh well.

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