This “Aquaman” review may be a little late because, to be perfectly honest, I had absolutely no intention of seeing this film. However, last week my wife and I attended the IMATS makeup artists trade show in Pasadena, where we saw some beautifully detailed full-body costumes, creatures, and other pieces from the movie, and they piqued my curiosity. So this weekend we caught a bargain matinee at our local cinema. My expectations were fairly low, and I think those lowered expectations helped me to better enjoy the movie, because it could only surprise me.
****AHOY! WHALE-SIZED SPOILERS!!****
Little Arthur is the son of a humble lighthouse keeper Tom (Temuera Morrison) and an oceanic-dwelling queen of Atlantis named Atlanna (a digitally de-aged Nicole Kidman). The unlikely lovers met when Atlanna tried to escape her undersea arranged marriage. After a few happy years spent with Tom and Arthur, the rebellious queen is eventually forced to return to the ocean depths, leaving Tom to raise their powerful son.
Years later, little Arthur grows into strapping, tattooed oceanic vigilante Aquaman (Jason Momoa, who approaches the role with just the right mix of tongue-in-cheek humor). Arthur has made a bit of a name for himself on social media righting occasional wrongs on the open seas. When we first see him in action, he is felling a group of father-and-son led hijackers intent on stealing a Russian nuclear sub. He foils the plot, but leaves the elder hijacker to die. His son vows revenge and becomes arch villain “Manta” (Yahya Abdul Mateen II).
Sent to retrieve Aquaman is Orm’s betrothed Mera (Amber Heard looks like she’s on her way to a Black Widow audition in a bright red wig). Mera takes the errant, somewhat irresponsible half-blood prince back to Atlantis to stop Orm from waging war on the hapless (yet toxic and blissfully wasteful) landlubbers.
Manta’s initial revenge storyline is reduced to his playing henchman throughout most of the movie, which is otherwise dominated by power machinations between the ‘half-breed’ would-be prince Arthur, and his full-blood half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson), who is plotting an all-out war against the land-dwellers in retaliation for their decades of treating the oceans like a giant toilet. Orm’s warning to humanity involves massive tidal waves that beaches much of our oceanic waste, as well as our naval vessels. In other words, Orm’s not taking humanity’s s#!t anymore. Sadly, many surface dwellers don’t seem to take the hint.
The Atlanteans are able to breathe and even speak underwater (the actors’ voices are all digitally altered to sound slightly submerged). Of course, the actors aren’t really underwater; they’re on wire rigs in front of massive green screens, with their hair digitally tweaked to appear ‘floating.’ This is a movie where people ride giant seahorses and octopuses play drums…you’ll either buy it, or you won’t.
In one surprise supporting role after another, we meet some of the conflicted Atlanteans, including Vulko (Willem Dafoe) who trained Arthur in his younger years to fulfill his eventual role as King of Atlantis. We also meet Mera’s pop, King Nereus (“Creed II/Rocky IV” veteran Dolph Lundgren, sporting his daughter’s red dye job). With a cast ranging from A-listers such as Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson to action stars like Jason Momoa, Dolph Lundgren, Temuera Morrison, it’s certainly an interesting mix of actors.
To make a very, very long story a little shorter (over-length is one of the movie’s major issues), Mera takes Arthur on an Indiana Jones-like quest around the globe (including Sicily and the Saharan desert) in an attempt to find a mythical golden trident which should be able to stop Orm (to whom Arthur already suffered a humiliating defeat) and end the threat of war.
After a few needlessly protracted land battles with Orm’s watersuit-wearing commandos (including their newest recruit, the vengeful Manta), Arthur and Mera eventually make their way to the earth’s ‘lost world’-like core, where Arthur seizes the trident from the clutches of the original Atlantean king. Yes, Aquaman pulls an excalibur and becomes, well… King Arthur.
Using his unique ability to commune with sea life, Aquaman secures alliances with the ocean’s manifold creatures, including sharks, whales, giant seahorses, and various other denizens of the oceans. An all-out ocean war begins with a massive, CGI-FX laden battle royale that goes on far too long.
A reluctant Aquaman is poised to kill Orm, until Atlanna steps in and stops her boys’ feud, forcing them to end their conflict. Orm is taken away, and Aquaman (with his golden trident) is now… ahem…King Arthur (of Atlantis).
After the credits begin, we see a brief coda involving a surviving Manta, who is rescued by a half-crazed conspiratorial scientist who offers to assist him in repairing his Atlantean-supplied weaponry (cue eventual sequel).
“Aquaman” is similar in many ways to Marvel’s “Black Panther,” but with the hero and villain roles reversed. Instead of the half-blood interloper from the outside world (Arthur) being the bad guy (as Killmonger was in “Black Panther”), we have the pure-blood ruler of the kingdom being the movie’s big bad (Orm). Both movies also feature technologically advanced-but-hidden empires (Wakanda, Atlantis), which still settle their political challenges through hand-to-hand combat. Both Wakanda and Atlantis have unlocked secrets of the universe, yet they’re impossibly backwards and barbaric in their politics.
Amber Heard as Mera does a decent job, but she feels like a substitute Scarlett Johansson. There are also A-listers like Oscar winner Nicole Kidman and character actor extraordinaire Willem Dafoe, who are unwittingly too conspicuous in their recognizability. One wonders if relative unknowns in the supporting roles might’ve better sold the movie’s reality (?).
There is also an issue with the aforementioned length of the movie. At 2 hours and 23 minutes, “Aquaman” is at least 20 or so minutes longer than it really needs to be; less time spent trekking across the Saharan desert or gallivanting around Sicilian rooftops might’ve made for a leaner, more effective film. As it is, the padded running time feels too indulgent; especially if you’re enjoying a typical, freakishly large soft drink from a theater snack bar. I guarantee your bladder will hate you during the film’s final half-hour.
Veteran horror director James Wan (“Saw” “The Conjuring”) does an otherwise solid job of balancing lightweight, tongue-in-cheek action with lots of ooh-&-ahh underwater CGI FX. An atmosphere of beautifully slick bioluminescence pervades most of the underwater sequences, giving them a deliberate surreality truly apart from the mundane surface world of beer joints, cathode-ray TVs and taking selfies. In a strictly visual sense, “Aquaman” is a less pretentious successor to “The Abyss” and “Avatar”
Nicest surprise of all was lead actor Jason Momoa (“Baywatch” “Game of Thrones”). Momoa plays the role of Arthur/Aquaman with a light touch; never taking himself or the movie too seriously, but with enough physical presence to make the action scenes really work. He makes the comedic elements of the role work a lot better than they could’ve in heavier hands. Momoa also does something that I really didn’t think was possible… he makes Aquaman cool. When you see him wearing the scaly orange tights and green gloves at the very end of the film? You’re not laughing so much as nodding in fan approval.
A runaway smash at the box office (over $1 billion worldwide to date), “Aquaman” is is a camp, wildly over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek, perfectly-suited-for-a-matinee experience.