Who would’ve thought that the man who’s known for his meticulously crafted horror affairs (Saw, The Conjuring, Insidious) also has a great sense of epic sweep and scope? Damn, you are not ready for what James Wan is about to unleash on you. Because not only is Aquaman a damn good superhero movie — it truly is — it’s also the sprawling fantasy and fist-pumping adventure we’ve been waiting for all year long. And it’s easily James Wan’s best movie to date.
Interestingly enough, the movie doesn’t exactly break new ground. Some might even call it paint by numbers. And maybe it is. Aquaman is a conventional fantasy film about kings and queens; brotherhoods, bastards and betrayals. It’s about love and bringing together two worlds of many races. It’s about a mother’s prophecy. And at the centre of it all, a regal reluctant hero whose destiny awaits. It’s the kinda movie where Rupert Gregson-Williams’ musical score swells as long-lost family members reunite after a very long time. Aquaman is about melancholic separations and grand reunions.
And it has lines that ring like poetry.
“Out there, the sea carries our tears away.”
“Not here. Here, you feel them.”
It’s also a movie where our hero and his equally heroic lover kiss in slow motion right before heading into battle and possibly their doom. And when done right, I’m a sucker for all of it.
Sure, we’ve seen it before with Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and Star Wars. But does it matter, though, when what we get is thoroughly absorbing; When it’s executed wonderfully and beautifully by a director who has outdone himself — a director who is also perhaps destined for greatness; When we have cool characters with distinct personalities we can get behind? No buddy, it does not. This movie kicks ass!
Aquaman opens with a raspy voiceover not unlike what we hear in the trailer — “My father was a lighthouse keeper, my mother was a queen” — as we’re introduced to Nicole Kidman’s angellike Queen Atlanna, washed ashore by the current, and regular mortal Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison). They fall in love and have a kid, Arthur Curry. But when Atlantean soldiers attack, Atlanna makes the decision to return back to sea, leaving her lover and son behind, in order to protect them.
But the film itself isn’t an overlong origin story — well it is, but not one that centres around Atlanna. The screenplay by David Leslie Johnson (also from the horror scene) and Will Beall wisely jumps forward many years. Little Arthur has grown up into Jason Momoa with a full beard and long locks of hair. (This is post-Justice League btw.) The meat of our narrative kicks in when Atlanteans led by King Orm send a tsunami, wiping out large parts of the city where Arthur resides, almost killing his father.
This is a sweeping story with many interweaving plot threads and mysteries — why did Atlanna not return, the hunt for an old king’s legendary Trident, Aquaman’s journey towards becoming the hero he was always meant to be, Black Manta’s origin story, — that culminate in a GREAT BATTLE, unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, one that starts beneath the vast ocean and concludes atop a submarine with giant propellers. It is a crowd-pleasing spectacle of epic proportions.
The trident-on-trident fight sequences between Arthur and his half-brother Orm are drawn out and made me internally roar as loud as the fervent Atlanteans who fill up the seats of an underwater Roman Colosseum. In fact, this is a fuck yeah! movie through and through. As in there are many, many times throughout where you will clench your fist, raise it high in the air and say fuck yeah! while high fiving the random stranger next to you.
The massive underwater war sequence where thousands of warriors riding large seahorses (and other mythical creatures) charge at each other — as I said, YOU ARE NOT READY — is gorgeously shot and rendered and is glorious to behold on an IMAX screen. But it isn’t just the large set pieces that are great, it’s the smaller ones too. An early sequence where Nicole Kidman’s Queen Atlanna takes a bunch of Atlantean soldiers is wonderfully choreographed and kinetic. Her movements are sleek and somewhat unrealistic, like a video game (without going over the top) but it suits the superhero nature of it all. Sometimes (only sometimes) shaky cam is used, but eloquently to create a frenetic atmosphere.
There’s also a large set piece that takes place on rooftops as we’ve seen in the extended trailer. The extended-extended version as seen in cinemas showcases just how far Wan has come as an action director. Where was this guy, with the long tracking shots and wide shots in Fast and Furious 7?
Teaming up with Wan is veteran director of photography, Don Burgess, who has been lensing movies since the 80s. Here, his cinematography is sublime, lighting and capturing some of the most gorgeous images ever seen in a comic book outing. The scene where Aquaman and Mera (Amber Heard) dive into the ocean carrying flares, with hundreds of scary creatures on their tail is one of the most gorgeously painted sequences of the year. It would be a damn shame if Burgess doesn’t get an Oscar nomination for his work here.
But it isn’t just aesthetic. There is actual effort put into world building. Wan and the writers take their time. We’re not immediately thrust into Atlantis. We’re teased. We clamour for it and when we finally visit the place, it’s rather magnificent. At times Aquaman plays like a red-blooded adventure ala Indiana Jones. Think of it as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with superhero landings (there are loads, and they’re awesome). Arthur and Mera go on an adventure complete with hidden clues, cryptic messages, ancient artefacts and secrets to uncover.
There are creatures. Some are warriors. Others, like the giant seahorses, are ridden on by warriors. We also come across scary ones with fangs for teeth, in scenes that have Wan’s horror thumbprints coated all over it. There’s also one that’s Kraken-like, called Karathen (voiced by Julie Andrews), that’s perhaps the final key to Arthur and Mera’s quest. There is a genuine sense of magic, wonder and discovery throughout.
It’s a shame that we don’t get three-dimensional characters. I wish the movie would’ve been longer (it already runs at 142 minutes) so that we have more time to dig deep and explore these characters and their relationships in a more personal and nuanced manner. Then again, Wan isn’t trying to make that movie. Aquaman is about scale and scope and broad emotional beats. But a lack of three-dimensional characters does not mean a lack of engaging individuals. Here, David Leslie Johnson and Will Beall have penned distinct and memorable archetypes with large personalities, embodied by charismatic performers.
At this point, Surfer Broquaman either works for you or it doesn’t. Here, just like in Justice League, Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) comes off as a hybrid of a surfer bro, a biker dude who drinks way too much, a Hawaiian rock climber and Simba from Lion King. Every now and then he yells “yeee hoo!” He’s kinda ridiculous but also sexy and badass. I love this rendition more than the versions we get in the comics and animated movies. And Jason Momoa rocks! With Wonder Woman, Black Panther and now Aquaman, we’re now officially in a new age of diverse superheroes. (Jason Momoa’s father is of Native Hawaiian descent, while his mom is part German, part Irish and part Native American.)
Mera is the catalyst Aquaman needs. She’s a brave warrior princess who understands and lives by the teachings of Queen Atlanna. There’s a sexiness to this character. And not just because Amber Heard is drop dead gorgeous with a stellar physique but also because Mera is smart, brave and never a damsel in distress. Heard pulls off the fiery red hair and almost — but not quite — the corny green tights (you know, sometimes it’s okay to steer away from the comics). Nicole Kidman is equally badass as Queen Atlanna, who has to make the toughest of choices to protect her family.
Over on the villain side, we have Patrick Wilson as King Orm, who wants to wipe out the surface dwellers, but thankfully, not for moustache twirling maniacal reasons. He questions why Atlanteans should have to hide themselves and their power and pretend like they don’t exist when humans are egotistical and self-centered beings who are destroying the planet by polluting the seas and killing the creatures that lie under. Working with him, but for very different reasons is a mortal, a pirate by the name of BLACK MANTA, an iconic Aquaman villain from the comics, superbly brought to life by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. He is perhaps the most complex of the characters with intensity and rage constantly broiling underneath his skin, but for meaningful reasons. He’s reduced to a side character here, but the mid-credits sequence suggests that Black Manta is only just getting started.
But for all its goodness, Aquaman falls a couple strokes short of being great. While Wonder Woman got its comedy note-perfect, Wan occasionally loses grip on his film’s tone. There are many jokes in the movie that work, but there are also others that are cringeworthy. It comes off as someone purposely trying to make the film lighter, instead of situational humour stemmed from organic character moments. Arthur Curry saying, “should’ve just peed on it” is lame, but not as lame as an Atlantean soldier burying his head in a toilet bowl. This is a film that would have benefited from a little less self-awareness and a little more ‘taking itself seriously.’ It isn’t a constant problem throughout, but a recurring one.
Aquaman also lacks that raw emotion that was ever present in Wonder Woman. It isn’t emotionally barren, quite the opposite in fact. But it doesn’t leave you broken and desperate. There are many scenes that filled my eyes with tears, but not during a single one, did my tears flow down my cheeks. And there’s the occasional integration of pop songs that, just like some of the aforementioned comedic moments, do not mesh well with the overall mood and style of the film. A scene where Arthur and Mera emerge from the sea in slow motion and walk towards the sandy Sahara desert feels more like a Fast and Furious movie than a Shakespearean tale. (Rupert Gregson-Williams’ instrumentals, on the other hand, are majestic and blazing.)
But for whatever problems this movie has, it’s still one of the best cinematic experiences of 2018. Like I said a thousand words ago, this is a must-see sprawling fantasy epic! And hey, it doesn’t even matter if you’re not a fan of the DCEU or comic book movies in general because this works just as well as a standalone film (besides one line about Steppenwolf, it really isn’t bothered about setting up a larger universe). I guess the question now on everybody’s mind is, where does Aquaman rank among the other DCEU films. Well, it’s miles better than Suicide Squad, metres above Justice League and Batman V Superman, inches better than Man of Steel but fingertips away from reaching the emotionally powerful Wonder Woman.