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Film Review – Aquaman (2018)

Aquaman

Years after it went off air, Entourage finally got its wish: we now have a REAL Aquaman movie. I know Vinny Chase, E, Turtle, and Johnny Drama are somewhere in the ether offering a toast (or seven) as Ari continues to scream until all the blood vessels in his forehead pop from sheer force and exhaustion.

In actuality, the real Aquaman plays out like I would have imagined James Cameron‘s version of Aquaman would have turned out in Entourage had it been real: it has enough hero shots to populate five superhero films with an odd mix of schlock and earnestness that it feels like you’re watching a spoof of a film within a TV show’s exaggerated version of Hollywood.

The following review will be spoiler free.

Synopsis

Directed By: James Wan

Written By: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall

Starring: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Randall Park

The son of an Atlantian and a surface dweller, Arthur (Momoa) mostly stays on the Earth’s surface, acting as a guardian angel of sorts for those in need. But after one saving venture that leaves his adversary (Abdul-Mateen II) mourning for his dead father, Arthur learns of a plot that involves that same adversary and Orm (Wilson), Arthur’s half-brother and king of Atlantis, that will make Orm the Ocean Master if carried out. Mera (Heard) implores Arthur to aid in stopping Orm, which he reluctantly agrees to do.

But after taking a pummeling from Orm himself, Mera and Arthur must track down the Trident of Atlan, a magical artifact once owned by the first king of Atlantis that will help Arthur reclaim his rightful place as king. In their way stands countless foes, and many, MANY creatures from the deepest trenches of the ocean.

Stay Away, Warner Bros.!

Aquaman is the last of the films constructed during Warner Bros.’ turbulent merger period with AT&T, meaning that it will effectively turn the page towards a new era of DC films. Well, that’s what Warner Bros. hopes.

Judging by early box office success in China, Aquaman will certainly become a financial success for the studio. As we all know, however, the most pressing issue with this new line of DC films has always been its critical and fan reception, which has unfortunately been negatively compounded by studio meddling. Creative ventures are always difficult during mergers; people are trying to save their jobs in the face of uncertainty. A lot can happen in those circumstances, including individuals wanting different things out of a movie as they hope the endeavor will reflect more positively on them in their performance reviews by their new bosses. To put it a different way, it’s not as easy as yelling “action!” and hoping that everything falls into place.

Luckily Aquaman has one important piece of information in common with Wonder Woman, DC’s most popular and successful new-age flick to date: it was filmed mostly on location, away from WB executives (and excessive meddling). More specifically, Aquaman went to places such as Australia, Sicily, Morocco, Newfoundland, and Canada. Obviously with such a large investment going into this film, executives weren’t going to allow James Wan to go through production without checking in frequently, but maybe the distance away from Hollywood was all that Aquaman needed for the final product to come out the other side looking more polished than the likes of Suicide Squad and Batman V Superman.

aquaman

Either Wan is setting up a shot or doing that thing where you pinch someone using forced perspective. You be the judge. Image via Daily Express

James Wan is Going Nuts with Aquaman‘s Visuals

James Wan frequently collaborates with Warner Bros. on film projects. He’s found success in laying the groundwork for the growing Conjuring Universe (as well as acting as a producer on almost every horror film distributed by WB) so it wasn’t a surprise to see the company turn to him to see this project through.

But Wan was also at the helm of Furious 7, what many call the best in that franchise, so he’s no stranger to spectacle films hellbent on finding new ways to entertain from a visual perspective. I’ve always been a fan of how Wan uses the camera, opting for long, uncut sequences where the point of view zooms from side to side. One might say that he gives new meaning to the idea of an “active camera.” The same goes for Aquaman as it excels in its action set pieces.

I really love what Wan did in styling this underwater world. One of the more underrated misfires of last year’s Justice League was the murky, gross look of Atlantis. Everything was so dark and lacking of visual flair, which was no doubt a holdover from Zack Snyder’s vision of this superhero universe. On the other hand, James Wan uses neons and whites for a far more electric feel. As sharks and other creatures  zip around the screen, the feeling of it all is deliciously pulpy and exuberant.

aquaman

Oooo, pretty light! Image via Nerdist

Aquaman Pits Earnestness Against Cheese

Aquaman throws a lot at you. While other blockbusters try to act as four-quadrant films by playing everything safe, Aquaman does so by doing what is essentially the cinematic equivalent of a painter throwing whatever her she can onto his or her canvas while hopped up on caffeine (and maybe some other substances too, whatever helps this analogy take root). The painter (or the movie) runs around frantically, throwing pretty colors on its canvas with no rhyme or reason, hoping that something comes out of it and it doesn’t turn to brown in the end.

Stripping away the excess from this movie (which is pretty difficult to do, I might add), Aquaman is trying to do two things: tell a sweet hero’s story and have insane, hilarious moments of action and circumstance. Personally, I found these two pieces to be at odds with each other. For a movie that has Willem Dafoe riding a hammerhead shark and Nicole Kidman eating a goldfish, Aquaman doesn’t have enough of a cheese factor. It’s not very self-aware, no matter how hard it tries to seem like it is at certain parts. I got the sense that James Wan wanted to get more outrageous with this movie but was hampered by notes and genre conventions.

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See! I’m very intense! Image via CNET

Many Elements Fall Flat

To continue the painter analogy, with so many moving parts and momentary shifts in tone, Aquaman sometimes feels like a starving artist who is willing to do anything for people to like his or her work. This leads to many moments that are simply awkward. Many times certain actors feel like they’re in different movies, amping up the cheese or acting deadly serious when the ideal feel for the scene was probably the opposite of what they chose. One casualty in it all is Yahya Abdul-Mateen II who plays Black Manta. I’ve enjoyed his work in the past (he’s one of the few bright spots in Baywatch), but it feels like he and Wan were not on the same page, or at least that’s how it feels when his character is on screen. It’s not a bad performance per se, but it does come across as odd in context.

Aquaman as a whole is odd, for that matter. When it works, it really works. But when it doesn’t, well, one could say I wasn’t exactly enthused. It’s a mismatch of different pieces that are unaligned to one single purpose. Unlike some of the lesser DC outings of recent years, Aquaman is, in fact, a film with a beginning, middle, and end. In this case, it’s merely a film that made some choices that didn’t work, not one that was crushed by studio interference.

aquaman

More Momoa quips! Image via The Wrap

Final Thoughts

I’m torn on Aquaman. When it finally gives into its inherent cheesiness, it is glorious, mindless spectacle that had me cackling to the high heavens. But when it doesn’t work — which is unfortunately more often than not — it really does not work. It feels like this movie as an entity was terrified to jump into the deep end; it wants to dip its toes in the water, hoping that a conventional tale with some bizarre aesthetic choices will be enough to entertain. I wouldn’t say it’s playing it safe; it’s more that it’s terrified to make a definitive choice in what it wants to be. I needed Flash Gordon levels of insanity in this film. When it’s at its best, it even channels similar feelings to the 80’s cult classic.

Aquaman is much lighter and far less pretentious than some of its predecessors in the DC universe of films, but I still wanted something more.

Grade: C+

aquaman

One of MANY hero shots in this movie. Image via CNET


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Nick Kush

A current young professional, Nick founded MovieBabble in October of 2016 in order to provide insightful film analysis that is meant to educate and entertain. Nick is also a member of the Internet Film Critics Society. You can follow Nick at the official MovieBabble Twitter account @MovieBabble_

14 Responses

  1. I’ve commented on every DCEU film that you’ve reviewed and I’m back to comment here. I agree that certain plot beats felt far too familiar, mainly due to my experiences from watching lots of films over the course of my life. While the Ultimate Edition of Dawn of Justice (which I finally watched in preparation for this movie) makes mores strides in telling a story with substance, it’s still bogged down by all of the annoying elements that plagued its theatrical version. I find this film similar to Ant-Man and the Wasp where it satisfied me in an entertainment sense and that it doesn’t degenerate into a world-conquering plot. Yes, Ocean Master wants to unleash his undersea wrath upon the surface-dwellers for their long history of mistreating the ocean in numerous ways (which I thought Patrick Wilson handled pretty well) and he hates Arthur for his half-breed birth since he believes that Atlanna was executed for her fateful on-land romance. I get a nagging feeling that while there may have been a pinch more room for him to become a solid villain, he’s definitely one of the better foe of this series. Aside from the nice color palette for Atlantis, I thought that Jason Momoa and Amber Heard worked really well with each other. One of the best highlights is when they’re in Sicily looking for the hidden location of the Trident of Atlan and the Roy Orbison song “She’s A Mystery To Me” plays. I feel like real chemistry was blossoming between Arthur and Mera, even when they comically eat a flower.

    I noticed that you brought up Wonder Woman, since just like that film where I saw some familiar beats with its ’09 animated counterpart, I had similar parallels here to the 2015 animated film “Justice League: Throne of Atlantis”, especially with Orm’s wanting to attack the surface. The big differences though were that version of Atlantis didn’t have multiple mini-kingdoms, Orm took out his mother (who was queen) in order to lead his charge and Arthur didn’t go on a mystical artifact quest. Some food for thought.

    • Nick Kush says:

      See I wasn’t a fan of Momoa and Heard together. Like everything else in this film for me, it felt like it was forced to happen because these tentpole movies just gotta have their love interests intertwining with the hero! Lol. I thought this was compounded when Heard literally just showed up on the shore at the beginning out of the blue like their relationship was inevitable.

      I don’t hate this movie — I’d toss it on for a few if HBO was playing it. At this point, CGI is CGI — I need a bit more of a character bond to get me truly onboard. Interesting comparison to the animated film, however! I must admit that I’m not well-versed in DC animation, though I know that it’s very, very good for the most part. Maybe I’ll have to check some out!

      • Well, Justice League did establish that they’ve known each other for a while (at least a year since our present movie takes place a year after the previous film). Also, I don’t think that they showed traditional “lovey-dovey-ness” towards each other throughout this piece because of the looming situation. Also, she goes to Arthur for his assistance because she absolutely opposes Orm’s extreme ambition against the human race in addition to her father King Nereus (played by the lovable Dolph Lundgren) siding with this mindset. I just meant that the journey that Arthur goes on helps him respect Mera as a partner more and she does show off her hydrokinesis really well here. I can agree that “plot” isn’t a strong point with this film and that Wonder Woman still trumps this and the rest of the entries as the best of the series (partly because its story felt more fresh and had lots of important meat to it), but this felt more fun overall is what I’m trying to say. Also, I’ve been covering the entirety of the DC Universe Animated Original Movie series on my site since the very beginning. I can inform you on those animated films and what source material to check out as well.

      • Nick Kush says:

        That’s incredibly fair! We absolutely did learn about their relationship prior to this movie, but in terms of organically folding it into this story, well, I think that’s a different conversation.

        I think we’re just looking at this different at a fundamental level. I just didn’t have fun with this story and, as a result, I could couldn’t really buy in like you seem to have done. In fact, I’m jealous since I walk into every movie hoping for the best and am pretty bummed when I don’t feel satisfied.

        I’ll reuse around your site and see what might be of interest!!

  2. Olaf Lesniak says:

    I thought this was a cherish to behold. Cheesing it up would definetly have made the film artificial. Plus an octopus playing on drums! Oh my, everything put a smile on my voice and filled me with excitement. Wan found a way to take something so silly and make it tangible here and in the wider context of the DC Universe.

    • Nick Kush says:

      It was already completely artificial to me in that (personally) none of its emotional beats worked within its standard structure. I really didn’t care about the spectacle as a result since I didn’t care for any of the character work. I was able to call out every single beat, so I was simply waiting for it to end rather than going along for the ride. Moments like the octopus playing the drums were AMAZING because that’s when the movie embraced what it was. Ive had enough of the tired origin crap with annoyingly sentimental and cookie-cutter relationships in superhero movies! 😂

  3. Joia DaVida says:

    I don’t really have a system per se, but I think maybe in my ratings on other sites, I’ve been giving it a C. I gave it 3 out of 6 stars (or whatever) on one site and 2.5 out of 5 on another. I didn’t hate it and I wouldn’t say it was a bad movie. I think it was a really good attempt at a great movie. I guess maybe you’re right and it is a C now that I think about it more. Overall I had a great time and I really liked it. It just should have been better. It’s such a bummer because they really delivered with the special effects.

    • Nick Kush says:

      Gotcha! In the end the grade the doesn’t matter! (I sometimes regret having a grading system on this site) it’s all about the actual content and analysis involved which is what makes talking about movies so much fun 😁

  4. Joia DaVida says:

    I was a little more brutal in my review, but I would give it a solid B. If they had a little better writing and much better acting the film would be an A for sure!

  5. Sia Billion says:

    Great post keep it up👍👍

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