Film Review – Aquaman (2018)
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.
Directed By: James Wan
Written By: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Thank you for reading! What are you thoughts on Aquaman? Comment down below!
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