Wednesday, December 26, 2018

"Aquaman": review

Most of the reactions I've seen and read for 2018's "Aquaman"—directed by James Wan (of "Saw" fame) and starring Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Willem Dafoe, Temuera Morrison, and Nicole Kidman—converge on the idea that James Wan's film is much of a muchness: there's a lot of movie stuffed into a 143-minute running time. I'd have to agree: "Aquaman" is a sprawling adventure/origin story that contains elements from all sorts of sources: legends like the story of King Arthur and Homer's Odyssey, as well as a whole slew of movies and shows like "Avatar," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Return of the King," "The Abyss," "Game of Thrones," and somewhat conspicuously, "Black Panther." I won't go so far as to say that these multiple sources make for a jumbled and incoherent viewing experience, but I can say with assurance that "Aquaman" doesn't make any effort to hide its variegated pedigree.

Let's get the essentials out of the way: I enjoyed the film. It's far from perfect, and it's often way too loud, but its saving grace is that it doesn't take itself seriously at all. I like movies that have an unself-conscious sense of fun; "The Matrix," i.e., the first movie in that trilogy, comes immediately to mind, and while I can't rank "Aquaman" up there with "The Matrix," I'd say that this Wan/Momoa effort helps, along with "Wonder Woman," to salvage the DCEU brand.

Arthur Curry (Momoa) is the mixed-blood son of human lighthouse-keeper Thomas Curry (Morrison) and Atlantean queen Atlanna (Kidman). Atlanna was betrothed to an Atlantean prince, but she escaped her arranged marriage and came to "the surface world," i.e., our world, the world of dry land and air-breathers. Member of a legendary race and gifted with special powers, Atlanna—whom Thomas found beached by his lighthouse after her escape from the undersea realm—falls in love with Thomas, leading to the birth of young Arthur. Realizing she will be hunted by Atlanteans and not wanting to endanger her son and her lover, Atlanna elects to return to the sea kingdom. Once there, she begets another son: Arthur's pureblood half-brother Orm, who later grows to have grandiose ambitions: the uniting of the seven great undersea kingdoms, and the overthrow of the surface world, which has done nothing but pillage and taint the seas through overfishing and the constant dumping of garbage.

Arthur's childhood is markedly different from Orm's. Growing up with only his father, and without a single thought to a royal destiny despite being the child of royalty, Arthur is taught about life by both his father and the Atlantean teacher/vizier Nuidis Volko (Dafoe); the latter teaches Arthur some of Atlantis' ways and many of Atlantis' martial arts over the years, including a nifty move that turns water itself into a weapon. Arthur is picked on as a kid; in one scene at a large aquarium, a group of boys bullys Arthur until he summons an angry shark to attack the glass right where Arthur and the boys are standing. Arthur's ability to commune with sea life is, it turns out, a long-lost ability last seen ages ago, in King Atlan himself. Think of it as Parseltongue writ large: it's the sort of ability one normally associates with people like Saint Francis of Assisi.

The movie fleshes out the legends and history surrounding the sunken realm of Atlantis; the civilization still thrives underwater, hidden from human view. The various peoples of Atlantis evolved in different directions after the kingdom sank under the sea; some, elf-like, transformed into highly intellectual, literate beings; others evolved into warriors; still others, orc-like, changed into the foul, deep-dwelling beings known as the Trench. Arthur's call to adventure comes in the form of Mera (Heard), daughter of King Nereus (Dolph Fucking Lundgren! riding a warhorse-sized seahorse!), who tells Arthur that, if Orm were to ascend to the throne and become the Ocean Master, the entire world would suffer. Orm has, of course, heard much of Arthur/Aquaman and his various superheroic exploits. Orm hates Arthur because he blames his older half-brother for the death of their mother, Atlanna, who was sentenced to be consumed by the beasts of the Trench for her treasonous behavior. According to Orm, the reason for their mother's execution was that she had dared to have congress with a human, thus producing Arthur, a half-breed abomination. Arthur himself, because he has heard the stories about what befell his mother, feels guilt over her death.

A major subplot involves the pirate David Kane, whose father Jesse dies when Aquaman refuses to save him. Kane, now obsessed with vengeance, conspires with the Atlanteans and becomes Black Manta, armed with fearsome plasma weaponry and enhanced armor. We don't get to see a lot of Black Manta in this film; I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to speculate that the sequel will likely focus on him as the main villain.

When the story finally swings into focus, it's mostly about the question of Khal Drogo's—uh, Arthur's accession to the throne of Atlantis. Orm will need to be defeated, and this will require obtaining King Atlan's original trident, forged from the god-metal of Poseidon himself, and guarded by an ancient, fearsome leviathan/kaiju called the Karathen (voiced by—you won't believe this—Julie Andrews! will wonders never cease?). "Aquaman" suggests that untold vast civilizations are living right under our nose, and technologically, they are far superior to landlubber civilization in every respect. If you've seen the previews, then you know this story is going to culminate in a massive, Lord of the Rings-style battle under the sea, and there'll be plenty of flash and thunder and spectacle along the way.

Let's talk a bit about the flash and spectacle. This is a hugely special-effects-driven movie, so the CGI is front and center. While we're always conscious of the computer graphics, this is made excusable by the fact that this is a comic-book yarn rendered for the big screen, so of course realism goes out the window. At the same time, I'm not sure how well the effects work. Director James Wan is on record saying he filmed the underwater sequences in regular green-screen rooms, then added the water effects later—the bubbles, the floaty hair, the optical distortion and unearthly lighting. The problem with doing this is that it sucks too much realism out of the underwater hand-to-hand combat sequences, such as when Arthur and Orm clash at the Ring of Fire, swinging their unwieldy "quindents" (five-pronged tridents, basically) as if the water doesn't impede the weapons' motion. James Cameron, no stranger to filming underwater, normally solves this problem via the practical-effects route: he builds actual water tanks and pours millions of tiny, floating plastic beads onto the surface of the water so that the actors in the tank will appear to be far deeper under the surface than they are. Wan eschewed this route, and I think the movie suffers a bit because of his choice. The undersea scenes are all undeniably ambitious in scope and as gorgeous as the color palette for "Finding Nemo," but we're constantly aware that the human actors on screen move as smoothly as they do because there isn't actually any water there.

There were other problems as well. For me, as someone unfamiliar with the comics version of Aquaman, I found the various fantastical sea creatures to stretch my imagination far, far beyond mere suspension of disbelief. Dr. Evil's "sharks with frickin' laser beams" are actually part of this aquatic menagerie. Atlanteans ride sharks—and giant seahorses, and mosasaur-like beasts, and other creatures as well. An octopus expertly beats the drums during the Ring of Fire scene. These creatures are far too intelligent for their own good, and it seems to me that, even though only Aquaman has the gift of mental communion with all sea life, the "domesticated" creatures we see are all sentient enough to establish horse/rider relationships with their mounted humanoids. There's way too much super-intelligent biomass in Earth's oceans. And while we're on that topic: our planet's landlubber biologists must be some combination of blind and stupid to have missed the existence of all these creatures and civilizations. I know the National Geographic videos tell us that our world's oceans remain mostly unexplored, but come on: you don't know that there are entire kingdoms out there beneath the waves? And here's another question: if Atlantean technology has evolved to the point that those civilizations are capable of manipulating water, like the angelic aliens in "The Abyss," then shouldn't such civilizations be advanced enough to solve the problem of garbage and chemical filth constantly raining down from the surface? Item 1 on the Atlantean/landlubber détente agenda should be the sharing of such tech.

The script itself has problems, too. The storytelling in this movie is lumbering, muscular, and ponderous, a bit like Jason Momoa himself. The dialogue isn't nearly as witty as it could have been, although I think the principal actors all find ways of delivering their lines so as to strip out much of the corniness while also showing that they're having fun with their roles. Arthur and Mera are, from the get-go, obviously on a romantic collision course, but the script doesn't allow for very much on-screen chemistry. It doesn't help matters that, whenever there are serious or intimate moments, those moments get interrupted by a surprise explosion and flying debris as Atlantean commandos barge in. I have a feeling that those explosions aren't going to age very well upon repeated viewings of the movie; I can see them becoming a satirical trope in an SNL parody sketch.

But the actors really do seem to be enjoying themselves. Amber Heard imbues her Mera with grit and toughness; she saves Aquaman's neck on several occasions, and when the two of them are together, it's evident that he's the heart, but she's the brains: it's the Harry-Hermione pairing we all felt should have happened in the JK Rowling books. Then again, Arthur shows off a facility for foreign languages: we hear him speak Russian, Italian, and something bellicose in a Polynesian language. Temuera Morrison, as Arthur's dad, approaches his role with gruffness and caring; the lighthouse keeper has a fierce love for his son, and he's been desolate ever since his lover Atlanna returned to the sea. Nicole Kidman's Atlanna is grave, graceful, and dignified, but she can become a martial whirlwind of fury when forced to defend her family from Atlantean commandos. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, as Black Manta, gets somewhat short shrift from a script that's trying to take on a bit too much, but he makes an impression whenever he's on screen. I also like how the movie explains the goofy look of Black Manta's helmet: there's a reason why it's overlarge and equipped with those huge, buggy eyes. Willem Dafoe, as Volko the mentor/counselor, strikes the right note as the resident Yoda.

Of course, the movie belongs to larger-than-life Jason Momoa. Other reviewers have snarked that the role of Aquaman is written in such a way that Momoa barely has to act at all: the part merely requires the man to be his usual large, ebullient self. There's a cell-phone selfie scene in which this is especially true, with Aquaman initially only grudgingly taking the selfies, then gradually getting into it while making progressively crazier facial expressions. Momoa brings his by-now-familiar physicality to Aquaman, but he doesn't play Aquaman as if he were Superman: Aquaman can be stunned by a grenade and burned by plasma weaponry; he's not utterly invincible, so he's aware of his own mortality. I liked the groundedness of Momoa's performance, which is offset by the silly, slow-motion, hair-tossing poses that Aquaman does for the camera—another sign of how un-serious the movie strives to be. Momoa won't be winning any Oscars for this movie, but I think he's done the best possible job in a perfectly cast role. At this point, I can't imagine anyone else playing Aquaman.

The movie gets points for attempting to tackle some serious themes. Environmental pollution is a huge issue throughout the film; the undersea kingdoms harbor great resentment toward us landlubbers because of our nasty habit of heedlessly tossing all manner of garbage into the oceans. The other theme, which the movie treats with all the subtlety of Michael Bay, is racism: I can't count the number of times the words "half-breed" and "half-blood" come up in conversation. The movie establishes its racial politics in several ways: not only is Aquaman the product of both the sea humanoids and land-based humans, but the roles of Arthur's parents are played by a Maori man (Morrison) and a Caucasian woman (Kidman). Orm, the pureblood Atlantean, is played by lily-white Patrick Wilson, who is no stranger to superhero films, having played Nite Owl II in "Watchmen." The casting of a white villain by Malayasian-Australian director James Wan is doubtless deliberate. (You could counter that the film's other villain is black, indicating a sense of balance in the movie's casting, but the script encourages us to be more sympathetic toward David Kane because he lost his father so tragically. Our sympathy for Orm, meanwhile, is limited.)

All in all, I very much liked "Aquaman," but probably not for the reasons that the cast and crew might want me to like it. I didn't like it for its ponderous, never-ending battle scenes, nor did I like it for the unrealistic special effects (I forgot to mention that the de-aging of Temuera Morrison during the early flashback sequences is pretty awful). I didn't like it for its preachiness about racism and environmentalism. What I did like was the movie's underlying sense of fun: it may have tried to tout some serious themes, but in the end, it was mostly about showing us viewers a good time by taking us on a globe-trotting tour both above and below the surface of the earth. The movie utterly thumbs its nose at science: scenes involving the earth's core and showing us sea creatures whose physiologies are biologically impossible merely add to the movie's unbelievability. But the point, here, isn't to be a lip-puckered scold who nitpicks the lack of realism: it's obvious that Wan & Co. decided, from the outset, to dispense with realism and simply bring us an outsized story about a young man's journey to becoming the next King Arthur. And, in this case at least, that's good enough for me.

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