Friday, December 28, 2018

Film Review: Aquaman

I am once again going to place my biases upfront and admit that I am an unapologetic fan of the DCEU.  While I don't think that this colors my reviews beyond reason, I thought that it should be stated upfront.  I generally enjoy the DC characters and movies more than the Marvel films.

And I enjoyed the heck out of Aquaman.

The movie takes place after the events of Justice League with accompanying flashbacks to Arthur Curry's/Aquaman's (Jason Momoa) childhood.  His father was a human (Temura Morrison) and his mother was the fugitive princess of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman).  He rescued her and they fell in love.  The product of that love was Arthur, but his mother is later forced to return to Atlantis.  In the current day, Arthur, now dubbed the "Aquaman," patrols the high seas for danger, such as when the pirate (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his father Jesse (Michael Beach) hijack a Russion sub.  Meanwhile, Arthur's half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) is marshalling the remaining Atlantean kingdoms to make war on the surface world.  Princess Mera (Amber Heard) comes to entreat Arthur to challenge Orm (Patrick Wilson) for the throne and end the war before it begins.  She is aided by Vulko (Willem Dafoe), the one who trained Arthur to use his powers from childhood.  What follows is an epic action-adventure.

Before going in to this film, you should know that it is super-cheesy.  All of the gravitas and somberness of Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman are wholly absent from this film.  In tone, it is much closer to that of a Marvel movie, with its bright colors and constant quips.  The flashback scenes are a bit jarring in that they run by so rapidly and it feels like you are only skimming the surface of a story.  This is also where the film's writing is at its weakest.  The movie is front loaded with flashbacks, and if the whole film had kept that same quality, it would be a poor film.  The writers also seem to constantly be at a loss as to how to end a scene, because on four separate occasions they interrupt the action by a wall (or something like it) exploding near the main characters.

But the movie as two things that make it so incredibly enjoyable:

The first is Jason Momoa.  This man is a bonafide action movie star.  He is a charisma machine.  Like Dwayne Johnson, he connects to the audience in a simple way by letting you feel like you are in the good guy's corner and are part of his team.  His effortless charm is horribly disarming.  If that was the extent of his ability, however, Momoa would be another interchangeable movie tough guy.  But this man act.  I think that it will be overlooked by most because they will focus on his superhero swagger.  But like Roberth Downey Jr.'s Iron Man, Momoa's Aquaman is more than just charisma.  He uses charisma to help create the character.  Watch Momoa's eyes and you can see the mental and emotional wheels turning has he stoically tries to keep his feelings from showing.  He credibly projects intense dramatic rage and quick-witted humor.  And though he smirks his way through danger, he never winks at the camera too much and so never breaks the spell of the fantasy he is making.

The second is director James Wan visual direction.  Aquaman is a great action movie.  Wan knows how to film the up-close-and-personal fighting as in the movies sub rescue.  He also knows how to film a thrilling chase, as we see in the Black Manta sequence.  And he knows how to create the epic scope of an full-scale battle.  In a movie like this, the visuals must not only be dynamic, they must also be cool.  This is essential to get us to buy into these mer-men battles.  The over-the-top nature of the sequences makes it easy for the film to collapse under its own ridiculousness.  But Wan hooks you in and makes you want to see what new visual feat he has planned next.  The scope is like something out of a Peter Jackson fantasy.

Wan deserves a lot of credit for his world-building here.  It is monumentally difficult to have characters appear to have conversations under water and have it not look horrible.  Not only does it look great, but I love the way that Wan always has the characters move through vertical space as if you really would under water.  It is a small thing, but it helps sell the illusion that this is isn't something that was shot on dry land and made to only look aquatic.  Of course, we know that this is the case and all of this is done in a computer, but you are not distracted by this idea while watching.

The rest of the cast does a very good job.  Heard and Momoa have great chemistry.  They really play up the Beauty and the Beast dynamic found between the characters to great effect.  Their mutual attraction and repulsion makes a lot of wonderful interplay.  Wilson also provides a great foil to Momoa.  As Orm, Wilson uses his manners and lordliness as a cudgel against his less sophisticated brother.  I also love how he adopted the classic Aquman look so that we could feel the connection between the two characters.  Abdul-Mateen is fantastic as Manta.  He doesn't get as much screen time as Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger in Black Panther, but he the same energy to his performance.

This leads to one of the most consequential moments early on in the film.  Aquaman has the chance to give mercy to someone who deserves death.  In his wrath, Arthur chooses justice over mercy.  This results in the creation of a lifelong quest for vengeance in another.  As cheesy as the opening scenes of the movie are, Wan took great care in crafting this moment.  In most modern comic book films, superheroes kill bad guys, and Aquaman is no exception.  But there is a difference between taking someone's life in the heat of battle and the rational, deliberate choice of having death come to the helpless.  Wan makes us feel the import of this moment and what a moral mistake it is for our hero.  Part of his journey is learning the value of mercy, which is an incredibly Catholic theme in the superhero genre.

Aquman is thoroughly enjoyable romp in the theater and will be one I will watch again and again in the future.

image by Yasir72.multan

No comments:

Post a Comment