Review: ‘Aquaman’ (explosious interruptus)

A fish-folk tale making a spectacle of itself.

When lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) discovers a mysterious woman (Nicole Kidman) washed up on his shore, a forbidden romance blossoms. Years later when her homeland demands her return, their son is left in Tom’s care. As an adult, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) has been dubbed “The Aquaman” on social media, only occasionally getting involved in global events until Mera (Amber Heard) informs him of an Atlantian uprising: his half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) is itching to tussle with the surface world… and consolidate power for himself. Meanwhile, a high-tech high-seas pirate (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) has a personal beef with Arthur, a potential distraction that may work to Orm’s advantage.

With the fallout of When Batman Met Superman still hanging over the DCU and the lackluster Justice League even undermining Wonder Woman’s box office win, Warner Bros. studio is throwing a ton of weight behind their sea-man during a Christmas-without-a-Star-Wars movie. With only a Disney remake and a handful of awards contenders in limited release as serious competition in the wake of Mortal Engines stalling out, can water be turned into box office wine by a half-naked bearded beef cake armed with a trident and who talks to fish?

Of the original four Super Friends, Aquaman was often considered useless on land… and only slightly less useless on water. While Jason Momoa would make a better space-cycling bounty hunter named Lobo for the MCU, “AquaDrogo” proved the second best thing in the Justice League movie. For viewers seeking a big budget, epic-level blockbuster that shouldn’t be thought about too hard and are just willing to go with the Orinoco flow, Aquaman succeeds in overloading the senses with borrowed adventure and overacted drama: mindless and muddled with glimmers of grandeur.

Ah, the issues. If this all takes place after Justice League, why didn’t the rest of the leaguers investigate? Hell: why weren’t they even mentioned? In proper DC “Cinematic Murderverse” fashion, catastrophic world-shattering events occur which most likely resulted in at least the deaths of thousands of innocent bystanders for being in the wrong place at the wrong time; holy reminders of Kryptonians destroying Metropolis, Batman! Consider this: if the mother of all Pacific Rim kaijū abruptly burst forth from the ocean floor, wouldn’t every continental seismograph and satellite warning system go off, never mind the tsunamis cresting on every shoreline bordering any such event? DC film writers never seem to ask these questions — and sadly, neither do DC film heroes — unless both need an excuse for killing Superman.

Misplaced humor undermining serious moments happens far too often as well — including Michael Bay-levels of literal toilet humor — a few of which appearing in the trailers were thankfully struck from the final cut (“That was the worst pep talk… ever.”) Both Wonder Woman and especially Suicide Squad understood the idea of being funny in dire situations, often as a nervous chuckle in the face of fear when facing certain death. Even as an effort to appeal to the gamer crowd, there’s no believable reason opponent stat blocks would be virtually displayed over a combat arena… right?

Yet in spite of all this — in that most Suicide Squad of ways — the movie is amazingly fun. Part of that goes to rising star Jason Momoa, riding a wave of slow-building popularity from “Baywatch” and “Stargate: Atlantis” to HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” No one will argue that he’s a big guy and pretty to look at, but he’s also a physical actor who really can act. In truth, Aquaman’s appeal is strictly tied to Momoa’s enthusiasm: it’s infectiously sexy. It’s the male equivalent of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn squeezing into a baby-doll t-shirt and gleefully swinging a baseball bat; you want to watch, and all filmmakers truly need to do is make viewers squirm until their shining star reappears. Say what you will: while Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson exudes charisma with his Boy Scout-like charm, Momoa smolders on-screen without even trying. As a footnote, Willem Defoe and Amber Heard mostly phone in their parts, but Nicole Kidman comes dangerously close to stealing Momoa’s spotlight in a handful of scenes, appearing appropriately alien as a woman from another world.

It’s clear that DC filmmakers still haven’t yet set their sights higher than pretty people in tight clothing (or lack thereof), settling for looking awesome-when-wet and kicking ass. Anytime it seems like things are getting too talkie, just wait: something will explode — literally. The over-the-top production design is everything state-of-the-art CGI world-building artists can imagine, no matter how crazy or nonsensical. With three separate subplots converging, at least it all comes down to a one-on-one battle featuring actors rather than just another FX avatar battle. There’s even a mid-credits teaser as well; hey, it works for the MCU, right? In Momoa they trust… and they damn well should.

Aquaman is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, for some language, and putting five points on a so-called trident.

Three skull recommendation out of four

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