|Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry in AQUAMAN (Warner Bros. (c), still photo by Mark Rogers)
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Jason Momoa’s effortless charisma and a rich score from Rupert Gregson-Williams are all that prevent the DC universe’s latest voyage from totally capsizing. In all fairness, neither Aquaman or its leading man can be blamed for the reverse-engineered structure of Warner’s attempted rivalry to the MCU – our protagonist has already appeared in two previous instalments before this, his actual origins story. Nor can they be blamed for the simple fact that digital technology – as powerful as it is – simply isn’t able to convincingly deliver the vast underwater world demanded by the premise. In a comic book? Yup. In animated form? Fine. In a 143-minute ‘live action’ film? Give it five years and a breakthrough in swimming simulations, then we’ll talk.
In the meantime, however, this overstuffed adventure will have to tide fans over. Despite saving the surface world in Justice League, Arthur Curry (Momoa) refuses to accept his Atlantean heritage. His mother, Atlanna (a quite literally washed-up Nicole Kidman), fell for lighthouse keeper, Tom (Temuera Morrison, rather shoddily de-aged). But beneath the ocean waves, Arthur’s half brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), rules with an iron fist, planning to wreak havoc on the human world for their crimes against the environment. With the help of sea sorceress, Mera (Amber Heard, in a wig that the cast of RuPaul’s Drag Race might generously deem “a bit much”), Arthur sets out to reclaim the all-powerful trident of Atlan and reclaim his soggy throne.
Director James Wan upturns the tech toybox to play out his kid-in-the-bathtub fantasy, but an enormous visual effects budget is all for naught when spread so unevenly. Giant seahorses, crab monsters and sharks with “frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads” are impressively rendered, but the compositing of human characters leaves much to be desired. There’s a difference between pushing the boundaries and simply pretending they don’t exist: watching the climactic showdown (two armies of pixelated humans astride copy-pasted monsters smashing into one another), I finally understood how audiences of 2002 felt, experiencing George Lucas’ unchecked digital ambition unfold. With the exception of one impressively physical fistfight in the bowels of a submarine, derring-do here is an entirely weightless, witless affair.
But that’s where similarities to the Star Wars prequels end. In 2018, such displays of extravagance are the norm, no longer the stuff of a single visionary auteur fusing Greek tragedy with the cutting edge of filmmaking. Plus, while clunky expositional dialogue wasn’t exactly thin-on-the-ground in Lucas’ trilogy, Aquaman positively drowns in its own storytelling. Besides Arthur’s main quest for the trident, we also have Orm’s uprising, numerous flashbacks to our muscleman’s childhood, and a second – more entertaining – villain in the shape of Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a pirate with a score to settle and the laser-spitting helmet to prove it.
So, let’s take stock: a central hairy hero’s quest to show his worth by reclaiming an ancient weapon, a lush fantastical world, a super-powered royal family, a sibling rivalry that threatens to lay waste to the outside world, and a secondary antagonist with a penchant for face-based plasma. Yep, it’s Kenneth Branagh’s Thor…with drumming octopuses!
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