With Aquaman, the D.C. film universe has a lot riding on the broad, muscular shoulders of Jason Momoa as well as the eyes of director James Wan. After the one-step-forward course correction provided by Wonder Woman, D.C. took two steps back with Justice League. But the general consensus from Justice League seemed to be that people loved Momoa’s Aquaman and wanted more. D.C. granted that wish and the challenge for Wan & Momoa is to deliver an exciting and enjoyable film centered around a character who inhabits the ocean and can talk to fish. Something that a lot of people (and most cynics) thought to be impossible.
The plot for Aquaman is watercolor by numbers: A reluctant outcast who belongs to two different factions (and thus none) has a birthright claim to a majestic throne and in order to save and unify everyone, he must overcome his self-reservations and defeat an evil sibling. This story has been told many times in film to varying degrees of effectiveness. Aquaman’s issue isn’t that it relies on this tried and true plot, rather that it tries to layer in way too much on top of this. It feels like it is playing catch-up. Almost as though it is self-aware that it is part of the D.C. universe and needs to gain ground on its Marvel counterpart. The story is constantly expanding outwards even as the movie progresses. The characters and action must constantly move more quickly in order to keep pace with the growing bloat. This results in characters that lack solid emotional cores and meaningful interactions. Characters are also forced to explain everything via exposition because the film cannot afford the time to show the audience key information — it must simply tell them. And when it comes to the enormous mythology of Aquaman, telling the audience is a world-building exercise that is too overwhelming and confusing to keep straight.
So how does Aquaman move things along despite all of this? It relies on another good, old-fashioned movie staple: the McGuffin. A plot device which serves as motivation for the hero. In Aquaman’s case, he must find something that will enable him to defeat his evil brother King Orm and claim his rightful spot on the throne as the King of Atlantis. Not all McGuffin’s are bad though. Some can even be quite fun (ex: the lost Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark). But with Aquaman, the chase for the McGuffin is all that really defines him. The story becomes a neverending string of “If you get THIS, then you will have what you need. But in order to get THAT, you have to do THIS. But before you can do THAT, you must first do THIS.” Throughout this sequence, our hero never experiences true conflict and doesn’t grow. Aquaman is essentially the same person at the end of his quest as he was at the beginning.
Thankfully, Jason Momoa is a lot of fun. His natural charisma — and look — help compensate for a lot of the issues with the film. He is the perfect take on a Polynesian dudebro Aquaman and his comfortability with this character carries him through a script which does him no favors dialog wise. There is virtually zero chemistry between him and Amber Heard which makes their story feel born out of necessity and obviousness rather than one that naturally evolves. Patrick Wilson’s King Orm is an annoyingly bland villain that isn’t bad enough to be grating but comes nowhere near having any sort of substance. Nicole Kidman is fine in what little screen time she is given. And it’s hard to believe that a comic book movie would cast Willem Dafoe just to have him be a secondary adviser character with no real interesting aspects.
A lot is being made of Aquaman’s special effects. Rightfully so considering the bulk of the movie takes place underwater. In as much as effects can look realistic when Atlanteans are riding sharks and seascapes look like the Gungan city from The Phantom Menace, the CGI is… fine. It wasn’t jaw-dropping as overly-CGI films just aren’t my thing. But I can look past a wholly CGI world. An entirely fabricated world is more acceptable than one that poorly blends a computer-generated world and real-world which is exactly what we get on some land scenes. Since Zack Snyder’s initial foray into the D.C. world with Man of Steel, there has been a choice to hyper-stylize normal settings. For some reason, despite Snyder’s exit, this trend continues in Aquaman. Sunsets are digitized and colorized to the point that it is obvious the actors are standing in front of a green screen when it is entirely unnecessary. Walks through a desert seem less real than underwater battle scenes featuring Kaiju. This maddening need to make the real world feel like a fantasy world is distracting and makes the film feel fake at the times when it should feel the most real.
Despite these choices, James Wan’s direction really shines in a couple of key moments throughout the film. Almost every hand-to-hand fight scene was filmed with deliberate attention paid to the camera work. And a scene later in the film allows Wan to fall back on his horror roots to provide one of the few moments of tension in the film. This same scene has arguably the one killer shot of the whole movie which many people will be looking to make their desktop background once an HD version of the film becomes available.
Tonally, Aquaman struggles to find its footing both in terms of story and music. A somber moment in the film is rocked by an explosion in the same way that the film shifts from an epic orchestral piece to a very synth-heavy 80’s inspired song. That is to say, harshly. An ill-timed one-liner lands with the same effectiveness as a Pitbull cover of Toto’s Africa. Worse, Aquaman is never given a definitive theme song to latch on to. Superman had his in Man of Steel and Wonder Woman was given hers. But the one thing Aquaman managed to copy from Marvel was the one thing it shouldn’t have — the lack of an engaging and memorable score.
With Aquaman, what you saw in the trailer is what you get in the film. Some saw a beautiful CGI world filled with action and underwater wonders. What Star Wars was to space and Lord of the Rings was to Middle Earth, Aquaman was going to be to the depths of the oceans. Others, like me, saw a bloated CGI fest with lines of dialog that were flimsy at best and a film that appeared to be a continuation of D.C.’s Bryan Singer-like entries. The film will do little to change anyone’s trailer-based perspective, but thankfully, we can all agree that Jason Momoa seems so damn cool that he can make almost anything worth sitting through.