Aquaman movie review, rating: Jason Momoa and Amber Heard star in the DCEU’s best film since Wonder Woman. James Wan just saved a series from drowning. Rating: 3.5/5.
Director – James Wan
Cast – Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Yahya Abdul Mateen II, Willem Dafoe
Rating – 3.5/5
The opening few minutes of Aquaman are quite possibly its best, because that’s how long it takes director James Wan to set the tone for his film, and to differentiate his version from others.
Two souls meet, like two ships stranded at sea, destined to find each other. There is a warm afternoon glow in the sky, a light breeze in the air and the ocean is calm. A love story unfolds, a child is born and difficult decisions are made. A lifetime passes. All in the time it would take for you to lap an Olympic-sized pool. The soothing sounds of Sigur Ros hang in the air; a Jules Verne quote is invoked.
It’s safe to say that these opening few minutes, which bear more resemblance to Pixar’s Up than Zack Snyder’s heavy metal take on the character, are unlike anything we’ve seen in a DC film before.
Watch the extended Aquaman trailer here:
There is barely any reference made to the Aquaman we’d seen in Justice League, save for Jason Momoa’s on-the-nose James Hetfield impression, and the faint guitar riff that accompanies his arrival on the scene. To call James Wan’s version a calculated distancing from the Snyderverse would be slightly cynical – and that is not what this film is about. Wan’s Aquaman is perhaps the most earnest superhero movie in many months, probably since DC’s own Wonder Woman.
It most certainly isn’t as polished as that movie – what Patty Jenkins achieved went beyond having made a good film – but neither is it as putrid as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It floats somewhere in the middle; like a life vest for a rapidly sinking DC Extended Universe.
Its themes of identity and belonging, of being caught between two worlds are remarkably similar to the ideas that Andy Serkis explored in his recent Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. Arthur Curry is born of Atlantean royalty, but also has in his veins the blood of a common human man. He is raised on the surface, a stone’s throw from the ocean – two homes that he has never truly belonged to, or felt accepted by. Crippled by abandonment issues – his mother left him when he was a child, with the promise that she’d return one day – and only just now discovering a purpose in his life (Aquaman is set about a year after the events of Justice League) Arthur is summoned to the deep by Mera, played by Amber Heard.
Mera is also Atlantean royalty, and sensing a brewing civil war, she decides to seek Arthur’s help in defeating the man behind this upheaval – his half-brother, Orm, played by Wan’s regular collaborator and star of his Conjuring movies, Patrick Wilson. As the son of Queen Atlanna (played by Nicole Kidman), Arthur has a stake in the crown; he only needs to find the strength to claim it.
Thus begins a story that is equal parts Game of Thrones and Indiana Jones – like Black Panther told from Killmonger’s perspective. Wan cleverly touches upon these Shakespearean concepts – feuding brothers, despotic rulers, social revolt – without ever fully diving into them. He’s a smart enough filmmaker to realise that this is neither the time nor the place for navel-gazing storytelling. The DCEU cannot afford another BvS – now is the time for spectacle; for heroes that we can actually look up to. Now is the time for dumb fun.
This might be an uncommon opinion, but I believe that Wan is more talented at making films such as this, and his equally emotional Fast & Furious 7, than the scary movies he is better known for. He is a master of tone, a skill that is all the more evident when even a slight miscalculation is enough to sink the ship. All it would have taken for Aquaman – a film that wears its heart proudly on its sleeve – to get on your nerves is for one more protracted musical cue, or an extra second of Nicole Kidman gazing longingly at her son, or another money shot of the film’s wonderfully designed underwater world. But Wan knows which buttons to push, and more importantly, when to take his foot off the pedal.
He isn’t afraid to get nutty either – Aquaman poses for selfies, an Octopus plays the drums and a scene in which Arthur and Mera jump onto the Sahara Desert opens with a rap version of Toto’s Africa.
Gradually, a visual style seems to be taking shape. Just as he made the tracking shot a signature move of the Conjuring films, Wan’s swirling camera and single-take showdowns are becoming synonymous with his action filmmaking. The underwater effects aren’t always up to snuff – there’s a slight rubberiness to the movements of certain creatures, and Atlantis looks a lot like Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, as if it were submerged under a flood – but it doesn’t really matter when every narrative decision is so clearly made in the interest of story. Even the secondary villain – Black Manta, played by Yahya Abdul Mateen II – is given a patiently developed plot. In a lesser film he would have been reduced to one of those Bond henchmen types.
His performance, like the rest of the cast’s, is grounded in real emotion. And now that he has the opportunity, Momoa adds more layers to Arthur, and plays him as a man of surprising emotional intelligence – nothing at all like the headbanging ogre that he was in Justice League, expressing himself in monosyllabic grunts. Heard’s Mera is the perfect foil to his brash bravado, an equal who can show him his place. Her character could very easily have been bound by the same shackles that trap Disney princesses – Mera even dresses up like one in a key scene – but neither Heard nor Mera are having any of it. It is Kidman’s warm performance as the conflicted Queen Atlanna, however, and Temuera Morrison endearing turn as Arthur’s dad, that resonate fiercely.
Quietly, without drawing much attention to itself, Aquaman makes long strides for diversity in cinema – both in the way that it is cast and through the story it tells. Like Momoa, who himself is a child of two worlds – his father is of Hawaiian descent while his mother is of European ancestry – Aquaman represents oneness. It’s about acceptance and inclusivity, about shunning differences and learning to embrace those who aren’t like us. It washes up on the shores of the same sort of annoying CGI slugfest that these DC movies routinely default to, but it deserves to be seen big and loud.