Director: James Wan
Writers: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Will Beall, Geoff Johns (story), James Wan (story), Mort Weisinger (characters), Paul Norris (characters)
Composer: Rupert Gregson-Williams
Starring: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
There has been a lot of apprehension in the lead up to this movie. DC hasn’t experienced the same level of success with their films compared to Marvel, with their content more often a miss than a hit. Meanwhile, Aquaman isn’t as iconic as a property compared to the likes of Superman and Batman. His superpower is the ability to talk to fish… how is that going to translate to the big screen? Yet while watching other films, the 3D trailers for Aquaman looked fun. With 4D cinema now in existence, I’ve been waiting for a big blockbuster film that will offer an all-immersive experience, with the action on screen contending with the comicality of moving seats, air pumps, and fog machines. Can James Wan pull this off? Is a film like this the perfect candidate for 3D or 4D cinema?
Violence/Scary Images: The film is littered with action sequences, with one happening at a rate of every ten minutes. These fight scenes involve gun violence (including lasers), martial arts, and explosions (lots of property destruction), with characters being thrown around, blasted, stabbed, impaled, and dying through suffocation. One character’s hand is chopped off. Some bleeding wounds and burnt flesh is shown, but there is little in terms of gore.
There are scary sea monsters, some acting like a fast zombie horde. Some characters are eaten or otherwise killed by these underwater fantasy creatures. CGI animals such as whales and dolphins are ridden and used in war scenarios.
Language/Crude Humor: The s-word is used, albeit rarely, along with *ss, b*tch, and d*ck. Other negative words include d*mn and h*ll. God’s name is used in vain.
Drug/Alcohol References: Aquaman and his father are seen drinking beer in a bar. Aquaman eventually becomes heavily intoxicated and photos show his light-hearted, rowdy night. Aquaman sometimes says that he’s keen on going to have a few drinks.
Sexual Content: No overt sexual content. A man and a woman kiss. One couple is seen in bed, lying next to each other. Many characters wear skin-tight clothing. Jason Momoa is shirtless for a good portion of the film.
Spiritual Content: With the story set in Atlantis, a lot of the film pulls its inspiration from a compilation of old seafaring ideals and myths. Poseidon, the Greek god is mentioned, with his existence presented as fact.
Other Negative Content: The film depicts a society where arranged marriages take place against a woman’s will. There are a substantial amount of callous decisions, both from the hero and villain. There are unjust deaths and characters are quick to turn against their own kin and loved ones.
Positive Content: While there is some focus on environmental issues, such as the pollution of our oceans, the film tends to explore more on what defines a hero. While it’s not obvious on an initial watch, the movie does send the message that a true leader unites people of all types, regardless of their station or class, as opposed to merely fighting for a virtuous cause. It details the importance of entering a dialogue instead of trying to win via other means.
Aquaman is everything you’ve already seen before, yet not. It’s tonally a difficult film to pinpoint because it’s a blend of a multitude of stories. There are the comic bookish fights that seemed to have been inspired by Sam Raimi; adventure sequences that are reminiscent of Indiana Jones; and at times, the movie even steps into the horror genre. Drop the name of any popular film over the past ten years, and Aquaman will feature a scene hosts a similar vibe. Yet even though it’s a film that reeks of familiarity, somehow it still manages to craft its own identity.
The film takes a while to develop a seamless flow from one scene to the next. There’s an entire underwater world that needs to be established, along with its history and customs, as well as the standard introductions to our main cast, of which there are many. So scenes are brief and to the point, exposition is dumped, before the audience is whisked away to the next crucial bit of information that we need to know.
As a result, the first act feels rushed. Like the water that swamps the film’s setting, the audience gasps for breath as the story surges on without any concern for its flailing viewers. Yet eventually you get used to the flow and begin to get immersed in this fanciful tale of underwater kings and legendary sea monsters. Each scene delivers just enough exposition for the audience to get by before there’s a welcome break of an action sequence.
Having spoken to a number of my friends before writing this review, a common complaint (well, actually it’s from everyone I interviewed) was that the film’s exposition-action-exposition-action formula quickly wore thin. The fight scenes bordered on boring. While I agree that there were one too many conversations interrupted by a random explosion (as though director James Wan was holding a watch and demanded that no dramatic interlude could last for more than five minutes), I couldn’t help but still feel engaged in the movie’s rollicking fun.
Then again, I was the only one who watched it with moving seats! It must have certainly added to the experience. I didn’t realize how much I had longed for a film like Aquaman. In 4D, I watched as the storms rolled in, wind sweeping across my face, as the water splashed forth, seemingly past the screen, and the lightning strikes lit up the room. It even snowed in the cinema at one point… It was literally a ride! The full glory of 4D cinema was showcased with Aquaman.
On a big screen, in the most immersive format possible, Aquaman is the epitome of spectacle cinema. When we look back in history, I predict that this past decade will be characterized by its shift away from character-driven dramas, instead of being replaced with grandiose entertainment that makes use of the big silver screen. It’s not an experience that can be replicated in a living room, and the heavy prevalence of CGI laden flicks these past ten years have really distinguished how the cinema can offer something special and different.
Avatar kicked it off in the 3D department, and while James Cameron’s upcoming sequels may eventually overshadow Aquaman, film historians will no doubt point and say, “This! This is when spectacle cinema reached its peak!” James Wan has effectively grabbed every loved moment from stories of a similar nature and whacked them all together in his own film. The result is an eclectic mix of genres with grand sweeping visuals that easily rival other eye-candy films such as 300 and Sucker Punch. There’s an octopus that plays drums, a kaiju, martial art sequences, war scenes, torpedos, bass-thumping gun blasts, and there’s even a shark with laser beams attached to its head. What more could you want?
No seriously, what were people expecting this film to be?
Being a spectacle movie, the story’s themes are arguably its weak point. Yet given it’s based off a comic book where a guy’s superpower is that he talks to fish… was anyone expecting something deep here? It was a good move to keep things light. Naturally, there is an environmental message, yet the film never patronizes its audience; waggling its finger and admonishing everyone who doesn’t recycle. It’s ineffective to do so in this genre, and redundant–we know the oceans are a mess. Thankfully they left the preaching to Captain Planet.
Yet it’s too easy to pass off this film as merely a piece of CGI rendered entertainment. For those who are willing to dive a little deeper, there’s a rich undercurrent of unique themes that are being mined in this story. James Wan’s pet, Patrick Wilson, plays a surprisingly complex character. While his motivations can come across as one-note during the film’s runtime, the hard truth is that he’s not necessarily wrong in his core beliefs and fears. Rather the conflict stems from how he intends to accomplish his goals. In many ways, like-minded characters could perceive him as the hero of the ocean.
Meanwhile, Aquaman begins the film as an already established hero (it’s unclear where in the timeline this film sits in the wider DC universe… if there is still such a thing as a DC universe). He launches into fights and conflicts head on and has a very black and white approach to justice. He is what many would consider a hero. Yet this film is one about unity. Kingship. It is interesting to follow his journey and witness how he manages to follow a different, non-direct path, which allows him to develop a more layered perspective of his role and that of others in this world. Sure, he can fight, but he can also listen. It’s incredibly clever to see Aquaman’s often-mocked superpower used as a powerful metaphor that can apply to issues outside of the film’s setting.
The film is surprisingly more mature than what one first perceives. It may be a parade of the greatest hits from comic book films, but it still manages to upend expectations in terms of its vibe. One will walk in anticipating yet another formulaic superhero origin story, and while it somewhat plays the part, Aquaman is actually participating in another genre. It’s an epic.
It’s not merely Black Panther but set underwater. From a narrative standpoint, it shares more in common with old seafaring tales like Sinbad, Ulysses, and more modern day adventures such as Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Since Aquaman was essentially born out of these legends, it’s nice to see the film pays tribute by drawing from these types of stories for the film. There are many different lands, ultimate MacGuffins to be found, and while there are a plethora of characters that are only lightly fleshed out, they do all eventually complete their character journey. It’s a hefty epic plot to carry, yet by keeping it light with splashes of exposition at a time, it provides audiences just enough to latch onto, as opposed to the Crimes of Grindelwald’s approach of bogging the viewers down completely.
It’s all helped by a fantastic cast. It’s hard to think of anyone else in the role of Aquaman–Momoa has fully imbued the character. He’s not the sensitive brooding type. He’s definitely a manly man, though unfortunately that is sometimes represented by his capacity to down a few drinks at the bar.
Patrick Wilson feels like an odd choice at the beginning of the film. Yet after a particular sequence, his fighting capacity is quickly realized and soon believed. Willem Dafoe is fantastic as always and is a wonderful support to the main cast. Amber Heard’s Mera doesn’t have the greatest depth, though she manages to remain likable in a role that could have easily grated the nerves in the hands of a lesser actor. Dolph Lundren is the wildcard here, and his casting practically symbolizes the carefree fun don’t-take-it-too-seriously tone of the movie. His delivery is stilted at times, yet it is forgivable for his role, with the veteran action actor’s mere presence drawing respect from the audience every time he shares the screen.
When it comes to the film’s technical elements, I cannot praise the CGI enough. In some films the overreliance on this technology ruins the film, however, in Aquaman’s case, its gargantuan overuse perfectly encapsulates its epic scale, with its grand sweeping vistas representing the height of spectacle cinema. Yet the other departments have outdone themselves as well. Aquaman presents a number of challenges. How do people move underwater? How do people sound? It’s clear that the sound team sat down and nutted out fantastic solutions to these problems, mixing the dialogue and producing a result that was both realistic yet not bothersome to hear throughout the movie’s lengthy runtime.
Yet one cannot end without mentioning the film’s eclectic score. Using music from the techno dance genre was a risky choice for a story that usually demands uplifting orchestral pieces, but in most scenes, it worked, reminiscent of Tron: Legacy. It’s an odd mix, though it does help the movie’s light-hearted vibe, which helps to bridge the gap between the ancient underwater culture and their use of modern day technology.
Aquaman is pure escapism, offering scene after scene of eye-catching visuals and fun-loving content, showcasing the height of spectacle cinema. Therefore watch this on the biggest screen possible. The 3D only added to the experience, making 4D an absolute blast. The film does contain some depth if one reflects on Arthur’s character journey long enough, though this movie certainly delivers if one is just looking for style over substance. It may teeter on boring for some people, but for others, this film may offer the perfect escape after a long day at the office.
+ It's a visual delight. + A fun natured film with all the best moments from this genre. + A different underlying message regarding heroism. + Technical elements. + Acting. + 3D/4D experience.
- Pacing is difficult to get used to. - Develops a pattern of dumping exposition, followed by a fight scene. - May begin to bore some audiences not expecting an epic.
The Bottom Line
James Wan throws everything you loved from your favourite adventure flicks at the big screen, and somehow it all sticks! Pure entertainment, this is spectacle cinema at its finest. Sure, it is flawed, but that doesn’t take away from the fun experience.