Film Review | Aquaman

Oscillating between cumbersome world-building and symphonic pulp brilliance, James Wan’s orchestration of the latest salvo from DC’s ‘shared universe’ is a top-heavy but wildly entertaining trip under the sea

Water’s no enemy: Jason Momoa is Arthur Curry/Aquaman in James Wan’s brash and utterly entertaining popcorn epic
Water’s no enemy: Jason Momoa is Arthur Curry/Aquaman in James Wan’s brash and utterly entertaining popcorn epic

Arthur Curry (Kaan Guldur, Otis Dhanji and finally, Jason Momoa) was never like other kids. The product of an illicit love affair between a human lighthouse keeper, Thomas (Temuera Morrison) and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), queen of the eponymous underwater kingdom, he grew up knowing he’s in possession of great powers that his mentor Nuidis Vulko (Willem Defoe) teaches him to harness, little by little. These include supernatural strength and agility underwater, the ability to manipulate liquid matter, and to telepathically communicate with all undersea creatures.

But what Arthur would like more than anything is to see his mother again, as she was forced to return underwater after her affair with a mortal was discovered, all of which happened just a few years after the boy was born.

A bitter revelation to that effect makes Arthur turn his back on his Atlantean heritage, and he ekes out a living on the wayside, making by as a drifter and paying a visit back to the old seaside homestead to chug a few beers back with his old man.

But now, serious trouble begins to brew under the sea. Arthur’s half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) wants to wage apocalyptic war on the human race, and intends to get all of the undersea missions on his side for the endeavour – starting with King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren). With the fate of the world in the balance, Nereus’s daughter (who also happens to be Orm’s fiance) doorstops Arthur to get him on board – as the true heir to the Atlantean throne, he would have the power to veto this genocidal drive brewing in our waters.

Will the reluctant boy who would be king step up to the challenge? And if he does, will this half-breed even be accepted into the byzantine undersea aristocracy?

Sounds familiar? Well, it should. The overarching structure of Aquaman – the latest salvo from the DC ‘cinematic universe’ as it sets about competing with its fellow comics-to-film counterpart (Marvel) is quite literally a tale as old as time. And as that sizeable synopsis also shows, it’s something of a labyrinthine tale with layers upon layers of mythological prophecy and sci-fi/fantasy politics whose over-complicated and often cumbersome presentation too often brings back nasty memories of the Star Wars prequels.

But it’s also likely to be DC’s very first cinematic triumph in the heady arena that is the superhero franchise slugfest we’ve all been forced to play into over the past couple of years. Granted, Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman was a worthwhile enough entry of its own, but director James Wan – working off a script by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall – succeeds in creating a blockbuster of epic scale without sacrificing any attitude and bite.

A director who simply oozes confidence, Wan got his career going with the Saw franchise, before consolidating his horror-chops with the Conjuring and Insidious series. But though Aquaman certainly boasts some welcome hints of Lovecraftian horror (both in an early Easter egg and in a spectacular climactic tentacled beast), it is perhaps his stab at the Fast and the Furious franchise (Wan directed the motoring pulp saga’s seventh installment) that most closely matches the look and feel of Aquaman.

An ensemble with a loveable bonehead at its centre, Aquaman is unapologetic at every turn; gleefully shifting from action set piece to rom-com set-up; from a grimy slug-fest with real-life pirates to a trippy, shimmering underwater world whose politics are as intricate as the CGI that brought the world to life.

It’s no surprise that the film, like others of its ilk, runs on for a bit too long – not least because the world-building requires it. Any movie of this scale with an even slightly more jittery hand behind it would have floundered; instead, Wan makes sure the edifice holds up. The classic beats yield their pleasures, and then some. A sub-plot involving a secondary villain, David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is a perfectly set up mini-conflict that blows up in a glorious firework of action right at the heart of Sicily – with the baddie motivated by similar parental baggage as our hero.

It’s often these little details that make huge blockbusters of this scale sing as well as bellow, and we can be grateful to Wan for seeing the experience through without letting them slip through his fingers.

The verdict

While certainly not without its faults, James Wan’s brave and confident handling of the latest offering from the struggling ‘shared universe’ by DC moves at a steady clip despite its cumbersome running time and some perfunctory exposition. With nary an original beat in sight, what we do get is a classic hero origin story all set in a mesmerising undersea world that is not afraid to indulge the full technicolour bliss of comic book fantasia.