Friday, December 21, 2018

The Big Merman: "Aquaman" welcomes the goofy but doesn't always gel into fun

Aquaman (2018)
143 min., rated PG-13.

Once a running joke on HBO’s “Entourage” and then abruptly introduced in 2017’s “Justice League,” DC Comics character Aquaman gets his solo origin story. “Aquaman” is a behemoth of Saturday morning cartoon silliness, and in principle, it knows exactly what kind of movie it wants to be and presents a welcome change of pace from the self-serious house style of previous DC Extended Universe entries. Sounding like an unmissable blast, with a long-haired, tattooed Chippendale dancer as our hero; Willem Dafoe riding a hammerhead shark; Amber Heard sporting a jellyfish dress; an octopus playing the drums; and Patrick Wilson emphatically shouting, “I am the ocean master!” as if he were playing it for keeps in a Shakespearean play, “Aquaman” is ultimately not as fun as it should be and without much feeling to go with the fantastical eye candy.

Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) was born half-mortal, half-Atlantean when his mother, Atlantis Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), washed up on shore in the seaside Maine town of Amnesty Bay, only to be rescued and fall in love with his father, lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison). When Atlantean soldiers came to the surface to take Atlanna back home, Arthur was left to be raised by Thomas and to learn of his Atlantean powers and communication with the creatures of the deep. Thirty-three years later, Arthur is Aquaman, using his strength and powers to rescue Navy sailors from pirates, one of whom is Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who’s out to settle a score for letting his father die. Not long after, Atlantean princess Mera (Amber Heard) arrives in Amnesty Bay, asking for Arthur’s help to dethrone Atlantis ruler King Orm (Patrick Wilson), who wants to wage a war with the surface world and also happens to be Arthur’s half-brother. In order to defeat Orm, Arthur must retrieve a mythical trident, but being the bridge between the land and sea, he must also find it in himself to demonstrate the qualities of a king to restore order in Atlantis.

Filled with intermittent pleasures within a bloated 143-minute running time, “Aquaman” is a film that alternately excels and flounders when it leans into its inherent goofiness. There seems to be a singular vision here, and yet it still manages to wobble in tone, from earnest to campy, while giddily throwing everything at the screen. Associated with the horror genre, as well as making arguably the best “The Fast and the Furious” movie (2015’s “Furious 7”), director James Wan luckily scores with the larger-than-life sights of his underwater realms, but it’s the script by screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (2016’s “The Conjuring 2”) and Will Beall (2013’s “Gangster Squad”) that doesn’t always do Wan or his game cast any favors. There really isn’t an elegant way to unload exposition, but it is particularly cumbersome here, and while the film is light and jokey, it never gels into funny, with jokes that are corny at best and juvenile and clunky at worst. To be fair, the film could have been another pesky origin story of a reluctant hero that gets a fresh coat of paint from mostly being set under the sea and it is a self-contained oceanic opera that isn’t beholden to the DC Cinematic Universe, save for one throwaway line about Aquaman defeating Steppenwolf. 

Very much like a Dwayne Johnson or John Cena, Jason Momoa is a physically brawny presence and confident even when he looks silly and refuses to put on a shirt. As the carefree, beer-drinking Arthur/Aquaman, he fills out the role with an endearing likability and poses well, but there is too much of a monotony to his comic delivery. Looking like she’s playing Ariel cosplay as the hydrokinetic Mera, Amber Heard has a lot of fun with the role, chewing a bouquet of flowers at one point in a weird bit of fish-out-of-water comedy, and fiercely holds her own without ever being a damsel in distress. It is a joy to see Nicole Kidman in a superhero movie, and like every role she takes, Kidman commits even in the small part of Atlanna and brings much-needed warmth and gravitas; she even gets the most thrilling fight sequence. Faring less well is Patrick Wilson, camping it up and indulging in the cheesy, one-note villainy of ocean master Orm without selling the bonkers dialogue, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II doesn’t have much to do as pirate Black Manta, an afterthought probably best left to the sequel.

“Aquaman” is, if anything, cool to look at, but not much more than that when the viewer’s involvement with the story and characters leaves something to be desired. Using the “dry for wet” technique for the underwater scenes, director James Wan does deliver a detailed, over-the-top visual extravaganza before garish, bombastic CGI overload sets in. The first sight of Atlantis is a colorful, majestic sight to behold, and there is a memorable, beautifully nightmarish shot of Aquaman and Mera diving down to the Kingdom of the Trench as they’re nearly engulfed by a swarm of hellish sea creatures. And, on land, there is an immersive, excitingly staged rooftop chase with Mera in Sicily. Also, that Wan specializes in horror is evident, as an explosion will suddenly interrupt a quiet moment like a jolt in a horror film and, despite the noticeable pattern, take one off guard every time. Still behind 2017’s “Wonder Woman,” “Aquaman” turns the tide for the DCEU ever so slightly with its leaning toward the tongue-in-cheek and the sheer spectacle of it all, but it’s a lot of movie that doesn’t quite float.

Grade: C +

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