Aquaman glimmers with bioluminescent splendor, initially promising a startling underwater gothic horror film and then instead tending to follow the staid path laid by its competition. It starts well enough with sequences derived from James Wan’s good work on Saw (2004) and Insidious (2011); a groundwork for horror in a hero film is like a check that will never be cashed. There is almost certainly a very good film buried within, maybe several, before it becomes Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok (2017), without Taika Waititi.
Now, the character has always been a bit of a laughing stock. This is immediately counteracted by the on-form Jason Momoa who does his damnedest to keep the ship afloat. While we have tired and largely moved on from origin stories, with the modern hero film preferring to insert itself instead at the most interesting point of a character arc, Aquaman stays true to old DC habits.
It has a nicely fleshed out origin story too, a love story about how our hero’s father rescued his mother and they cultivated a lovely forbidden romance in a cozy lighthouse somewhere in Maine. Horror-like technique frames the child’s strange upbringing, where he gets bullied while at an aquarium, before commanding all manner of sharks and sea-life to slam into the glass, like any supernatural kid from any horror picture. There’s a Lovecraft book briefly glimpsed (completely disingenuous reference, until much later). It’s as though there were another film there and then the new Thor shifted the project from its conception.
The nature of feeling submerged at the cinema is a scary prospect. And there’s not a whole lot of cinematic reference points to draw from, likely because there aren’t any good action films that take place not within a capsule but the sea itself. When we enter Atlantis, it is a visual feast for the ages, the most visually remarkable world-building within the DCEU. There is an essence of spectacle and world creation that occasionally overrides the sense that we have seen all this before.
It is a shame the script is in shambles. It teeters dangerously in every which direction. The ocean, as endless and unexplored as it is, seems to offer infinite potential. The thing is, it’s incredibly hard to shoot around that. The dialogue’s almost entirely insipid, as bad an idea as someone talking underwater. They run out of plotting ideas so soon too, already going to the dessert before we’ve fully explored the sea. There is only one significant sequence in the sea, a Ragnarok-esque battle – without the Led Zeppelin – where the intention to make a monster horror film bleeds back in. The Aquaman equivalent of “The Immigrant Song” is a Pitbull cover of Toto’s “Africa”. [Editor’s note: The rest of this section cut for excessive profanity.]
It is worth noting that Momoa does a nice enough job. He may be more at home in straightforward fare like this year’s perfectly serviceable Braven, but in Aquaman, he gets to be a star. His comedy readings do not work but his serious readings do. Also of note, he’s surrounded by good talent. The women in the film are strong characters defined mostly by themselves. Amber Heard plays a vaguely annoyed love interest, which makes sense since after she reported Momoa rip up her books in between takes so she’d pay attention to him. (What else does he think he can get away with?) Nicole Kidman does a fine job as Momma Momoa, although she seems confused about how to act underwater. William Dafoe does a good job not wincing through his badly written lines as Aquaman’s mentor. There’s a terrific villain in Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Black Manta, with a very cool aesthetic and badass weaponry, but a very flimsy backstory and motivation.
Look, Aquaman should have been bad. It still is, but it also should have been. There’s little to suggest that it was an easy project to make. Most of its victories have been had in post-production. There is a mediocre hero film here with a gorgeous aesthetic painted on top. That’s a fine enough reason to go to the cinema, if it’s all you expect. There are not any better films exactly like this, this gorgeous and subaquatic. There is almost certainly a better sequel, if a director can find the center and tell a more concentrated story.