Chris Terrio said, about his writing of the Justice League movie: “…This has been the most rigorous intellectual exercise I’ve had in my writing life… "I could be reading in the same day about red- and blueshifts in physics, Diodorus of Sicily and his account of the war between Amazons and Atlanteans, or deep-sea biology and what kind of life plausibly might be in the Mariana Trench.” I remember vividly reading an excerpt of an interview with Ang Lee, circa 2003, around the time he was busy promoting his impending Hulk adaptation, wherein he expressed, and I paraphrase, that he didn´t know how to make a comic book movie but he knew how to make a Greek tragedy. It is way too easy imagining what these creators- and, really, any other like-minded artist- might have suggested when asked to share their vision on how to make an AQUAMAN movie. How do you realistically solve the problems inherent to making a film set underwater and starring water-dwelling beings, specifically regarding dialogue and lighting? The answer James Wan, the actual (thank God) appointed helmer for this, the latest adaptation of DC comic books, might as well have been inspired by Alexander and his approach to the Gordian knot: you simply don´t. And we all, the inhabitants of Cinema fandom, should be extremely thankful for his shameless chutzpah. I am.
Leaving behind and in utter oblivion Zack Snyder’s fleeting attempts at tackling artist Paul Norris and writer Mort Weisinger’s creation with murky underwater photography and air bubbles for characters to come into every single time they were supposed to talk (and any other similar notions we would have surely gotten from the grim-and-gritty-minded alumni from Terrio and Lee’s school of thought). Wan delivers an, at times, almost blindingly shiny concoction that is just as enthralling as it is nonsensical. Visually, his Aquaman is an amalgam of classic movies’ iconography and genuinely daring- or, simply put, truly insane- imagery: the land-bound sequences in the desert and Sicily spill directly from an Indiana Jones film and Atlantis’ design flat out steals (“artists borrow; geniuses…”) from Marvel Studios’ Asgaard with a brightly colored Bifrost-like highway (yes, highway) and a cityscape occasionally -unexpectedly, crazily, amazingly- lifted from Scott’s Blade Runner. Where does all this luminescence come from? How is an underground cavern below the Sahara thoroughly sunlit if it is completely buried? Why and how do combat sharks actually roar? How can these people simply speak underwater? Wan’s answer, at all times, is, I neither know nor care; do you?
Maybe most people (myself included) would if these aesthetic choices had come from sheer laziness and/or a lack of inventiveness but being- as they are- born out of an almost compulsive desire to please us, the audience. I can´t but nod with both gratitude and disbelief; AQUAMAN is the movie most chock-full with imagination since, very probably, the advent of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise.
The music, although punctuated by a couple of pop songs, is mostly a synth-heavy, Tangerine Dream-like score that bridges the subconscious gap between the current Hans Zimmer-dominated droning soundscape and the classic, old-school, sci-fi/fantasy feeling that Vangelis so permanently etched back in his ’82 Magnus opus. Out of nowhere and amazing.
Wan’s action choreography and blocking were already near flawless since the precariously underappreciated Death Sentence but the clean, crystal-clear understanding of geography he displays here, especially in the Sicily setpiece, is dazzling, a very, very rare talent among tentpole filmmakers. The sequence follows two threads of action occurring simultaneously across the city and every single edit, no matter if they go from master shot to extreme close-up or simply change angles or P.O.V.s, keep it entirely coherent and allow you to relax and be taken in for the ride. The rotating camera shot he used in his Fast & Furious entry as a body is slammed hard against a floor or wall makes an appearance as well, but he tried his hand at some new stylings, too. The first fight in the movie is a video game fight, with a ceaselessly moving camera documenting every movement from every possible (or is it impossible?) angle. The result is jarring but so thoroughly unexpected and unusual that it doesn´t detract from the rest of the movie.
The story is simple (a hero’s journey depicting a bastard prince on his way to claiming his throne) and barely more than connective tissue between setpieces, but that is hardly a source for complaint; the screenplay never veers off into any sort of mindless absurdity (motivation-wise), and there is a fully rational through line sustaining it all together. The real meat- and there is enough to be found- lies with most of the cast.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, as Manta (one of the greatest page-to-screen creations ever), plays only a peripheral role but squeezes as much from it as humanly possible. The rest of his peers have better luck, however. Patrick Wilson, mostly known for portraying meek or quasi-laughable characters, demonstrates that he can become an intimidating bully with his take on main villain, the Ocean Master, and just how much he ends up hamming it up playing this would-be king as a WWE performer rallying his enthralled audience is up to you to decide. Willem Dafoe as Vulko, the wise mentor, doesn´t do anything beyond the strictly necessary, but his presence alone lends the proceedings an extremely welcome gravitas, as do Temuera Morrison, Julie Andrews (voicing Karathen, a Kraken-like guarding creature) and even Dolph Lundgren’s performances. Somewhat unexpectedly, coming from someone so commonly stuck in tabloid hell, Amber Heard’s Mera delivers too, demonstrating that age has become her and leaving by the wayside her de rigueur scanty costume to actually become a sufficiently endearing character that most of the time transcends her official love interest part. But alone in her own realm stands Nicole Kidman as Atlanna, Queen of Atlantis, legitimizing the entire endeavor merely by showing up; watching her bite onto her brief role- and her already mentioned digitally-aided videogame fight- with the same gusto she did any of her lauded iconic performances (or her small part in Just Go With It, for that matter) goes a long way toward making us feel this is, indeed, worthwhile.
Only- and this is a big Only- Jason Momoa comes off somewhat scathed. But that wasn´t unexpected. After a few years that have seen high profile endeavors taking on last-minute replacements to sit on the director’s chair (Phil Lord & Christopher Miller substituted by Ron Howard in Solo; Michael Gracey aided by James Mangold in The Greatest Showman) we´ve gotten accustomed to the Modern Prometheus Final Cut, unholy blends of senses and sensibilities that, impressive as they may be (the Whedon/Snyder Justice League example is one for the books), can be head-scratchers in the most optimistical scenario. Cast by Snyder back when it seemed he was solely in command of the DCEU, Momoa doesn´t really fit the bill for the way more classical hero Wan’s Aquaman is, and it is painfully apparent that, had he been in charge from scratch, he would have cast someone else. His quips fall flat- nearly all of them- and although this stems from weak writing a more charismatic performer might have made the difference. From the very beginning, there is a disconnect between the somewhat by-the-numbers, tranquil voice-over and Momoa’s contained boisterous delivery (a fact not aided by the way we last perceived him in Justice League, hollering: “F%&$, YEAAAAHHH!!!!”- the expletive in there if only Snyder had gotten an R rating). This almost results in something resembling a Cannon Films release or an early to mid-nineties action film starring Brian Bosworth or Howie Long with an inconceivably higher budget; the muscle-bound hero, Playboy centerfold female lead, some shooting in exotic locations. Done.
Operative word being, almost.
What Wan accomplished here is nothing short of amazing, taking a character long relegated to pure ridicule and turning it into an undeniably enjoyable and entertaining film where you care about the characters; an obscenely expensive film where every single penny invested is up there onscreen. Unlike many franchise-starters wannabes, eager to leave threads dangling and to lead us into the sequel with as many unresolved plot points as possible, he throws everything into this single one at once. Literally at once when it comes to the climax, a battle involving war sharks, seahorses, orcas, warriors swimming, underwater vehicles, tridents, swords, and hand-to-hand combat. Yes, the ending is digitally bloated, like with practically all current blockbusters, but, unlike something like Transformers, there is a method to the chaos and anywhere in the screen that you choose to direct your attention towards there will be something to look and smile at.
Thinking of a sequel without James Wan is unthinkable, but I’d be flat out lying if I said I wouldn’t want this franchise to go on otherwise. I recommend this movie, immensely.
As for both James Wan and Arthur Curry: the king is here, long live the king.
Eloy Ricardo Balderas Salazar