Rating: 3 Stars
The following review contains spoilers.
When the Queen of Atlantis washes up unconscious on the shores of Maine, she’s rescued by a friendly lighthouse keeper, and they fall in love. The product of their union is Arthur Curry, eventually to be known to the world as Aquaman. Because he’s the child of two worlds, he has superpowers of some kind, that may or may not be distinct from the superpowers all Atlanteans apparently have (one of my greatest irritations with modern superhero filmmaking is how nebulous the powers are, which makes it difficult for us in the audience to know when the hero is actually in danger and what tools they have to remove themselves from said danger). At the very least, he’s strong, fast, durable, and can communicate with sea creatures.
Aquaman’s mom was forced to return to Atlantis when he was a child, and so he has a half-brother there, Orm, who seeks to unite the countries of the sea under his banner, becoming king of them all (aka “Ocean Master”). For some reason Orm also wants to destroy the surface world, which is unaware Atlantis even exists, and so Mera, Princess of the undersea land of Xebel, who also has superpowers for some reason (they never say aquakinesis, but I’m saying it), goes to find Arthur and convince him to come to Atlantis, overthrow his brother, and establish peace. Aquaman, a doofus through and through, has no interest in being king, but agrees to go along with Mera’s plan once he sees the devastation of Orm’s first attack on the surface: a series of massive tidal waves around the world.
Though they couldn’t be further apart in setting or plot, it’s fitting this is from the same director of some of the later Fast & Furious movies, as, like those, Aquaman is thoroughly dumb and yet consistently fun. This film has not one but two scenes where a supervillain stands there ominously and says, “Call… me… SUPERVILLAIN NAME!” It has what feels like a half-dozen scenes where some characters are just talking in a room when one of the walls explodes in on them. By the time our heroes plunge into an underwater cyclone and emerge at what we’re told is the Earth’s core, which is apparently a “lost world” style dinosaur kingdom, I was thoroughly charmed by the crazy comic book universe being presented.
Though mostly a lot of CGI-nonsense, the action scenes are still generally presented well. Even the underwater fight scenes don’t feel too “floaty”, which is impressive. My favorite sequence in the film is when they’re in Sicily. Right from the beginning we’re getting over-the-top Indiana Jones-esque puzzle solving, when Aquaman figures out to put the bottle in the statue’s hand, and I didn’t even care if it made sense with the timeline (when exactly did Atlantis sink?). Then Black Manta and the other troops attack, and we get probably the best fight scenes in the movie. I liked the way we’d move back and forth between Aquaman’s side of the fight and Mera’s, sometimes panning from one to the other in a continuous shot that didn’t feel overly fakey. Though again, it’s damaged somewhat by not knowing Aquaman’s actual powers, as he appears to be badly wounded multiple times in the fight early on, but then by the end of it he seems to be basically fine.
I liked the costume designs for Black Manta and Ocean Master quite a bit. The various undersea kingdoms also look really cool (though the weird bit about Atlantis itself forcing everyone to go through this one door, because the surrounding wall is protected by super cannons, was too dumb even for me).
While we’re here, I have to point out Mera’s jellyfish dress, the octopus playing the drums, our two heroes jumping out of a plane and face-planting in the Sahara, the superfluous kaiju, and the hilarious mental image of Aquaman stripping the clothes off of Atlan’s skeleton and putting them on before he re-emerges from the waterfall with the super trident.
The script is rather awful. Almost none of the dialogue works, and the plot is incredibly cliché. I kept waiting and hoping for something—anything—to subvert the tired One True King plotline, but they never do. I was sure that at some point we’d get to wherever we were going, and Mera would be the one who could see an invisible thing or whatever, and she’d take over ruling Atlantis, but instead everything happens exactly the way they say it’s going to happen, and so as silly as the movie is, the story is completely predictable and straightforward. Arthur Curry really does have a special, little destiny, and we actually do have to rely on this doofus manchild to save us all, because he’s part of some royal bloodline. Like I know fantasy stories are heavily tied into the idea of monarchy, but it’s also hard to have a movie in 2018 that accepts without question that absolute power should be based entirely on who someone’s parents were.
As for the dialogue, I knew I was in trouble at the beginning, when Queen Atlanna says something about usually the ocean carries away their tears, which is corny enough, but then Tom Curry shines a spotlight on it, saying something like, “Not here. Here you have to feel them.” Yes thanks we get it. But at least I do get endless laughter imagining Black Manta, in the style of George Costanza preparing to deliver his jerkstore line, anticipating the moment when he takes over the submarine and gets to say the awesome line he workshopped for days in his journal, “I’ll tell you what. I won’t tell you how to captain, and you don’t tell me how to pirate”, and it just so completely bombs.
But the biggest black mark on this movie, as much fun as I had with the spectacle and the silliness, are that Aquaman and Mera are both such dull and unlikeable clichés that I’m not particularly excited at the idea of spending another movie with these two dopes.