Directed by James Wan
Minor Spoilers Ahead... Arguably Major Spoilers (Depends How Much You Care)
‘Okay, what did he just say?’ the Atlantean princess Mera asks Arthur Curry after a water-ghost recording of an ancient King dumps a hefty load of exposition on us. ‘Something, something, trident’ replies Arthur, which is exactly three more words than I had taken in.
There are a many number of words in this film, which is not unusual for a film, of course, but about a third of the way through the two hour and twenty-two-minute run-time I found myself unable perceive any of them. That’s not to say the story was complicated, the plot was fairly standard. To break it down to a sentence, Arthur’s half-brother, Orm, a King of Atlantis wants to wage war on the surface world for all the pollution and warships we’ve dunked into the sea, so, to stop him destroying the people that raised him, Arthur Curry aka Aquaman, must retrieve the Trident of Atlan (a sword in the stone stand-in) to prove himself the rightful heir to the throne so he can usurp Orm before his plans come to fruition. Truthfully, I found myself being unable to listen to the exposition mostly because there were far more interesting things to focus on: namely, everything else in the film.
Firstly, the visuals on display are intense and astounding. This is the film you advertise 4K televisions with. The colours pop, the action is clear, the designs are diverse and wonderfully crafted. This is easily the most visually attractive film DC has made so far. Remember the colour scheme of Atlantis in Justice League? No? Imagine the colours that accumulate between the grooves of your walking boots after trudging through a slag heap on a rainy day. The Atlantis shown in Aquaman is nothing like that. The Atlantis in Justice League, as it turns out, is how our feeble mortal eyes would see it, whereas to Atlantean eyes their world is lit up like a paintball tournament at Cyberdog. They have manta-ray shaped space-ships that have blue glowing rippling fins and tails, shiny red lobster soldiers that leak luminous purple goo when their arms are chopped off, herculean battle crabs that emanate a fiery orange from within their machinelike frame. Mera, for just a couple of shots, adorns an elaborate collar made to resemble translucent bubble-gum-blue jellyfish, bobbing and pulsating almost as if they were alive (and as it turns out, when she takes this robe off and the jellyfish drift off on their merry way, that is indeed the case). And everything shoots plasma laser things, of every colour, and they all make the satisfying noise of a rubber band being fired into a tub of UV soap. There is simply too much to indulge yourself in that you have to try to ignore it to give any attention to the plot. I wasn’t paying attention to what exposition orange-beard was filling us in on, I was trying to look at his kick-ass sea stallion.
The range of diverse costumes and set pieces on display is startling, and I’m not sure if that’s in a good or bad way. I couldn’t help imagining the discussion table when they were figuring out their art direction. ‘So for the Atlanteans, we can either have them as high tech, white plastic neon warriors, or, we could bring out more of the classic Aquaman colours, the greens and golds and go for a more medieval armour look with some crustacean influences, or, we could have them merman-like with green skin and pearlescent clothing, or, we could go more down to earth nomadic and have them wear parts of dead sea creatures as if it were like Celtic leather armour’ to which James Wan leans towards the art director and says ‘Remove the word ‘or’ from all that, and yes!’ It honestly feels like no idea was turned down. Should we have Ocean Master or Black Manta as the villain? Yes. Should we have them ride sea horses or sharks? Yes. Do you want to use the angry version of this helmet or the super angry version? Yes. (Seriously, in the climactic battle, baddie King Orm wears a solid glossy metal helmet that has no movement whatsoever except from a pair of deep lustrous smooth eyebrows that inexplicably change from peeved to bloody livid during a couple of key lines of dialogue.)
I should note that these disparate designs do serve to separate all the factions and tribes that reside within Atlantis. And maybe this is how they’re presented in the comics, I wouldn’t really know, however, I ended up having no real idea of any ideal or character that defines the core of what Atlanteans are. For comparison, within the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films there were various tribes of dwarves, elves and orcs each bringing their own unique designs influences and identity, however, I could always tell what was Dwarvish or what was Elvish and so on. I have no idea what Atlantean design is beyond something to do with fish. Anything could be Atlantean, but what is Dwarvish is very defined. Of Atlantean culture, all I can make out is beautiful chaos.
The film seems to be aware that its visual elements are more engaging than its plot as numerous conversations are interrupted by things blowing up. I counted at least five scenes of expositional dialogue that ended with the principle cast being flung offscreen by sudden luminous explosions, and that was only after I noticed the trend. I could almost imagine James Wan sitting there with his detonator in his hand and his troupe of apple-brand sub-aquatic power rangers waiting off stage, ready to storm the set. Not even the actors know when it’s going to happen, he could press the button at any moment. One minute they’re discussing Sicilian architecture the next the camera is craning upwards to an aerial wide-shot, they’re surrounded by neon red battle men (collect them all), and half the wall is gone.
These fight sequences and set-pieces, for the most part, are damn fun to watch. You’re always given space to take in the action, there are no unnecessary harsh cuts or shaky-cam, and the choreography is neat and inventive. Thankfully, Aquaman’s fighting style is a lot more distinct that it was before. In Justice League he came across as a heavy hitter and nothing much else. Here? Well, ever played a game where you’ve levelled up your character fully, got all the skills and the best armour and weapons available, unlocked all the equipment and maxed out every stat? Ever then gone back to the easy section of the game where all the weak beginner enemies are, just to goof around? That’s how Aquaman fights. He has no real need to worry about his own well-being, he’s practically immortal, so he can have fun with it. Bullets don’t harm him but he’s going to try and block them anyway, just to see if he can. He’ll carry a goon on his back for a while, let’s knock him out by walking through a low doorway. Can you KO an enemy by opening a hatch into them? Yes, it appears you can. Similarly, when the higher-level enemies start randomly spawning, he gets suitably miffed.
It was when I started comparing the rest of the feature to a video game where I figured out why this film wasn’t completely gelling with me, why I was finding myself getting bored despite the outlandish visuals. You see, what I generally remember of the games I play are the best ‘bits’. When I think back about Aquaman, well, there’s the bit in the submarine with the shiny black armoured pirates, there’s the bit where there’s the gladiator battle in the massive stadium with the top-trump stats, there’s the bit where they slide down the sand to the underground ruins like it’s a log flume, there’s the bit on the tug boat with the Lovecraftian fish-men who are afraid of light, there’s the bit with the spiny krakken who needs a lozenge, there’s the bit with the dinosaurs in the background... and so on. All I can remember is a sequence of admittedly remarkable set-pieces with minimal development in plot or character. These are levels in a game, not scenes that affect the structure of a narrative.
Watching Aquaman, for me, was like completing a really good video game all in one sitting. Yes, there are some quality sets, costumes and sequences, but experiencing it all in one go doesn’t give you enough time to reflect on and fully appreciate it. I’d rather have delved into the world of Atlantis a chunk at a time, always wondering what new things would be around the corner while still taking the opportunity to enjoy what was there at that moment. It was all too much in a short space of time. Never mind the plot, the plot barely matters in many games outside of key points, I wanted to experience that world. The film’s final act reinforces its game like quality. ‘What’s the plan again?’ asks Arthur as the vibrant chaos of war wages on in the background. ‘Survive’ replies Mera (we wouldn’t want to have to start the level over). It doesn’t help that the climactic battle is set on the mostly empty roof of a circular water-space-ship floating in the middle of the sea as thunder and lightning ravage the sky-box. This fight, more than any conflict in any film I’ve ever seen, screams ‘final boss’.
I could talk about how the plot resolves too easily. Arthur doesn’t so much prove himself being worthy of king, more he proves his lineage, and oddly the people just seem accept it. He doesn’t seem to be any kinglier at the end than where he began, outside of a spanglier trident and his signature fish-scale armour. It’s established that the Atlanteans bear no love for the titular half-breed Arthur so their leap to devotion to him after he beats up their king was jarring. That being said, I was decreasingly able to focus on the dialogue throughout the film so maybe it was explained, and I just missed it. Either way, I didn’t really care, I was too busy looking at all the pretty colours.
If Aquaman was a linear hack and slash game like God of War or Bayonetta, Aquaman would be superb. It’d be a game people look back fondly for years to come, heralded as a classic for its art and character and unique levels and design. Instead it’s a two-and-a-half-hour trailer of an awesome looking game I’ll never have the joy of playing. Go see it if you want something pretty to look at (especially if you have a thing for Jason Momoa), it’ll look its best when its on the big screen (as will he).
I give this film a 4/7 for being a pretty, albeit over-saturated, neon glitter action fest