Aquaman

aquamanWhy did Aquaman — whose hero was once a laughing stock among nerds and mundanes alike — become an ATM to the tune of $1.15 billion last Christmas? I have a theory. The movie looked spectacular enough, yet dumb enough, to be the biggest college-stoner event in years. Kids were home on holiday break, chortled to one another “Let’s get baked and go see Aquaman,” and so it was done. Those watching it sober alone at home may find the movie’s peculiar blend of macho-man musk and self-aware camp a bit harder to swallow. Towards the end, when heroes and villains faced off underwater astride various sea creatures and everything was going kaboom, I felt myself starting to turn into an eyelid. There’s only so much unreal stuff happening in an unreal environment I can watch before I figure I might as well be watching Tom and Jerry, which was funnier and shorter.

To be fair, every so often director James Wan’s thirst for hyperbolic images pays off big. There’s a terrific shot of two heroes diving off a boat swarming with toothsome sea monsters while a lightning bolt cleaves the night sky behind them. The visual shows a talent for unearthly, savage beauty. There’s more like it, but not much more, and most of the two-hours-plus (about 130 minutes plus credits) is clotted with repetitive too-muchness like the endless battles of that climax. How many hapless, anonymous fighters can we watch tumbling ass over teakettle and slamming heavily into things before it all becomes meaningless? Many of the bad guys thusly slammed by our hero, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), should be dead on concussive impact but aren’t. The action has no stakes.

Arthur is a “half-breed,” son of a surface-dweller (Temuera Morrison, easily the film’s rumpled-human highlight) and an Atlantean (Nicole Kidman). His half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson, having fun going very large) is a resentful wretch who wants to unite the kingdoms of the deep against the humans of the surface. Arthur, the hero with a foot in both worlds, is the Chosen, the One — if you’ve read/watched enough fantasy fiction you’ve seen every narrative beat here. The images are supposed to make the difference, but other than the aforementioned bits of inspiration, Wan’s visual imagination doesn’t go much beyond “cool.” Atlantis and its many denizens, some humanoid and some not, are just the usual craggy castles and trashy, mean-looking monsters we’ve been looking at for twenty years. Let’s not talk about the characters’ computer-generated hair, forever floating prettily underwater but never wafting into anyone’s face.

Momoa is a bluff, passionate presence, whose Aquaman is more or less the DC equivalent of Marvel’s Thor. They enjoy melees, enjoy being heroes — they are not, as I like to say, sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. Once in a while, Momoa lets out a gut laugh or barbaric yawp that cements him as that rare thing, a king you want to have a beer with. A king and a fool — a Falstaff with a six-pack. Without someone as thick and grounded as Momoa at its center, Aquaman probably wouldn’t work — it would drift off into droning video-game cut scenes. His love interest, Amber Heard as the smart, tough Mera, has a couple of good fleeting battle-lust moments but is otherwise … Amber Heard, a dead spot on the screen, saddled with the movie’s least likely wig. Willem Dafoe is here, looking lonely and demoralized, knowing that if he gets to do At Eternity’s Gate he also has to do this shit to keep the lights on.

For a movie about the wonders of the deep, Aquaman is at times almost a globe-trotting epic; a segment takes place in Sicily, possibly because the filmmakers wanted to sun themselves there (who wouldn’t?). As has become common, the movie’s aspect ratio changes depending on whether a sequence opened up for a big IMAX screen or was composed for standard widescreen; cleverly, all the expansive IMAX scenes are underwater, all the surface scenes vertically cramped. The effect is to train our eyes and our subconscious to reject the dry world in favor of the wet world. Unfortunately nothing goes on down there aside from the usual bang-bang, although it was amusing to learn that in the deep — where people can talk to each other — seahorses whinny and sharks growl. Aquaman needed more of the kind of imagination that gives us whinnying seahorses and growling sharks. Instead it just gives us more whinnying seahorses and growling sharks.

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