For me, the most enjoyable cinematic experiences are the unapologetic ones—when filmmakers have a clear vision for what they want and fearlessly pursues the goals. It’s hard to find that kind of bravery in big-budget blockbusters, mainly due to the fact there are studios desperately invested in success and feel the need to push back on anything defying convention. Every so often we get a good, unapologetic blockbuster that bucks convention and surprises audiences with its audacity. “Aquaman” is a glorious example of fearless feature filmmaking—and it’s an absolutely mental motion picture.
The fact we’re getting a big-budget adaptation of “Aquaman” feels like a Christmas miracle. Arguably one of the most maligned superheroes, spending $200 million on an adaptation of a guy whose power involves talking to fish feels risky at best—especially in a day and age when we’re getting comic-book adaptations every other month in a landscape laden with darker heroes and themes, like “Deadpool,” “Venom” and “Avengers: Infinity War.” How is “Aquaman” supposed to compete with that?
Director James Wan successfully found the answer by making an over-the-top epic adventure that isn’t afraid to get weird. Arthur, a.k.a. Aquaman (Jason Momoa), is the son of a human (Temuera Morrison) and Queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman). The bastard spawn of an epic, world-spanning affair leaves him feeling disconnected to both the world of men and the world of mer-men. He’s visited by Mera (Amber Heard), a member of Atlantean royalty, who asks him to return under sea to challenge his half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), for the throne. Old Orm wants to curb-stomp the surface world for dumping all their trash in the ocean.
Arthur is reluctant and self-aware enough to know a hard-drinking, rough-around-the-edges outsider isn’t really king-of-the-sea material. After Orm sends some massive tidal waves toward humanity as a precursor for an invasion, Arthur decides he has no choice but to dethrone Orm and save the day. It involves some old-fashioned gladiatorial combat, trekking across the globe to find an ancient trident of power and fighting under-sea monsters of all shapes and sizes.
The movie is crazy—like, “I can’t believe I’m seeing this” crazy! The amount of absolute insanity presented during “Aquaman” left me slack-jawed at its unapologetic fearlessness. The pace is so fast, it can only be described as “coke-fueled,” as Arthur travels from fighting pirates on a submarine to a variety of origin montages, back to fighting Atlantean super-soldiers before swooping into romantic entanglements. Wan doesn’t give us a moment to settle before taking us to the next crazy set-piece.
Speaking of crazy, Momoa might be the strangest leading man for a big-budget blockbuster ever. It’s like watching a movie headlined by Macho Man Randy Savage. He’s a big, gruff, charismatic piece of meat who manages to beguile in spite of looking and sounding like a half-drunk Hell’s Angel. Casting works because it really feels like an outsider being thrust into epic mayhem.
Momoa’s fish-out-of-water attributes make his journey from conflicted everyman to the King of Atlantis feel even more epic. Amber Heard is great as Mera. Patrick Wilson is fantastic as the scenery-chewing Ocean Master Orm, and sells every evil machination with robust rage.
Kudos to the team of production designers and technical craftsmen who made the under-sea world feel so alive. This kind of movie lives or dies by the reality of a below-the-surface civilization; it all seems very real and well-realized. The film’s final 15 minutes is a crowd-pleasing orgy of special-effects and virtual filmmaking that may have raised the bar on what can be accomplished in a big-budget blockbuster.
Still, a few moments fall flat—mostly in the middle of the film, when they try to create a playful chemistry between Arthur and Mera, as well as a few pop-music cues that make the transitions feel like “The Fish and the Furious.” But those criticisms are extremely minor. Just about everything in “Aquaman” works because Wan isn’t afraid to embrace the ridiculousness of the concept and has crafted a fun and fresh story.
“Aquaman” is the most entertaining movie of 2018. Its goofy charm reminds me of great cheeseball blockbusters, like “Flash Gordon” or “The Phantom.” Warner Brothers, here’s a tip: Hand all DC Comics characters to James Wan and let him produce all movies going forward. If they end up being as much fun as “Aquaman,” they all will offer up one hell of a ride.
Directed by James Wan
Starring Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe
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