Review: Aquaman (2018)

Earnest, visually ambitious, and unintentionally hilarious.

A student asked me: “How do they train the actors to move so fast underwater?” Maybe it’s a generational thing: that anything in this might look convincing to anyone – its massive commercial suggests that either it does, or that many simply don’t care.

Aquaman features dazzling colours, inspired compositions, real imagination, and absolute commitment to ridiculous concepts. There are fish people, armies riding sharks and seahorses into battle, Nicole Kidman in a dead fish costume, a drumming octopus, and a secondary villain who is so painfully earnest it’s hilarious. Throughout, director James Wan always opts for epic, inventive, and, surprisingly, reflective: in between large-scale set pieces, realms and scope, are moments of real stillness, like young Arthur and his mentor Vulko (Willem Dafoe) watching a fever of stingrays slowly swim overhead (that’s the grouping term, I looked it up).

As hit-or-miss as they may land according to your taste, Aquaman‘s swings are big and incredibly earnest – which is preferable to playing it safe, cool or “edgy”.

I’ll take James Wan’s earnestness over Zack Snyder’s edgelordiness every single time.

Snyder set a tone for the DC movies of big, dumb, loud, cartoony and dark; if the only way Wan could go from there was big, dumb, loud and earnest, that’s progress of a kind.

For all its ambition however, nothing in Aquaman looks or feels real. And its lack of realness completely takes me out of it (I was literally laughing out loud in the theatre at points that I’m sure weren’t intended) – and yet it’s clearly drawn many, many others in.

And that’s the generational part: if CGI weightlessness is the norm, is what young audiences have come to expect from these movies, then there will be no value to, or need for, any weight. We’ve seen how well comic book movies benefit from some heft, so Aquaman like so many steps backwards. Post- Black Panther & Thor: Ragnarok comic book movies can’t afford to say so little, yet be so bloated and unnecessary. And yet, evidently, they pay for themselves.

Further viewing

Again: although Aquaman‘s aesthetic isn’t to my personal taste, I still have great respect for James Wan’s dedication “to create things we haven’t quite seen before” at every turn, as he explains in ‘Notes on a Scene’ for Vanity Fair: