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Film Review: Aquaman

Sarah Ward

This year's Boxing Day superhero flick is a splashy romp shot on the Gold Coast and directed by James Wan.
Film Review: Aquaman

Bearded and brawny, Jason Momoa plays a smirking, one-liner-spouting, mischievous bro-everyman with aquatic superpowers. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures & © DC Comics.

Sun, sand and the type of surf that an underwater civilisation can thrive in: as well as giving DC Comics’ aquatic hero his first standalone film, Aquaman brings the Gold Coast’s trademarks to the fore. One of an increasing number of blockbuster productions shot in and around the Queensland tourist hotspot in recent years, it’s another showcase for the local industry’s ability to mix it with Hollywood. It’s also as goofy and giddy a comic book movie as has reached the screen in these superhero-saturated times.

Lured by attractive incentives — as well studio facilities, crew capabilities and a diverse array of landscapes — the Gold Coast is becoming home not just to big-budget, big-name productions, but to films that place their emphasis on spectacle. San Andreas, Kong: Skull Island and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales all fit into that category with varying results, with Aquaman sharing their visuals-first sensibility. But it’s another southeast Queensland-made quirky comic book adventure, Thor Ragnarok, that this James Wan-helmed effort best resembles. Marvel triumphs over DC, as it largely has since both companies started crafting their own cinematic universes; however the Gold Coast once again plays backdrop to an exaggerated and eye-catching world-in-peril affair that doesn’t take itself completely seriously.

Perhaps the antipodean sense of humour has a part in bringing these movies to our shores, too — one that can make a fiercely local film like The Dressmaker an enormous box office hit in Australia, and yet see it met with lukewarm reviews abroad. Aquaman isn’t as amusing as Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Kate Winslet-starring hit, or as delightful as Taika Waititi’s irreverent Thor installment either, but it’s something that the bulk of its DC brethren haven’t been: playful.

Exploring the origin story of Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), as the titular figure is known as when he’s on land, Aquaman starts with his literal origin. Born to lighthouse-keeper Tom (Temuera Morrison) and runaway Queen of Atlantis, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), Arthur is living proof that land- and sea-dwellers can peacefully co-exist, according to his mother. That makes him a threat to the staunchly traditional, anti-human Atlanteans, even after Atlanna sacrifices her own happiness to return to the ocean. Content with drinking and earning news headlines for daring deep-sea rescue efforts, the older Arthur gets, the less he wants to do with his mythical heritage.

Superhero origin tales typically chart two paths: obtaining powers, then struggling with how to use them; or ignoring existing abilities, only to call upon them in times of great trouble. Aquaman offers a spin on the latter, with drama arriving via the protagonist’s power-hungry half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson). As the flame-haired Meera (Amber Heard), princess of the amphibious Xebel kingdom, informs Arthur, only he can stop his sibling from wreaking havoc above and below the water. Thankfully, as a teenager (played by Otis Dhanji as a 13-year-old and Kekoa Kekumano as a 16-year-old), he received training from highly skilled mentor Vulko (Willem Dafoe).

The details devised by screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (The Conjuring 2) and Will Beall (Gangster Squad), working from a story by the latter with Wan and Geoff Johns (DC TV shows Arrow, The Flash and Titans), are standard. Cue civil wars, gladiatorial battles and a blossoming romance, as well duplicity among Atlantean royalty, an Indiana Jones-style quest to reclaim an almighty trident, an ecological message and a revenge-seeking foe (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). That said, with few traces of Man of Steel or Batman v Superman’s overblown sombreness, Aquaman still serves up a largely entertaining foray into the film’s chosen genre — and, like Thor Ragnarok, it’s the space adventure genre that Aquaman gleefully falls into.

Swap zooming among the stars for swooping about underwater and splashing around with creatures of the deep, and Wan’s movie has its niche. After the horrors of the Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring franchises, as well Fast & Furious 7’s high-octane action, the Australian director handles this happily over-the-top fantasy with the requisite larger-than-life air. Star Wars, Dune and the cyberspace antics of the Tron films prove touchstones, as does another Aussie-shot sci-fi effort that’s jauntily campy, Jupiter Ascending. A movie that boasts the bearded and brawny Momoa as a smirking, one-liner-spouting, mischievous bro-everyman can’t treat its contents like Shakespeare, after all, even when it includes ample family melodrama. Nor can a film with a drum-playing octopus, billowing jellyfish as haute couture massive underwater monsters — or one where Kidman and Dafoe make thinly written supporting roles feel as earnest as anything in the DC realm.

With Aquaman, the character, being one of the rare highlights of Justice League, it’s reassuring to see Aquaman, the movie, build upon the half-human, half-Atlantean’s momentum. Similarly encouraging is the film’s status, alongside Wonder Woman, as an enjoyable DC effort that eschews dark knights and men crippled by kryptonite. But when Aquaman seesaws — the by-the-numbers story does feel stretched across the 142-minute running time, and sometimes solemnity creeps in — it’s the picture’s bright, visually creative CGI imagery that rebalances the mood. The end result: a fun romp, plus a likely second dip in aesthetically imaginative waters. With Aquaman already a US$200 million hit in China ahead of its US and Australian releases, perhaps the Gold Coast will once again play host to the lively superhero.

3 stars
★★★

 

Aquaman

Director: James Wan

 Australia / US, 2018, 143 mins

Release date: December 26

Distributor: Roadshow

Rated: M

                                  

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay