Aquaman: Spectacular world-building and a perfectly cast hero overcome clunky dialogue and wooden acting

The Aquaman comic book character that I grew up with (70’s comics and 60’s cartoon shows) looked and behaved quite differently from the version that evolved in the 90’s. He went from being a clean-cut do-gooder to a rather wild, edgy and unpredictable hero, with the arrogance of his royal lineage but with compassion born out of his time being raised among common surface dwellers. In the 2010s, he’s gone back to his clean cut look, but retained the edginess.

Aquaman through the years (left to right): 1) Clean-cut look of the 1960’s and 70’s.
2) sporting long hair and beard from 1994; soon after, he lost his hand and it was replaced by a harpoon hook.
3) the current “clean and mean” look of the 2010’s.

Warner Bros. made a good call to go with the 1990’s wild look and found the perfect casting in charismatic 39-year-old Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa, who is surely getting a ton of hits on his Instagram page this month as Aquaman opens to big box-office numbers in theatres around the world.

The cast is rounded out with a host of big names/great actors (not necessarily the same thing) like Nicole Kidman (playing Aquaman’s mother Atlanna), Temuera Morrison (as his human father, Thomas Curry), Patrick Wilson (as King Orm, Aquaman’s half brother), Amber Heard (as princess Mera), Dolph Lundgren (as her father, King Nereus), Willem Dafoe (king’s advisor Vulko) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (as mercenary/pirate Black Manta).

I will repeat what every other reviewer has said about the movie – the world building is pretty spectacular. We have become used to seeing alien worlds in sci-fi films and take for granted that with CGI, there is no limit to what can be rendered on screen in a live action film. I guess the novelty here is that the ‘alien’ world of Atlantis is situated in the deep oceans of our own planet. It is depicted in incredible detail…ancient ruins, modern high-tech cities, fantastical underwater creatures and the post-human evolutions of Atlanteans, including the Fishermen and the dreaded Trench! I had to constantly pan my eyes from one corner of the screen to the other to absorb all the detail. Watching it on a giant IMAX screen is the only way to see it! There are several action set-pieces and all of these are immensely entertaining, including the early submarine sequence, the chase in Sicily and the jaw-dropping final battle.

The only exception to the whole look and feel were the women’s costumes. Both Amber Heard and Nicole Kidman looked rather uncomfortable and ridiculous in their form fitting outfits; Jason Momoa on the other hand looked just fine, as he finally emerged in his signature gold and green outfit towards the end of the movie.

The problems begin when the action stops. That’s when people have to talk to each other and it starts feeling a bit like the Star Wars prequels directed by George Lucas in the 90’s; Oscar-nominated actors look ill-at-ease delivering their lines and even we in the audience are just waiting for them to stop talking and do something else! Case-in-point were the scenes involving Jason Momoa and Amber Heard, as I could see no chemistry between them whatsoever (in sharp contrast to say, Gal Gadot and Chris Pine in Wonder Woman or Henry Cavill and Amy Adams in Man of Steel and Superman v Batman). There were exceptions though – when Aquaman shares a drink with his father in a bar, or when Vulko is training young Arthur Curry to become Aquaman, there seems to be genuine warmth between the characters.

It’s a pity we no longer live in the era of memorable movie scores; I think lazy music directors find it too easy to splice in some pop or rock song into a key movie scene and this is the same thing with Aquaman as well. Songs like Pitbull’s Ocean to Ocean (which inexplicably samples Toto’s Africa, just because the scene is set in the Sahara desert) or Roy Orbison’s lovely She’s a Mystery to Me, just seem to stick out like a sore thumb.

Irrespective of these specific complaints, the overall movie is entertaining, mainly on the strength of Jason Momoa’s screen presence, the action sequences and of course, the incredible underwater world of Atlantis. In spite of mixed reviews from critics, Aquaman has already raked in big money since opening in China a couple of weeks ago and is expected to open big in North America this weekend. Warner Bros. must be relieved that their standalone superhero movies (Wonder Woman being the other one) are seeing better traction than their ensemble films like Suicide Squad and Justice League. Surely the way forward is to continue exploring the individual stories (and also ensuring that Zack Synder doesn’t direct any of them!). At the same time, I can well imagine Warner Bros. considering an on-going TV series that further explores the worlds, cultures and peoples of Atlantis, perhaps with just the supporting characters, just as Marvel has done with S.H.I.E.L.D. or Disney is about to do next year with The Mandalorian series set in the Star Wars universe.

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