Aquaman film review: a candy-coloured studio-dictated desecration

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There are objectively bad movies, and then there are movies as objectively bad as Aquaman: the kind of candy-coloured studio-dictated desecration the late comedian Bill Hicks would likely describe using words such as “Satan’s spawn” and “devil’s jizz.”

The DCEU blockbuster arrives the same year as Avengers: Infinity War, which marked a new low in studio-driven cash grabs. It also rather terrifyingly exemplified the willingness of contemporary audiences (including critics) to be steered like lemmings off a cliff, into a cinematic wasteland where the medium of motion pictures has regressed – when it comes to visual elegance and satisfying storylines – to a state more primitive than its origins.

Aquaman was directed by James Wan, an Australian who became a Hollywood gun for hire after breaking through with the low budget horror film Saw. He lacquers plastic décor and sets that resemble Windows desktops and establishing shots that look like screensavers with a sticky artificial sheen. The function of this gleaming pile of visuals is to then light them up with blindingly bright computer effects, in service of a single core message – ‘look, shiny!’ – repeated ad infinitum. The bombast is joyless and moments when the film attempts a modicum of dramatic meaning are even worse.

In one scene, the ripped titular hero (Jason Momoa) encounters Princess Mera (Amber Heard) playing a flute on a small boat, beneath a creamy watercolour sunset. In a wishy-washy exchange typifying Aquaman’s algorithm-like dialogue, Mera, dressed in clashing lipstick red hair and gaudy green jumpsuit, wistfully informs her super buff companion that he is “the bridge” between the land and the water; the spiritual force capable of connecting earth’s two disparate fundamental properties. “I can see that now,” she says, while proverbial fingernails run down the blackboard. “Can you?”

The bald truth is that action scenes in studio-dictated brand assets such as Aquaman are, in effect, directed by nobody.

Mera’s inconsequential role in the narrative is visualised in one shot that swaps her out for Willem Dafoe (who plays Vulko, a functionary high up the pecking order in Atlantis) as the camera swings behind her and Aquaman’s backs. Rarely are the roles of the male mentor and the nymphet so confusingly meshed. The plot regurgitates elements part and parcel with standard-issue medieval stories, endless yakety yak contemplating matters such as duelling dynasties, family and political allegiances, provocation and conciliation during wartime and the question of who is the ‘true’ king.

Certainly not the wicked Orm aka Ocean Master (Patrick Wilson), who has the gall to admonish his enemies for belonging to “a kingdom of bloated philosophies.” Perhaps he is speaking from the frustrated perspective of an antagonist of a film that has no philosophies at all – aside from an obvious inclination to keep the DCEU a homogenised entity so broadly appealing it ultimately appeals, on a personal level, to almost nobody at all. The film’s opening narration snatches a quote from Jules Vern to imply a fraudulent spiritual largesse; this film has the mythological heft of a wet t-shirt commercial.

The story moves from the sea to the desert to a lonely pier where a humble lighthouse keeper, played by New Zealand actor Temuera Morrison, waits for Nicole Kidman (Aquaman’s mother) to emerge from the water. The bloated 143 minute running time stretches what could have been breezy Saturday matinee globetrotting escapades into dispensable slow moving portions, calculated to show the hero landing buttered side up no matter the circumstance. James Wan, who can be an exciting director (with an oeuvre including the sensational Fast & Furious 7) finds room to experiment in handsome scene-to-scene transitions, such as morphing the frame into a snow cone, but never in actual scenes themselves: the artistic equivalent of a splash of salad dressing.

It was recently reported that Marvel executives approached Argentinian filmmaker Lucrecia Martel about potentially directing a Black Widow movie, telling told her “don’t worry about the action scenes” because “we will take care of that.” The common take was that this provided another example of institutionalised sexism in Hollywood, the director’s gender restricting her access to key parts of the filmmaking process. But the bald truth is that action scenes in studio-dictated brand assets such as Aquaman are, in effect, directed by nobody. If artists like Wan or Martel use words such as  “auteur” or “artistic integrity” in pre-production meetings they can expect to get laughed at (or frog marched) out of the room.<

Superhero movies occasionally have a strong authorial sense (like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) and/or become interesting cultural events using old narrative templates to reflect modern sentiments (like Black Panther). Aquaman is neither, with a cookie cutter style that is chillingly inhuman. You could remove all names from the end credits and no audience member would care; no-one would bat an eyelid. Like Avengers: Infinity War, Aquaman was designed to reduce viewers to a state of numbness where they are incapable of thinking or feeling. And it was made by people who seemed to have arrived at that point well before their audience.

11 responses to “Aquaman film review: a candy-coloured studio-dictated desecration

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  2. Oh well, have you ever attempted to read a Marvel comic as an adult, they’re just as bad, or worse. And to some extent perhaps this is what movies as an art form are best at doing at these days, once CGI became a thing. Not saying it’s not cr*p even compared to the others, I haven’t seen it, this is why I read the reviews, in a delicious circle of irony.

  3. I have to wonder. Do you look for intellectual stimulation when you visit a circus?

    What a load of quasi-intellectual mumbo jumbo. This movie is what it is. A bright, colourful representation of a bright, colourful art-form. I can only imagine that you don’t read comics. Perhaps the next time you venture into a movie of this type you should either take someone with you to explain the genre, or unlock the child that must lie somewhere within your inner cynic to do the job.

  4. I suppose it’s only fair that a very bad film should attract very bad reviewers…

    At least the film didn’t pontificate, take itself so painfully serious or have its head so far up its own end credits.

    Thank goodness someone who knows what’s what is there to witness all these poor lemmings tumble down the cliff

  5. Aquaman, the movie concept, was a running gag in the HBO Entourage series. The fictional Vinnie Chase, finally achieved international stardom when cast in the role. The fictional version was directed by James Cameron and provided some real insights into the marketing machinations behind unpromising material. That was 2005 and now here we are almost fifteen years later. Is this how long it takes to bring a mediocre concept to fruition?

  6. Haha, this review tells us that there’s no high art of the gender dysphoria universe here.
    Virtue signalling the no compliance with race and gender hierarchy and the snowflake’s view of fun being somehow forbidden for youth culture.

  7. Excellent analysis of the lack luster feel that I had when leaving the cinemas after watching it. I had the feeling that this was a flop when I was making jokes in my head relating some of the characters to general grievous’ fish like appearance and I nearly burst out laughing after seeing the ridiculous black manta element that honestly looked like an enemy out of ant man more than a child seeking revenge for the death of his father and the reflection of Aquaman’s mistake in not showing mercy.

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