Just so you know: I probably won’t win any friends or influence many people with this review, because I disliked the movie. WHAAAT? The movie that many are looking at as the “second coming” of the DCMU (DC Movie Universe); the movie that’s approaching a billion dollars in revenue, and I disliked it?
Yep. And I dislike it enough to include spoilers in this review.
I’ll start by saying that both Marvel and DC have been playing fast and loose with canon for the last twenty years or so, and I’m a traditionalist in some ways. I don’t mind some canon-bending, which Marvel’s been doing a lot, but DC has been taking canon down the alley, mugging it, breaking it into little bits, and stomping on the bits! Okay, Aquaman hasn’t ever been one of the really big DC heroes; in fact, I’ve always figured he was a ripoff of Marvel’s (Timely’s, probably) Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner. So as a kid, I read his comic more in the breach than as a regular thing, unlike the comics Superman, Batman, Green Arrow and the Flash. Heck, I read Superboy and Supergirl (not to mention the stupid Superdog and Superhorse—and once, Ghu forgive me, Supermonkey!) comics pretty regularly right up through high school. That is, once I convinced my mother—who was a devotee of Dr. Fredric Wertham—that Supes had nothing to do with Nietzsche!
I watched Superman on TV in the person of George Reeves (yes, I’m that old), and most of the superhero TV shows unto the present day… and I have to say that with the exception of Gotham, most recent DC TV shows have been stinkers. I do regularly watch Supergirl because of Melissa Benoist, who’s as cute as a button, but the show’s writing is so bad that even that show is losing its charm and attraction for me.
But back to Aquaman—now, I have nothing against Jason Momoa, in spite of the lousy Conan movie he starred in (he didn’t write it, after all); he was the best thing about the movie. And his portrayal of Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones was, for its briefness, quite watchable. But Aquaman has always been a blonde-haired blue-eyed merman up until now (figure 2). It’s a bit jarring if you’re used to the comic book. And that pitchfork! (Figure 1)—according to this movie it was his mother’s; in the Justice League movie, Batman rightfully says “I’m not the one who brought a pitchfork!” For those who want to call it a “trident,” I say, look at the word: “tri” (meaning: three); “dent” (meaning: tooth). A trident is a three-toothed (pronged) spear. This, except that it’s not curved at the tines, is a pitchfork!
Okay, on to the movie itself. Except for a brief prologue establishing AM’s birth and upbringing, it all takes place post-Justice League. Tom Curry, AM’s dad (Temuera Morrison), a Maori lighthouse keeper somewhere on the Atlantic coast of the U.S., finds Nicole Kidman… err, Atlanna, Queen of Atlantis, washed up on the rocks in a storm. She has been “fleeing an arranged marriage” and apparently went a bit too far from home; she passes out and he nurses her back to health. Cupid visits, she gets preggers, and has a kid. Apparently Vulko (Willem Dafoe), one of King Orm’s (Patrick Wilson) advisers—or maybe his dad’s, is secretly tutoring the kid as he grows because he’s (Vulko) loyal to Atlanna. I guess. Anyway, he teaches the kid to fight and to swim really, really fast, like jet-engine fast. There is no physics attached to this; apparently only Royal Atlantans can A) breathe under water as well as out of it; B) swim really, really, fast; and C) are super-strong and able to resist the incredible cold and pressure that prevails undersea once you go low enough. Oh, and D) have glowy eyes that let you see in the dark. And E) if you’re AM, you can communicate with fish, but apparently nobody else in Atlantis can.
It appears that back in the days of Plato and that crowd, Atlantis was really super technological, with steam-powered AT-ATs (well, that’s what they look like) and flying stuff, and atomic power—but they got too greedy and wanted more power, so either they pushed the wrong button, or The Gods or someone wanted to punish them for being greedy, or something like that, and there was an electrical-powered earthquake (Really! I’m not making this up!) which sank the whole kit and caboodle at once. But “the same power that sank Atlantis enabled us to breathe underwater…” WTH?
With the result seen above of A); B); C): D); and E). Oh, and some of the Atlanteans evolved further (vide “fish-men,” Figure 3) and some devolved into something resembling Fallout’s Mirelurks.
But in spite of the fact that everyone was now underwater, all their computers and stuff kept working fine, and they were able to invent plasma cannons and lasers and “hydro cannons” and like that. And more advanced computer displays than even we have, which comes in handy at times when they want to track someone, from Atlantis, who’s off in the Sahara desert.
Anyway, this Black dude (these are pretty much the only people of colour in the whole movie (unless the colour is green and blue, like the “fish-men”) who’s been raised as a Somalian pirate by his dad, whose own dad was one of the (if not the) first Black scuba divers in the U.S. Navy during WWII, but even though he was beloved by his shipmates and given a special knife with a manta ray engraved on it, the U.S. Government ignored him and he took to the sea as a pirate. Are you with me so far? So this Manta guy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is stealing a Russian submarine and killing its crew; only AM, using some kind of leverage I’ve never heard of, manages to raise the whole submarine to the surface where, despite filled ballast tanks, it just floats there waiting for the plot to advance and AM to jump into the air really high (like a porpoise, only better) and land on the sub. Are you still following? ’Cos this doesn’t even get into the main conflict of the movie, and we’re only half an hour into the 2 1/2 hours.
Anyway, Manta has stolen a super-secret U.S. stealth sub shaped vaguely like a manta; and he, his father, and other bad guys kill half the crew—the other half lock themselves into the torpedo room of the sub. But AM hits the hatch on top of the sub really hard and, despite being designed to be bigger than the hole so it seals very tightly, manages to knock it into the sub and hit a couple of bad guys, whereupon he goes in after it and makes a joke. Long story short, AM rescues the rest of the crew, kills most of the bad guys (yes, the only Black people in the movie are bad guys) and leaves Manta’s father to drown. Manta swears eternal vengeance just before his father dies.
And all of that is just the prologue to the main conflict, which is that King Orm wants to wage war on the surface because we’re polluting his ocean, and stuff like that, but to do so he has to unite the five or seven (one or two may have gone missing) Atlantean kingdoms (fortunately, there are maps so AM can keep it all straight) and become Ocean Master.
Oh, I forgot to tell you; before AM was full-grown, Queen Atlanna returned to Atlantis to wed King Orm’s dad because the Atlantans came for her and she was afraid they’d keep coming. Anyway, she married him and had King Orm, but because she’d had a “bastard half-breed child” (AM) she was exiled to “The Trench” and presumably killed by the monsters there (more on that later). So AM hates Atlantis and never wants to go there because they “killed his mother,” and King Orm hates AM because he’s his “bastard half-breed brother” who might want to claim the throne. I think. It’s all very soap-opera-ish.
Orm has to unite at least four Atlantean tribes, or factions, before he can become “Ocean Master,” with unbelievable power or powers, which isn’t made clear; and he picks on King Nereus’s (Dolph Lundgren) people to start the whole consolidation shebang. Nereus’s daughter, Mera (Amber Heard) is already engaged (and because we’re all hoity-toity underwater, he says “betrothed”) to Orm. So Orm sets up a phony attack on himself and Nereus by Mantis, running the Russian submarine (the one that stupid AM didn’t sink when he was done rescuing the crew), and Nereus declares war on the surface and joins Orm.
From here it’s all pretty predictable in comic-book terms; Orm wins a couple of battles (à la “Rocky vs. Drago”) so that AM can make a triumphant comeback after finding the mythical and mystical “Trident of King Atlan”—which will make him extremely powerful and able to defeat Orm. And guess what? He does, if you were in any doubt at all. There are a few things in all this that I want to address, to make it clear why I dislike this movie. I’ll get to them in a moment.
Number one: I didn’t dislike any of the actors; they all played their little clockwork roles in this by-the-numbers scenario. Even Dolph was relatively subdued in the few minutes of screen time he was given. I think Nicole Kidman was CGI’d in the face to make her look younger in the beginning of the move. SFX are getting better at doing that all the time; you will remember how young they made Kurt Russell look in Guardians of the Galaxy II (and the semi-fiasco of Henry Cavill’s disappearing mustach in Justice League).
Even the SFX, which are way overdone, are not my problem with this film; at times they’re extremely effective. If you thought the underwater scenes in Finding Nemo and Finding Dory were good, you’ll think parts of these are excellent. Sort of like Finding Nemo/Dory combined with the glowy aliens in The Abyss. But the filmmakers (or the SFX people at the behest of the filmmakers) seemed to be thinking “If a little bit is good, a whole bunch ought to be better!” These people seem to not have heard the expression “Less is more.”
No, my real problem—besides the simplistic, by-the-numbers-soap-operaish script that I’ve already mentioned—is that there is no reality to the script. As my wife has heard me say a thousand times: “I demand a modicum of reality with my fantasy.” I’d like some appreciation of what we here in non-comic land call “physics”—for example, gravity exists, and has several effects noted by Newton. (That’s always bothered me in superhero movies; even assuming one is super-strong, there is something called “leverage”; after all, Archimedes said something like “Give me a long enough lever and a fulcrum and I will move the world!” Which means that if Aquaman actually could lift a submarine from one off-centre point, the sub would probably break at the point of contact. It’s not designed for those kinds of stresses. There are numerous anti-physics examples in this movie.
What about breathing on land and under water, and talking under water? Well, in only one scene did Orm have to empty his lungs of water when entering the air; nobody else did. Which is patently absurd. And I think the vocal cords would vibrate slower under water because water is heavier than air; nor would (as we hear in several scenes) their voices echo the way they do. (Okay, I can accept that the underwater talking is a shortcut to make the movie easier for the audience. But I don’t have to like it.)
As Lester Del Rey told my friend Spider Robinson, “If anything can happen, who cares?” That’s my main issue with the lack of reality. And yes, I have the same problem with Harry Potter. There’s no cost to magic, and no limitations. (If you’d like to read something about magic’s costs and limitations, read The Magic Goes Away, by Larry Niven.)
What about Mera’s apparent telekinetic ability with water (and the Atlanteans’ “water holograms”)? Why is she the only one in the movie who can do this? The water holograms are kind of cool technology and possibly nearly achieveable with today’s technology, but why necessary? Mera has some kind of tracking device that shows a hologram in the air while she and AM are in the plane! And what’s with the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom scene of the “sand slides” under the desert? Are we supposed to believe that AM accidentally hit on the exact spot to stand that would dump him into this carnival ride? (Or maybe it’s more like a Peter Jackson Hobbit ride; I’m not sure.) And the underground machinery that’s been dry since Atlantis sank, are we to believe that all that machinery only needed one drop of moisture to begin working after perhaps a thousand years?
I could go on; for example, Manta is built up as a super villain using Atlantis’ advanced technology (see Figure 3), but like Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace, is disposed of relatively easily and quickly. (Characters like that are regarded as “straw men.”) The bottle that gives away the location of the trident is a modern design; even in the 18th century, bottles were not made like that, let alone in the time of Plato. And how could King Atlan know there would be a statue in the exact place with a hand shaped to hold the exact bottle with a hollow head? Did he somehow foresee the Roman Empire, which came hundreds of years after Atlantis? There is so little sense in this movie that I grew tired of it long before it was over; much like you’re probably growing tired of my tirade.
Oh, yeah—I promised to tell you about Atlanna: surprise! She didn’t die. Apparently there’s some sort of space warp in The Trench that leads to Jurassic Park. Again, WTH?
Score: Two flibbets—¤¤ and that’s because of the actors and some of the effects.
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