Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Movie review: Aquaman, dir James Wan (2018)

This playful and imaginative movie has a strong environmental message but it is very long and complicated and relies a bit too heavily on CGI and other special effects. There are several important relationships involving Aquaman (Jason Momoa). One is with his mother, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), a queen of Atlantis, who conceives Arthur when she is living in the terrestrial world with his father, Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison). She is reclaimed by Atlantis and is sent to the Trench where presumably she is devoured by the monsters that live there. Aquaman spends part of his life as a young man in the sea and part of it in the terrestrial world (nobles from Atlantis can live above water, the rest of its people cannot, and will die if exposed to the air). One day he is visited by a princess from the deep named Mera (Amber Heard) who asks him to come back to help to prevent King Orm (Patrick Wilson), Arthur’s half-brother, from taking command of all the people who live under the sea and leading an army against the people in the world above the surface. The relationship with Mera is the second important relationship he has in the movie. She is an ally.

Arthur eventually agrees and goes down with Mera to meet with Vulko (Willem Dafoe), who had trained Arthur when he had been a boy and who is now King Orm’s “vizier”. Vulko secretly gives Mera a canister that is meant to contain a message but the technology that will allow the message to be transmitted has been lost. Mera and Arthur escape from Atlantis and go in search of the machine that will allow them to learn the secrets of the device. They go to the Sahara and end up under the dunes in an abandoned city that existed in the region in the days before the desert took over from the sea. They use a machine that has gears and other contraptions, to discover the secret hidden in the canister then head off to Sicily. Here, Mera enjoys for the first time the pleasures of the world above the waves and they are confronted by Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and some soldiers from Atlantis.

Manta had come up against Arthur earlier, during the film’s opening sequence. Manta is a pirate and he had occupied a Russian sub looking for treasure. But his father is killed during the raid when Arthur, who the two are fighting, refuses to lift a torpedo off his father. Manta never forgets the wrong done to him by Arthur and he accepts a commission given to him by King Orm to kill Arthur and Mera. This relationship with Manta is the third important relationship that Arthur has in the movie. He is an enemy.

Mera and Arthur defeat the attackers in a spectacular series of scenes and then Mera steals a fishing boat in order to get to two islands. But the boat enters a storm and then the monsters from the Trench attack them. Arthur grabs a flare and lights it and Mera and he dive down into the water, fleeing the swarms of creatures. They enter a swirling column of water and light that turns out to be a portal that takes them to a world they could never have dreamed of. Once there, they make some important discoveries but I won’t go into the details because it would spoil the story for people who have not seen the movie. I have revealed enough already. Suffice it to say that Arthur has to prove himself to be deserving in order to uncover a weapon that he can then use to defeat King Orm.

The relationship with King Orm is the fourth important relationship that Arthur has to handle in order to be successful. King Orm is of course an enemy. So Arthur has three key allies (four if you count Vulko) and two key enemies in this movie. This kind of complexity is part of what makes the movie a bit difficult to negotiate and you really have to concentrate at times in order to get all the details necessary to understand the story.

There is something in this Cinderella story that reminded me of the backstory to ‘Lord of the Rings’. The weapon Arthur must uncover in order to win the battle against King Orm is kind of like the One True Ring. But there is also something here of the original ‘Star Wars’ film, where Luke Skywalker was revealed as the possessor of innate talents that he would need to master in order to triumph.

The difficulties facing Arthur and the way he goes about overcoming them made me think of those two precedents. Which is not a bad thing, since both of those artworks (the original 1976 ‘Star Wars’ film and the 1937 novel ‘The Hobbitt’) have managed to hold water (excuse the pun) for a fair number of years. Despite the fact that they have been watched and read by millions of people, they still seem to offer individuals the kinds of stories that they want to be told about humanity. There is also something reminiscent of the ‘Harry Potter’ franchise in the character of Arthur, whom King Orm deprecatingly refers to as a “half-blood” because his father was from the terrestrial world. King Orm initially has success convincing the Atlanteans of his own, superior, claim to the throne compared to Arthur’s. The plebeian Arthur and his father in one scene are shown drinking beers in a bar (an American pub), and so the demotic feel of the kind of virtue that is on display in the movie is strongly emphasised.

This movie also has echoes of the 2009 James Cameron film ‘Avatar’ in that is has a very strong environmental message. Part of the reason that King Orm and his allies are angry with the people who live beyond the confines of the sea is because of the pollution and other depredations that people have burdened the oceans with for generations.

There’s also a metafictional aspect generally to films being made from comics, which at the time of their first flourishing were considered to be forms of demotic culture, and low-class. Even the paper they were printed on was cheap, and they were consumed then mostly thrown away immediately after reading. But an analogous trajectory belongs to the novel, which even in the late 18th century was considered to be pretty trashy and suitable only for the likes of impressionable young women. So the “rags-to-riches” theme in ‘Aquaman’ is apposite in this regard, in that it reminds us that what to one generation can appear to be rubbish turns out for later generations to be a concern for the mainstream.

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