Aquaman: A big dumb entertaining CGI acid trip, and an empty-calorie seafood feast for the eyes

By Jim Slotek

Rating: B

A big dumb acid-trip of a super-hero movie, Aquaman is relentless, noisy, entertaining nonsense – particularly in 3D IMAX - as overlong as any of them, but not boring, and as I say, at times trippy (imagine an octopus playing drums).

It has the by-now-predictable elements of the genre, a reluctant inheritor of great-power/great-responsibility, a McGuffin capable of destroying worlds (if it’s Marvel, it’s the Tesseract, if it’s DC’s Aquaman, it’s the Trident of Atlan, a talisman supposedly involved in the ancient destruction of Atlantis itself).

Jason Momoa and Amber Heard in Aquaman. Not all tridents are created equal.

Jason Momoa and Amber Heard in Aquaman. Not all tridents are created equal.

To stake his claim to the throne of Atlantis – and not incidentally, head off an invasion of the surface by the current unscrupulous King Orm (Patrick Wilson) – big, gruff Arthur (Jason Momoa), a half-Atlantean surface dweller by dint of his mother the Queen (Nicole Kidman)’s love affair with a human lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) simply has to find this long-lost trident to present as his bona fide to be king and save the day.

That seems simple enough – almost Raiders of the Lost Ark-ish in its simplicity of purpose (the search moves swiftly from the ocean to the Sahara to Sicily to an undersea sea with dinosaurs and krakens). So how does this story get to be two-and-a-half hours long? Well, you lard it – with one extraneous villain and, especially fights and battles (some between different sects of Atlanteans, resembling fish and crabs). 

James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring) painting with a humongous palette and enough CGI to light a city, manages to lighten the mood of cascading action with visual gags (example: the aforementioned octopus and a wedding dress largely made of jellyfish) and with the biker-dude wisecrackery of Momoa’s Aquaman, always ready with an insult even when getting the sea-snot beaten out of him. During the first of two “battles to the death” with his half-brother, he responds to Orm’s stentorian threats by calling him a “dick.” Sophomoric, yes, but appreciated following a string of leaden DC superhero tent-pole films like Justice League and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Arthur even has an equally-super angry comic sidekick, Princess Mera (Amber Heard), with whom to trade insults as their pursuers cause destruction damage all over Sicily.

These pursuers include the high-tech pirate Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a signature Aquaman villain of comic book fame going back 50 years, who’s in this movie for that reason alone. You could remove him entirely from the plot, and it would change nothing (and the movie would clock in at a more kid-friendly two hours or less). 

That said, the last act is a constant stream of CGI monsters, some of them derivative (are those Jurassic Park compys on the beach in the undersea sea?), others are impressive marine nightmares seemingly tributes to Bosch or Giger. The final battle features a giant King of the Brine crab-creature that would be at home on Godzilla’s Monster Island.

It has its faults and narrative logic holes (Why is Arthur, who can talk to and command fish, able to summon an army of same at the end, but doesn’t do it at the beginning of the movie when he’s getting his butt kicked? And if what I think is a Mosasaur has him in its jaws, why doesn’t he just tell it to let him go? ). Still, compared to the jumbled mess that was Justice League (where this rebooted character was introduced), Aquaman seems less forced and more committed to its noisy silliness. It’s an eyeful, even at a length where Visine is recommended.

Aquaman. Directed by James Wan. Starring Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Nicole Kidman. Opens wide, Friday, December 21.