2 stars (out of 4)
When you get motion sickness on a choppy boat, you’re supposed to stare out at the horizon. Experts say that the fixated sight will immediately calm the senses. For the wildly unstable Aquaman, I suggest you keep your eyes on star Jason Momoa. He’s a hirsute beast of a man that could probably sear your heart with the power of his gleaming green eyes. In another life, he probably modeled for 1980s cheesy romance novel covers. What a perfectly cast superhero.
Take away Momoa’s steady presence, and you’re looking at an overstuffed mess that provides entertainment purely in an OMG-this-is-a-disaster kind of way. Never before and hopefully never again will you catch maverick actor Willem Dafoe in a slicked-back man-bun exclaiming, “You’re out of your element — literally!” or Amber Heard attempting to explain the history of the world. (Well, secret underwater world). Momoa and Heard abruptly transport to the Sahara Desert to a kinetic version of the Toto song “Africa.” It’s gonna take some time to undo the things we have on screen.
Aquaman is both a follow-up to last year’s Justice League and a sort-of origin story. Arthur Curry is the “bastard son” of the magical Queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman) and a lonely lighthouse watchman (Temuera Morrison). This makes him an exotic, if exiled, specimen. Arthur grows up on land but has the capacity to breathe and see and live under the sea. Years later, his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson in a blonde wig) wants to start a war against everyone who lives on the surface. In one scene, piles of garbage are dumped back onto the shore. TV talking heads are outraged and scared.
It’s Heard — playing a red-headed princess named Mera — who attempts to recruit Aquaman to step forward, lead his people and rule his kingdom. Following in the long and clichéd tradition of reluctant heroes, he initially refuses the plea for help. He just wants to hang out in a bar. Fear not, he’ll change his mind soon enough. Let the underwater games begin! There’s a nifty new Trident at stake, as well.
Aquaman has been in development in 2004, even before Vincent Chase starred in the James Cameron-directed movie on Entourage. The pros were scared off by the massive undertaking that is Atlantis — and in an age before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a fish tale was no sure thing. Digital technology has only become more sophisticated in that span. And yet director James Wan’s CGI-enhanced effects looked distractingly fake. I kept wondering how the talented technicians made Heard’s hair fan out, Peacock-style, underwater. After a long 2 hours and 20 minutes, the spectacle just, ahem, washed over me.
Even with a seemingly sky-high budget, there’s something low-rent about this film. Most of the actors recite their lines with a wooden delivery. The miscast Wilson was more convincing playing a selfish jerk on Girls, while Heard sleepwalks through her part and has zero chemistry with Momoa. (Let’s never underestimate the skill of acting naturally while in a costume in front of a green screen ever again.) The three male screenwriters try very hard to inject some levity into their clunky script, assuming audiences will laugh at musty references to Fight Club and The Karate Kid.
The best I can say about Aquaman — and this is a big compliment — is that it’s first live-action D.C. Comics movie in which a superhero actually appears to be having fun. Batman, Superman, the Suicide Squad, even our beloved Wonder Woman tend to behave as if they just lost their 401(k) savings during the apocalypse. Momoa’s Aquaman is loose and laid-back and good times. Excited audiences all over the world are already hooked by this elusive attribute. I’d rather throw it back in the ocean.
Aquaman opens in theaters on Friday, December 21