AQUAMAN – derivative, to the last drippy drop

There’s adventure, romance, humour, heartfelt homilies and throwaway lines swimming at you from every which way. Is there fun to be had with this special effects dripping extravaganza that is Aquaman? Yes. Have you seen it all before? Oh yes.

Take a deep breath, here we go. The premise of the story is that “Arthur” (Jason Momoa), the son of a human father and an Atlantean mother, is the true king of Atlantis but is initially uninterested in assuming the role. He has turned his back on Atlantis, believing his mother was executed for her cross species relationship. But his full Atlantean half brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson) is bent on uniting the various underwater kingdoms so he can  launch an all out war on the surface world, driven in part by his hatred of how humans have polluted the oceans. Atlantean Princess Mera (Amber Heard) beseeches Arthur to confront Orm, take the crown and prevent a global catastrophe. But to win, Arthur will need to find and secure a sacred trident, and that means a quest. Whew.

The references to other films and stories come at you so fast it’s hard to keep up. In no particular order, the Down Under actors Temuera Morrison and Nicole Kidman play Arthur’s parents (and do so rather well, it has to be said) and although the parents’ romance is set in Maine, and Morrison affects an American accent, he gives his son a hongi when he greets him, and said son is covered in tattoos, not necessarily Maori but certainly Pasifika-looking. At one point, Dad even tells his son they should talk of Tai Moko, the Maori phrase for tattooing. Arthur wears a greenstone pendant around his neck. All in all, this has a Moana feel about it.

Arthur’s quest for the trident, an artefact that only the true and worthy king can wield, is of course a direct reference to Excalibur, but it also feels rather similar to Thor’s relationship to his hammer Mjolnir. Indeed Arthur’s relationship with half brother Orm brings to mind Thor’s love-hate bond with Loki. Atlantis, gleaming under the sea, is a magnificent metropolis, evoking images of Asgard, even Gondor. The presence of Hobbit actor Graeme McTavish as King Atlan reinforces the Middle Earth feel.

We learn how the Atlanteans have harnessed a special energy to power their civilisation, bringing to mind how Wakanda does the same with vibranium. In one rather odd moment, we see examples of that technology including a tall mechanical creature which looks like it’s stepped out of Star Wars.

Arthur’s quest takes him to the desert, with a sequence in a cave in search of an artefact evoking Indiana Jones.  Later a deep sea hidden world looks rather Jurassic Park-like.

Put all this together and you’d be forgiven for thinking originality is in short  supply. That’s probably true, but as mentioned in the  beginning of this review, there is fun to be had here. The visuals are spectacular, and the movie makers have done an impressive job showing the undersea dwellers moving and talking under water.  The fight and action sequences are both muscular and balletic, and the construction of this aquatic world is detailed and colourful, both in its landscapes, buildings, and creatures. It would be worth spending more to buy a 3d ticket.

The actors by and large do their work well, and there’s a host of well known faces here to populate the epic. Willem Dafoe, Dolph Lungren,Kidman and Morrison lend the tale some heft, but the focus is on Patrick Wilson’s steely grim bad guy, Jason Momoa’s tough street fighter with a comedic take on life Arthur, and Amber Heard’s Mera.

Mera is the least developed character, although she occupies a lot of screen time. I liked Wilson’s work, but let’s focus on Momoa. He is Aquaman after all. He’s big, beefy and bedraggled, with a swagger, a twinkle in his eye and a liking for a joke. Basically, an appealing hero. We don’t know where his humour comes from, as when we see him at various times as a young boy and a teenager he’s rather serious. So there’s a hole in the backstory there, but that aside Momoa gives us a lead character who stands apart from many of the other superhero folk, especially in the DC world.

But one thing prevents Aquaman from scaling truly great heights. As well as the actors deliver their lines, they are too often given cringeingly corny script to work with.

“You are the bridge between land and sea, I see that now. The question is, can you?”, asks Mera of Arthur at one point. “What can be greater than a king? A hero. A king fights for his nation. A hero fights for everyone,”is another example. Banter like this drags down Aquaman, and makes the two and a quarter hour film feel like, well, two and a quarter hours.  When it comes to dialogue, the folks over at Marvel are still comfortably ahead of their DC rivals.

There was one clunker for me, although perhaps it was intentional. We see how comfortably powerfully and speedily Atlanteans swim under water. Yet in one sequence Arthur and Mera sail to one destination in an old, slow-as-snails fishing boat. Hello!

Aquaman is a superhero spectacular which I suspect will not win over many critics, but, based on the reactions of those around me at the preview I attended, will probably do very well with audiences around the world. It is, if nothing else, a diverting and engaging entertainment over your summer holidays.

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