Aquaman (2018)

2019 #55
James Wan | 143 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13

Aquaman

DC Comics have had a turbulent time of it on the big screen these past few years. After Zack Snyder’s Marmite Superman reboot Man of Steel they tried to get in on the Marvel-inspired “cinematic universe” boom with the unfairly-derided Batman v Superman and the behind-the-scenes mess that was Justice League, in between which the similarly “buggered about in post” Suicide Squad did them no favours. But they also attracted a lot of praise for Wonder Woman, mainly because it starred a female superhero (not unheard of, but a rarity on screen, and even rarer for a female superhero film to be good), and, earlier this year, Shazam! So maybe their fortunes are on the up again, especially as anticipation is high for both of their 2020 efforts, February’s Birds of Prey and June’s Wonder Woman 1984.

In amongst all of that, in pretty much every respect (release date, critical standing, etc), we have Aquaman. Like Wonder Woman, its tied to the Justice League attempt at launching a shared continuity between these films; but, also like Wonder Woman, it doesn’t seem to have been tarnished by that association, grossing over $1.1 billion at the box office (Justice League maxed out at just over $650 million). While something about it obviously clicked with the general audience, in some respects it’s as much of a Marmite film as Man of Steel — although, tonally, they could hardly be further apart.

For thems that don’t know, Aquaman is Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), a half-human half-Atlantean chap, who was raised as the former by his lighthouse-keeper dad but has the underwater fish-communicating powers of the latter, which he uses to do superheroic things like rescuing submarines from pirates (those being modern high-tech pirates, natch). Arthur also has claim to the throne of Atlantis, but he doesn’t want it and there are plenty in the kingdom who would dispute it. But when the current king, Orm (Patrick Wilson), attempts to unite the undersea kingdoms to attack the world of men, his betrothed, Mera (Amber Heard), goes in search of Arthur, to convince him to return to his rightful place and blah de blah de blah.

Searching for something. An understanding of the plot, probably.

Yeah, the plotting is mostly sub-Game of Thrones fantasy gobbledegook, attached to an Indiana Jones-inspired quest plot that sends this sea-based superhero to the Saharan desert (in which he arrives to a rap-based cover of Toto’s Africa. I shit you not). That’s just one reason the film stretches out to a mind-boggling 143 minutes (aka almost two-and-a-half hours). It does feel like several movies stitched together; like someone couldn’t quite decide whether they wanted to do “medieval fantasy but under the sea” or “a globetrotting Indiana Jones adventure”, so just did both at the same time.

Along the way, some of it is thoroughly cheesy — the dialogue, the outright fantasy-ness, the vibrant colour palette, the music choices (see above). It’s hard to know if it’s being deliberately cheesy, or if someone felt this stuff was a good idea in seriousness. Whether or not it works is a matter of personal taste, but at least it’s noticeably different from its po-faced label brethren or the slick factory-produced adventure-comedy tone of the Mouse House competition.

There’s an odd vein of ’80s-ness, too: some of the plot directions, Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score, that aforementioned song choice again (whether you despise that song or find it kinda tackily amusing is perhaps a bellwether for your opinion of the film.) This feels like the kind of undersea adventure movie someone would’ve made in the wake of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Conan the Barbarian, if only they’d had the effects tech back then. Except, of course, by using all the CGI that current tech allows, it’s also very much a modern graphics-laden blockbuster. Those two eras, the 1980s and the 2010s, kind of butt up against each other — it’s not being outright an ’80s emulation like, say, Stranger Things; it’s more this weird influence that sometimes rears its head.

Imagine this in IMAX 3D. Just imagine.

That includes in some of the action scenes, which were shot on real sets with real actors (gasp!) Not all of them, naturally (there’s a mindbogglingly massive undersea battle involving thousands of soldiers and sea creatures), but those that were done for real are incredibly staged and shot — a running rooftop fight in Italy is beautifully done. The general imagery is often fantastic, too. Not always (sometimes it’s just fine; sometimes it’s too much), but there are incredible, impressive, comic-book-panel-on-screen shots here. So it’s a real shame that Warner have forced a choice between 3D or a shifting IMAX aspect ratio on Blu-ray. As regular readers know, I enjoy 3D and I love a shifting aspect ratio, so being forced to pick is upsetting. Marvel normally tick both those boxes by including the IMAX ratio only on their 3D releases — annoying for 2D-only IMAX fans, I know, but I’m well set. Warner have done the opposite, however, with the 2D releases including the IMAX ratio and the 3D remaining locked to 2.40:1. To say I’m disappointed would be an understatement, because the 3D adds so much to the big sequences, but I can imagine the IMAX ratio shift would too — together, they’d be perfect, but Warner won’t let us have that. So, I did enjoy the film’s 3D a lot, but at some point I’m going to make time to watch it again in 2D for the ratio shifts. I’ll plump for it in 4K too because, considering that the film’s colours are already pretty vibrant in SDR, I bet they’d pop delightfully with HDR.

Setting format complaints aside, I had a lot of fun with Aquaman. The spectacle is so genuinely spectacular, and the humour and/or cheesiness is so don’t-know-whether-to-laugh-or-groan fun, and the overlong running time stuffed so full with so many different ideas, that I couldn’t help but find the whole heady mix downright entertaining.

4 out of 5

Aquaman is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Fast & Furious 7 (2015)

aka Furious Seven

2016 #52
James Wan | 132 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, Japan & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Fast & Furious 7The franchise that can never make up its mind about what each instalment’s called continues with its most outrageously ludicrous entry yet.

Picking up from the events of the last one, this time our ‘family’ of car-racing heisters are targeted by their previous enemy’s brother, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). After Shaw’s first attempt to kill our heroes fails, they’re recruited by covert ops agent Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell) to obtain a computer surveillance program, on the promise that, if they’re successful, Nobody will help them deal with Shaw. Because when you’re in charge of a covert ops team, you don’t have your own guys for that kind of thing. Anyway, this leads us on a globe-trotting mission that involves things like parachuting cars into Azerbaijan and using cars to leap between skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi.

So yes, the action is ridiculous and implausible. Even the stuff that doesn’t seem physically impossible is overblown. But it’s so ludicrous that the film can’t possibly be trying to claim it’s real anymore, and therefore it kind of works — they’ve committed to it. Though anyone who started out enjoying this series for its broadly-realistic car-racing thrills must be pretty disappointed in it by this point.

Despite that, the series is beginning to feel increasingly “fans only”. That’s the way of all things these days, I suppose. Long gone are the days when movie series aimed at accessibility, each entry fundamentally a standalone adventure for a popular hero. Serialisation is the new discreteness, and it pays dividends for Marvel and, indeed, for Fast & Furious: in the same year as the return of Star Wars, the return of Jurassic Park, the return of the Avengers, the return of James Bond, and the return to form of Pixar, Furious 7 was still the third highest-grossing film worldwide, and sixth of all time.

But I still find it remarkable how well it did at the box office, because while most of those other films are actually very accessible to newcomers, this is resolutely a film for those well-versed in the franchise. Its story joins the dots between several previous films — as far back as Tokyo Drift, four films and nine years ago — but seems to assume you’ll know what those dots contain, because it only shows the joins. Even as someone who knows what events are being linked (that Tokyo Drift connection has been long-awaited!), it feels a bit disconnected and piecemeal. And it doesn’t help anyone that Tokyo Drift’s Lucas Black looks like he’s aged every single day of the nine years since his last appearance…

Of course, you can’t ignore that part of the reason for the film’s financial success is the death of Paul Walker, particularly as it occurred halfway through production and the filmmakers understandably felt the need to give one of the series’ primary stars a fitting send-off. With seemingly little of his part shot, his performance is mostly faked. It was created with a mixture of techniques, many of them pioneering — while we’ve seen computers being used to generate a performance for a deceased actor for over 15 years now (I believe Gladiator was the first), those tend to be for very short scenes and/or filtered through some other medium (like Laurence Olivier appearing on a videoscreen in Sky Captain), whereas here they’ve attempted to create a co-lead-sized role. Truthfully, the effect is variable. If you’re looking, it’s always obvious (well, I say that — if it was so good that you couldn’t see it, you wouldn’t know you were seeing it). However, if you’re not looking too hard then a lot of it is very well done… though some remains pretty glaring. At the end of the day, you know why they did it, but it still rather draws attention to itself. However, a post-climax finale is a nice send-off for Walker (again, you can’t deny that it’s more about paying tribute to the actor than writing out the character), and represents a moment of catharsis that clearly worked for the cast, crew, and the series’ die-hard fans.

The quality of other elements is rockier. Kurt Russell’s spy is a cool new character, but can’t escape the feeling he’s been introduced to play a bigger role in the inevitable sequels. Jason Statham has clearly been cast for his ability to fight, which he does well enough, but a bit more dialogue-based antagonism might’ve added some flavour. He gets a very cool opening scene, though. And while a coherent story is not likely to be at the forefront of many people’s minds when it comes to these movies, the plot is nonetheless scattered with holes. Like, the gang’s entire motivation to undertake the mission is so they can borrow the software to track down Deckard… but he keeps showing up anyway.

But hey, what does it matter? The point is the big dumb fun of the action sequences, be they well-choreographed and -shot fisticuffs, excellent stunt driving, or computer-generated ridiculousness. Is it okay to just give a movie’s plot a free pass like that? Sometimes, I think it is. Furious 7 is an action movie, in a fairly pure sense of the term, and action it delivers.

4 out of 5