Aquaman

Cast: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman

Director: James Wan

Writers: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Will Beall


Aquaman, the latest instalment in the DC canon, is this preposterous miracle of a movie that manages to be fantastically, stupidly ridiculous without ever seeming to laugh at itself the way so many of us used to laugh at the fish-talking hero. That’s not an easy effect to pull off and it takes more than creativity, talent and a blockbuster budget to sustain. You need an unreserved sense of sincerity and a total, wholehearted, unironic love of the material in all its campiness, weirdness and silliness. That is part of the reason why Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice failed where Wonder Woman and Aquaman succeeded; they were produced by a studio that was embarrassed to be making comic book superhero movies. This doesn’t mean that superhero movies can’t be serious and adult, Christopher Nolan proved that they can, but too many filmmakers (Zack Snyder in particular) mistake that gloominess and grittiness for maturity. Aquaman is a mythological opera, a Shakespearian family drama and an Arthurian fable with themes of love, duty and diplomacy and an environmental message. It also happens to have a nation of crab people, a 1,000-foot leviathan voiced by Julie Andrews, and an octopus playing the drums.

Despite having already appeared in two previous films, Aquaman is very much an origin story for Jason Momoa’s scruffy, roguish swashbuckler. We learn about the circumstances of his birth, which was brought about by a forbidden romance between stranded Atlantean queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and her rescuer, lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison). Their union and the life of their son however are both threatened by the Atlantean forces sent out to bring their absconding queen to justice and so Atlanna is left with no choice but to return home where she is sentenced to death for the crime of birthing a half-breed son. Since then Arthur (Momoa) has had to grapple with being the outcast of two separate worlds. He grows up to become the long haired, impossibly buff, ornately tattooed aquatic superman we know from Justice League; a guy who just wants to be left on his own to drink, brood and protect endangered ships and submarines from the perils of the ocean. In his first solo movie Arthur emerges as a reluctant hero who, at the behest of the fiery-haired Atlantean idealist Mera (Amber Heard), embraces his destiny to save the nation that rejected him and killed his mother from the tyranny of his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), who plans to launch an attack against the land dwellers in retaliation for all of their polluting of the sea.

Aquaman adds a bit of an Indiana Jones tweak to the traditional superhero origin formula by sending Arthur and Mera on a quest in search of the legendary lost trident of Atlan, which according to the Atlantean councillor and Arthur’s mentor Vulko (Willem Dafoe), will give he who wields it the authority to rule the seven seas as Ocean Master. Thus we’re treated to an adventure story that spans the globe, bringing us to the Sahara and Siciliy, with occasional interruptions, usually by the pirate mercenary David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), so that a fight scene can happen. Personally I could have used a little more of the riddle and puzzle- solving expedition because the movie can get a little tiresome and repetitive as it gets bogged down in the underwater political conflict between the armoured shark-riding and the armoured sea horse-riding (because it’s that kind of movie) tribes. When the action starts, it is awesome and silly in equal measure. There’s a delightfully childish charm to the way Wan is so ready and willing to embrace the absurdity of scuba suited Atlantean troops and their balloon-headed leader emerging on land in broad daylight to engage in some rooftop, hand-to-hand combat. Rather than shrouding them in darkness or using choppy editing to hide the kitschier elements, Wan presents the fight and chase sequence with all the barefaced glee of a Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers kung-fu showdown. The camera view is far-reaching and the movement free-flowing, ensuring that not a single goofy detail gets missed.

It’s interesting to consider how far superhero movies have come since the days of the first X-Men movie where they decided to adorn their characters with plain black leather rather than yellow spandex for fear that they might look too silly. This is something that the earlier DC Extended Universe movies struggled with as well when they opted for a grim, murky colour palette, presumably because they felt it would help sell the audience on a superhero cinematic universe that was altogether grittier, darker and more serious than Marvel’s. Aquaman himself was assigned a steely costume dominated by black and grey. Now he’s in a movie that adorns him with the radiantly orange and green armour he wears in the comic books, where the heroine’s hair shines in lava-red splendour and where the ocean is brought to dazzling life through sparkling shades of pale blue and aqua green and every colour in between. This movie adopts such saturated hues that you’d be forgiven for thinking that you missed a deleted scene where Arthur stumbled his way into the Technicolour world of Oz. By giving the film such a rich and diverse colour scheme, Wan makes it all the easier to appreciate the wealth of detail contained within each frame from the way that Atlantis is so luminously lit by the array of sea creatures that inhabit it to the ostentatiously varied choice of armour that sea-dwellers sport, including those that come with oversized crab and lobster claws.

As outrageous and over the top as Aquaman can get, Jason Momoa grounds it all with the confidence and charm of a star destined to have a lucrative career in the movies. He adopts a persona much like that which Dwayne Johnson has spent the last decade or so perfecting; the tough but loveable doofus who could just as soon join you for a drink and get rip-roaringly plastered as he could beat you into a bloody pulp without breaking a sweat. He can be solemn and thoughtful when he wants to be and he can be badass and funny. Supporting Momoa in his star-making turn is a cast that is devotedly committed to the movie in all of its total campiness. There’s something utterly enjoyable about watching Oscar worthy actors give themselves over to a thoroughly bonkers movie and whether it works (see Alec Guinness in Star Wars) or doesn’t (see Jeremy Irons in Dungeons and Dragons) the result is always magical. Dafoe and Kidman are such actors and watching them wield tridents and ride hammerhead sharks with such sincerity and gravitas is one of the movie’s great pleasures. Another is Wilson playing the kind of whiny, diabolical villain you just love to hate, (imagine Commodus from Gladiator and you’re not far off).

Perhaps the most remarkable thing of all about Aquaman is what a surprisingly progressive movie it is. Despite the numerous fight scenes that occur and the thrillingly invigorating ways in which they’re shot, Aquaman proves itself more willing than your average superhero blockbuster to challenge the notion that all conflict can be resolved through violence alone. Even when modern Hollywood movies preach about the value and necessity of peace, co-existence and empathy, too often that idealism gets undermined when the hero ends up having to take up arms to defeat the baddie. This was one of the issues I had with Wonder Woman, a movie whose hero was a paragon of compassion, and Black Panther, a movie of political daring almost unheard of in Hollywood, which both had their heroes win their victories by punching and blasting their foes into submission. In the moments where it matters most, it isn’t strength and might that win the day in Aquaman but de-escalation, diplomacy and forgiveness. It’s not as subversive in its aversion to violence as, say, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but it is an outstanding break in the precedent set by the nihilism of the Snyder DC movies and could mark a revolutionary step forward in the evolution of the superhero genre.

★★★★

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Lion

Cast: Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman

Director: Garth Davis

Writer: Luke Davies


When I saw Lion I thought of it as the quintessential ‘movie your mum will love’. It is heartrending film with a happy ending, it’s based on a true story, and it contains emotionally powerful moments that will open the floodgates for many viewers. Oftentimes tearjerkers can be rather manipulative, preying on the audience’s sentimentality and eschewing the kind of honesty and insight that makes for great storytelling. Telling an audience to feel sad for a little boy who is alone and lost and far away from home is easy. Allowing us to understand and feel the depth of that boy’s fear, despair and confusion both as a child and as an adult, the enormity and impossibility of the task facing him, and the ambivalent pain and guilt he feels as he goes behind his adoptive parents’ backs to try and find his home and family, that is much more difficult and much more rewarding.

The first half of the film follows five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) who follows his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) to a job and is separated from him when he falls asleep on a train that he is unable to exit. When the train reaches its destination in Calcutta days later, Saroo finds himself lost in a strange city where he knows no one, doesn’t speak the language, and is unable to find a way back home. After months of struggling through hunger, poverty and nefarious characters with sinister intentions, Saroo ends up in an orphanage and before long is adopted by a generous and loving Australian couple, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham). Years later, when Saroo has grown up to become Dev Patel (star of the film’s spiritual sister Slumdog Millionaire), a party with his college classmates triggers a remembrance of his childhood and a longing to reconnect with his roots. Thus he embarks on a quest to search for his hometown and find his mother, brother and sister.

The film shows great patience in telling its story, opting to follow the young Saroo throughout its first half, trusting the audience not to lose interest before the first English word is spoken or the first recognisable, bankable star enters the plot. I’m glad that’s the approach they chose because this first half is easily the most compelling part of the film. One reason for this is Davis’ direction, where he adopts a Spielbergian child’s-eye-view to emphasise Saroo’s smallness and sense of feeling lost. Another is the performance of newcomer Sunny Pawar as the young boy, whose expressive face and childish energy allowed him to convey a wealth of emotions, even in scenes where he doesn’t speak a word, and to carry the entire film almost completely by himself (between Pawar, Jacob Tremblay and Millie Bobby Brown, it seems that child actors today are much better than they used to be). With all due respect to Patel, his performance would not have been half as affective if Pawar hadn’t been there to lay the groundwork for him.

The second half is when the plot really kicks off, as the now grown up Saroo becomes determined to find his home. While the scenes of him staring intently at Google Earth aren’t exactly what one might call cinematic, I found that I was emotionally invested enough by this point that I wanted to see where his search would lead him. It is during this portion of the plot that the film is able to raise some truly compelling questions. Questions not only concerning how Saroo can find his family, but also about whether he should. His adoptive parents have after all given him everything from unconditional love to a bright future. When Saroo makes the decision to search for his home he also makes the decision to keep it a secret from them, fearing that his pursuit would be regarded as a rejection of their love and generosity. The emotional payoff for this conflict comes in a remarkable scene where Sue, in a moment of profound vulnerability, explains to Saroo the exact reason why she and David decided to adopt him. Kidman, no doubt drawing from her own experiences as an adoptive mother, earns her Oscar nomination in this scene.

Lion is a thoroughly moving and sincere film. It can be sentimental, but only when it has earned the right to be. It is a film about identity and belonging and the estrangement that comes with not knowing who we are. Even with a family whom he loves, a place he can call home and a life of infinite possibilities, Saroo is still lost and it tears him up inside. So great is his anguish that he is ready to give up on his promising future as a hotel manager and his caring, supportive girlfriend Lucy (played by a largely underused Rooney Mara) in pursuit of the life he lost. The thought of the mother who stays up at night crying out for him and the brother who is tormented by the act of leaving him alone on that fateful night is more than he can bear. There is a stunning human story being told here and one would have to be inhuman not to be touched by it.

★★★★