Films can live or die based on their opening sequences, as without a strong beginning even the best films can lose the interest of their viewers. Whilst an initial let-down can be addressed if a film is strong enough to recover trust, for a mediocre film a poor opening is a killer. Aquaman is not a good film as it is, but it also suffers very much from a poor opening.
Telling the tale of a man born to an underwater queen and a lighthouse operator who is heir apparent to the sea-dwelling empire his mother once ruled but has abandoned his claim to the throne, Aquaman begins with a lengthy prologue showing how said queen, played by Nicole Kidman, was found injured by the lighthouse keeper, played by Temuera Morrison, and their almost wordless love story. They bear a son, then some fish people come to catch Kidman and she leaves the boy with his father on land. The boy grows up, is bullied, finds out he can talk to fish, and then becomes Jason Mamoa. It feels like this sequence goes on for a long time, and is not carried out with much panache.
The film proper starts eventually in media res, however the massive prologue ruins the drama by beginning with a bad flavour. Aquaman takes ages to get going and when it does, it’s very silly, but not in a fun way. A submarine is boarded by underwater pirates and Mamoa turns up to save the day, being the superhero that he is, but one of the pirates is working for the King of Atlantis, sort of, who is looking to start a war with the surface world as they keep polluting the seas. The whole thing is ludicrous, but it takes itself too seriously to get a laugh.
Director James Wan appears to be less sure of himself than usual. As such, Aquaman is a film suffering from an identity crisis, both in terms of tone and style. Pseudo-sentimental scenes sit side-by-side with action-hero quips, and though there are a few large-scale single-shot sequences—of which Wan is fond and skilled—a lot of it is done without flair. Some supposedly tense moments are interrupted by odd camera angles or editorial choices, including one where an entirely out-of-the-blue point-of-view shot shows arms, as if the audience was playing a first-person shooter on a console. At another moment Mamoa turns to the camera, wordlessly breaking the fourth wall to share a look with his viewers. This is jarring, as are the moments slowed down without being shot in slow-motion—the footage slows in a stuttered way—where Mamoa is walking or flicking his hair or generally existing. It reeks of audience manipulation to show us how manly and cool and masculine and sexy Mamoa is as Aquaman, and feels as unnecessary as a slow-motion shot of a bikini-clad woman running in slow motion would. It’s cheap, and that hits the film hard.
The script doesn’t do Aquaman any favours either. On-the-nose dialogue—presumably to maintain some level of consistency with Zack Snyder’s vision of the Justice League, of which Aquaman is a member—and convoluted plotting make this a stinker on the page, so there’s no wonder it comes across badly on-screen. Each scene is either action or exposition, with nothing else happening. There is explaining, then explaining again, then explaining what we already know, explaining what can be inferred from visuals, explaining what happened five minutes ago, explaining what is happening now, explaining what will happen next, explaining that leads to flashbacks, and even explaining within flashbacks. Considering this, it’s surprising how many big names crop up in this film. Along with Mamoa, Morrison, and Kidman, the cast includes Wan-regular Patrick Wilson as the current King and Mamoa’s half-brother, Dolph Lundgren as king of another race of underwater people and Amber Heard as his daughter who has switched sides to help Mamoa, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as the aforementioned pirate who is later given some undersea technology which he immediately and expertly takes apart and rebuilds into a bizarre suit that makes him look like a villain from the 90s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers series, and Willem Dafoe as the King’s advisor who early on in the extended prologue is digitally de-aged to dish out some advice to Mamoa’s younger incarnation. With that particular sequence the usual problems with de-aging are present, in that the young Defoe looks manufactured and therefore lifeless. The technology is good, but not good enough yet.
On the subject of effects, the CGI in Aquaman is not that great. I suspect that is because there is a huge amount of it, and so to keep costs down a lot of it was done quickly. Armies of fish people riding sharks and giant seahorses fight crustacean warriors and so forth, plus there’s a giant sea monster voiced by Julie Andrews of all people, but it’s meaningless as it’s so obviously pixels.
I gave Aquaman a fair shot but it was a struggle even reaching the one-hour mark. The music is often insufferably trite, such as a moment where Pitbull’s reimagining of Toto’s Africa plays just as our hero is in a plane flying over the coast of—you guessed it—Africa. Getting to the end was hard work. This is not because I’m any kind of superhero snob, which I’m not, but entirely due to Aquaman just not being very good. It may well have made its budget back, but that doesn’t make it a success. Money isn’t everything, and in the case of Aquaman, you can tell.