Black Panther, Infinity War, and now Aquaman. All three comic-book blockbusters with studio budgets exceeding 200 million dollars, all three feature some of the best visual effects of 2018, and yet all three feature some of the worst visual effects of 2018 as well. In Black Panther, an incredibly important bout of fisticuffs between hero and villain through the bowels of an underground cavern could be mistaken for a PS1 video game. With Infinity War, the greatness of Thanos is offset by the horrendous use of bobble-head Tony Stark, Downey Jr’s head planted on a CG suit whenever Iron Man is simply loitering in a street talking to Banner. And in Aquaman, obvious green screen is obvious, plaguing not only underwater conversations but land-logged one-on-ones as well, and when they’re already on location! It has been said that VFX houses are encumbered by a staggering load in Hollywood, unable to support the undue amount of work required for so many tentpoles with so many effects shots. Aquaman is just the latest casualty in that regard, though it certainly benefits from stellar action filmmaking and a director in James Wan with an occasional eye for stark-raving images. Wan’s movie is a fun ride in spite of itself. It’s hard not to cheer on the sheer gusto of a story that has time for jellyfish dresses and giant lobsters.
For the most part, Aquaman soars when on solid ground, the result of actual sets and real stuntmen providing a more visceral jolt than the cartoonish machinations of Atlantis in fake water. Wan employs crane work to exhilarating effect while Arthur, Mera, and Atlanna battle Black Manta and a cadre of sea-Stormtroopers, from the humble trappings of a simple lighthouse to the cultural whimsy and precarious architecture of Sicily, Italy. A standout sequence above and below the Mariana Trench allows Wan to flex those movie horror muscles, not to mention deliver on the promise of actual beauty and not mere eye candy. A shot of Arthur and Mera diving for the great deep as a swarm of nasty creatures follow in pursuit is something to behold. It’s a prime example of what’s possible when a filmmaker and visual effects are married to quite wicked results, which is why it’s so disappointing when the visuals often fall short elsewhere, way short. Be it mermen or more bobble-head buffoonery, with Momoa, Patrick Wilson, and Amber Heard’s little heads bobbing up and down in front of green screen, it’s so often laughable you forget to laugh. Many can buy into it, the endless reminder that none of it is real, but I personally want more effort put into that grand illusion. It’s simply not enough to throw render money on the screen or bring comic books to life. Outside of the comic-book movie oeuvre, more filmmakers are following in the footsteps laid forth by Nolan and McQuarrie and even Bay, all three of whom put forward their best effort in making all of it look tangible each time out, no matter how practical or computer-generated. I believe these worlds conjured by them, I don’t believe the worlds conjured by Marvel and DC Entertainment of late (this problem is quite recent), and it has nothing to do with high-flying space opera or low-flying Atlanteans. It’s not a matter of realism, but hyper-realism: making the impossible seem and feel real no matter how fantastical.
Wan’s choice to evoke Young Indiana Jones or Flash Gordon doesn’t help, mostly eschewing the environmental concerns integral to the character in favor of lip service. The disastrous effects of pollution and climate change befalling the earth? Such progressive issues are left for radical villain and Loki rip-off Ocean Master (Wilson) to peddle, leaving Curry with a take ’em or leave ’em attitude that basically amounts to “eh, it is what it is.” A script chock-full of typical chosen-one rhetoric and “pureblood” nonsense only compounds the problem, as if the writers are willfully choosing cliches over greater themes. Given the state of things, it would seem pertinent to make a statement instead of a few shout-outs before sweeping it all under the rug. Ditto our hero’s connection to all manner of marine life, relegated to jokes and a silly prologue of school-grade bullies. Marvel’s allergy to sincerity continues to infect moviedom. Despite gob-smacking fun half the time, Aquaman is corny, cheesy, campy, and apparently proud of it, though I’m not sure I buy it. Horrible, self-serious dialogue is around every corner, the sure sign of writers and producers leaning too heavily on eye candy to get by. Combine that with performances phoned in by Willem Dafoe and Amber Heard, an uncharacteristically wooden turn by Wilson, and one of the worst of the year by Yahya Mateen as Black Manta, a secondary villain who recalls the worst of Power Rangers mania, and Aquaman begins to feel a bit like empty spectacle. Momoa, for his part, alternates between burly charisma and unconvincing bro-isms. That being said, not a soul would call him an unconvincing action hero. He’s got that in spades, particularly in hand-to-hand combat scenes, the numbers of which are pleasantly surprising.
We’re in an age now when visual effects are so ubiquitous that people have stopped caring and filmmakers (some of them) have obliged such carelessness, no longer committing wholeheartedly to their illusion. This is a clear departure from the last decade where Lord of the Rings, Avatar, and a litany of blockbusters still hold up to this day in that department. Avatar, like Aquaman, is three-quarters CGI, and yet that illusion is rarely broken. In 2009 Jim Cameron did a better job selling his world of nine-foot tall blue elves on a foreign planet than DC has in 2018 with human beings (more or less) swimming underwater on Earth. Maybe I’m picky, maybe I got my hopes up fifteen years ago when Entourage had a Cameron-directed Aquaman rattle our imaginations. Either way it’s disappointing. Either way, due to laziness among studios or basic outsourcing (or both), don’t expect perfection in this department in this genre anytime soon. Hell, why qualify genre when this year alone we’ve seen plenty of visual clunkers in The Meg, Rampage, and Mortal Engines. Regardless, it’s a testament to Wan’s action-adventure bonafides and Momoa’s general likability that Aquaman is as fun as it is amid these shenanigans.