Exhaustion, broken worlds, and cinematic melancholy in Wan’s compulsively stupid Aquaman

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Aquaman (2018)
Dir. James Wan

Umberto Eco asks what, beyond being loved, transforms a film such as Casablanca into a cult artifact (…) The film need not be well made, but it must provide resources the consumers can use in constructing their own fantasies: ‘In order to transform a work into a cult object one must be able to break, dislocate, unhinge it so that one can remember only parts of it, irrespective of their original relationship to the whole.’ And the cult film need not be coherent: the more different directions it pushes, the more different communities it can sustain and the more different experiences it can provide, the better. We experience the cult movie, he suggests, not as having ‘one central idea, but many,’ as ‘a disconnected series of images, of peaks, of visual icebergs.’
-Jenkins (2006) in Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (2012)

Wan has a penchant for exhaustion in even his bigger budget material, with would-be cathartic action sequences feeling like attrition rather than something being risen to, and verbal exposition as piling noise and not punctuation. The ever-present mortality of Furious 7 which was harrowing and then purgative allowed the next director in line to clarify the cartoon parameters for the series going forward, which, it transpired, would be a group of hybrid person-cars of the superhero variety. Perhaps Wan would have been perfect to see this fantasy vision through, but then F. Gary Gray knows how to have fun where Wan just intends to. For all we know he thought his film was a blast, all covered in sweat and just trying to give the audience everything he possibly could for more than two hours.

This may be the case, as Aquaman is a film entirely in this stern endurance mode. It is as relentless as Furious 7 and twice as stupid as its follow up, although it wears its face straightest where you least expect it. It is glistening and weird but in its bludgeoning of that which should be entertaining, is of the same grim fibre as Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice. That events involving dinosaurs and crab people in Aquaman are convincingly happening in the same world that houses the wreckage Bruce Wayne wanders traumatised speaks to the director’s inability to let loose, as well as the understanding of those involved that for the moment this is a good thing. It is telling that although Warner Bros. used a family tragedy to dissolve the future films’ connection to Snyder’s original vision, Wan sought that director’s approval with his storyboards above anyone else’s. Wherever these things are pushed to go next, Wan’s cinematic values sit outside of the critic and audience majority and as a consequence Aquaman might be this world’s bizarre last stand.

Where Snyder’s two works lurch and tumble in circles (and Jenkins’ erases itself as it goes), Wan’s is this propulsive movement according to destruction. It is appallingly linear and its sequencing is made visibly more so by the fact that for the majority of the time a scene can only end when everything is in flames. I am not going to argue that its structural conservatism is perversely revolutionary, but it is refreshing to find a film of this kind that exists in some form of an arc. It begins and ends like a story, rather than a minor page in a fan Wiki full of hyperlinks promising that it’s all connected. When Aquaman the figure fails it is because he is not yet up to the task, and we know that he will probably be better suited to it by the final act of the film. This dramatic structuring is embarrassingly rudimentary, but it is the kind of thing that contemporary superhero films deny in order to exist as just content. It should not be a feat but it is, that Aquaman is actually a film.

It is a shame that its rote hero’s journey and aggressive skittering amounts to something that says nothing: moments in the film are reminiscent of Miyazaki’s Ponyo which served as a reminder that narratively straightforward works can (and should) carry the same thematic weight as pronouncedly ‘adult’ epics, and whatever one’s personal tastes there is no denying the thematic sophistication of its Superman-centred predecessors. Aquaman‘s main villain is an eco-terrorist, but just so we know that he’s evil he is also creepily obsessed with his bloodline, and when Aquaman inevitably takes the throne he simply becomes a new monarch of the same bloodline, promising (much like the last) to Do Good This Time. We know that he means well and might be a likeable figurehead, but that’s it. It is hard not to think of the much derided Warcraft when watching Aquaman, and to remember how a film similarly committed to bright fantasy silliness gave such a serious treatment to the search for good and the ways that these efforts are corrupted by nationalist myth-making. Aquaman doesn’t worry about power or its distribution, just that Momoa communicates better vibes than Patrick Wilson.

The film has a discrete visual identity built on maximalist cheese underwater, and a tender, lived-in quality on land. The questionable and dissatisfying elements of Aquaman’s baggage are not subverted by the director but played wooden and then decorated like their existence depends on it. Kym Barrett’s work leans into the dorkiness of the material, finding a hilarious tension in multi million dollar renderings of low-budget sentai costuming. Even her work with the like-minded Wachowskis cannot have prepared her for Kidman’s costumes here (the nude fish scale bodysuit adorned in dinosaur bones and demon fins in particular), and the artificial grease of Gods of Egypt could not be more different for Tess Natoli than Patrick Wilson’s PS1 sprite Orm. Like Man of Steel, Wan pictures the non-fantasy (i.e. human side) of the seaside town as a land of fetishistic stained wood grain and dirt paths, worn carpets and tattered upholstery.

It is the cinematic treatment of emotion, and Wan’s affective denial of fun that makes the film register. And it is at its most fluid and most still that the film breaks its mythic event sequencing to become something profound. ‘Single take’ action pieces are exaggerated in their artificiality, activating location according to the same kinetic tension as the director’s horror works but with Power Rangers instead of ghosts. A descent into the hellish Trench expands the scope of the Insidiousfilms’ claustrophobic deadzone (‘the Further’), but here it’s people holding onto one another in a desperate rush to not have it close in on them. It’s moving, the way that the individual figures compose a swarming death, and by pulling back the images bridge the gap between the expressivity of a Turner seascape with a latent metaphysical fervour. What gets lost to noise on occasion can be forgiven when the director reaches these heights throwing everything at digital’s potential for freak beauty.

Still it is not conventionally fun. It is for all involved a labour of great stupidity but also earthly melancholy, pulled together in the soft melodramatic closeups of Kidman and Morrison, sea and land, a relationship that should never be. That Kidman and Morrison’s is the story that matters comes up regularly, and this serves less to remind of the genesis of Aquaman the figure, than to underscore the heart of the film if not the cinematic universe up to this point. Wan is game here, and so too are the central couple draped in cartoon weirdness and reaching for that deep longing we associate with an unfashionable cinematic past. Momoa’s only brief is good vibes (which he achieves without dialogue), and Kidman’s sense of being lost and then finding everything in Morrison leaves a hole in the heart of the film the moment she departs. Morrison wears the weight of the film’s humanity on his shoulders, which looks as though it is about to crush him every time he moves. The weight lifts whenever he shares the frame with Kidman, and their impossible hope is built on the shaky but enduring foundations of a soft-focus shot reverse shot.

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