Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom
"What I most noted the return of was not kings but pacing issues."

Aquaman apparently did well enough to get a sequel, and here it is. The first borrowed many of its trappings from the works of HP Lovecraft. There's a tome by one of weird fiction's leading lights on a table in the Massuchussetts lighthouse in an early scene. Our review noted significant similarities to Black Panther but 'inheritor of a secret kingdom' is a story that has plenty of precedent.

Aquaman's return comes in a difficult climate for the DC cinematic universe, generating headlines from taxation decisions and offscreen misbehaviour rather than any form of onscreen success. It doesn't make life any easier for itself, because in the language of financial trading that which is derivative is dangerous. DC's own Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) explains some of that in The Big Short by literally taking a bath, but those few minutes of damp exposition are more entertaining than this. I haven't had great expectations from this current phase of these comic-books' filmmaking, and while I was pleasantly surprised by The Flash, this film left me cold.

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That's despite a key plot point being a world ending furnace. Those with an interest in ancient metallurgy (or Dungeons & Dragons, with admitted overlap) might recognise orichalcum as a form of brass. Copper, burning with green flame, and zinc, burning with a bluish-green. That verdant smoke and flame might in its application remind other nerds of the Necrontyr of Warhammer 40,000 but most of us will be too busy getting caught on the pointed nods to The Lord Of The Rings.

There are a few reasons for that. James Wan returns from helming the first, he has done sequels (and spin-offs) before, and Patrick Wilson must now surely count as one of his regular ensemble. Insidious and its Chapter 2, The Conjuring and its sequel are a lesson in diminishing returns and it remains of interest that despite starting the Saw franchise his only involvement in the next nine was as a co-writer credit on the third. That extensive background in horror is similar to Peter Jackson's, and Sam Raimi's time in genre also affected his Spider-Men. None of that really excuses a bit of inscribed statuary that makes "Speak Friend And Enter" seem like a cryptanalysis exam.

Here we have a totally original baddie, Kordax (Pilou Asbaek), in a special pointy helmet, that has his hand cut off while holding a magic thingy that makes its wielder weirdly possessive. Among prominent product placement for Guinness and IWC Schaffhausen watches, the most glaring advertising is for other media. The various flavours of Atlantean have slightly different design languages, but even with that one is sometimes left to ask "Which king (or witch-king) is that?" Among the various returning royalties are: Patrick Wilson as King Orm; Amber Heard as the princess (and Aquaman-consort) Mera; Nicole Kidman as Atlanna, the mermaid Queen Mum; Dolph Lundgren and a hairpiece that wouldn't convince even if it wasn't digitally streaming as King Nereus; Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as voice to the crabby Brine King; Temeura Morrison as chief "being in shots with cans of Guinness" officer and a handful of scenes involving Pacific cultural elements. There might be more, but having recently caught Aquaman on DVD what I most noted the return of was not kings but pacing issues.

In the scene in the credits of the first, Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is hooked up with Dr Stephen Shin (Randall Park), and here they are. Sometimes literally, as moments from the first film are re-used as memories. Sometimes figuratively, as scenes seem to linger longer than is necessary as another run-time creeps above two hours. That's 'scenes' and not shots. One seaside sayonara seems to have been captured from more angles than a fish hooked on a compass. That we can probably attribute to Wan, but he co-writes among the credits with David Leslie Johnson (Orphan), Jason Momoa and Thomas Pa'a Sibbett who co-wrote The Last Manhunt. That's a fair few voices and they don't always seem unified.

Momoa's Arthur Curry does lean into the "Aquaman talks to fish" aspect of it all. While that does, like being a marine biologist, have its perks, there's a note of embarrassment to it all. When a villain, I think called Stingray, says "You've got to be kidding me," it seems less that anyone's having a whale of a time than that they're all hunched with cringe to the point that they'd have a hump-back. That fear of folly includes one heroic handshake that's backed up with an almighty "clank!", presumably so that it's understood that what might have been an emotional moment of reconciliation isn't at all about weakness. That insistence on strength, like many alloys, leaves everything brittle.

I didn't find any of the humour landed well, and what raised a smile was often by-catch. With all these flavours of undersea dweller noodling about it's hard to pack it all in, but instance after instance seems watered down. Martin Short pops up voicing a character who does have a name of their own but is basically Jabba the Hutt with a throne-room annex of the Mos Eisley Cantina, in one of several sequences where the security of something underwater appears to rely on nobody noticing that you can swim up. When the film itself mentions Loki and Azkaban, I would have expected someone to remember Ricardo Montalban in Wrath Of Khan.

There's some good design work in some places, nods to Metropolis and King Kong and some octopodal robots that seem straight from Miyazaki. There was one sequence of things climbing that felt like it was a nod to stop motion, like a digital reference to the old school craft of Harryhausen or Tippet. That was almost immediately undermined by a second sequence of others climbing that same wall that felt like an early video game.

I lost count of how many effects firms contributed to this. In what might be one of the most accurate nods to comic books, many scenes were rendered in at most four-colours, some set of now traditional teal and orange and that bad-guy-coded green, as well as the odd bit of red and blue. The rest of it's just dark, if not muddy or at the very least carrying sediment. That's "grit" to the rest of us, because this is a serious movie for adults.

A serious movie for adults where an Academy-Award winner says "black magic is just DNA" and the soundtrack makes heavy use of Steppenwolf's Born To Be Wild and Norman Greenbaum's Spirit In The Sky. I have seen reference to Iggy Pop's China Girl being on there too, but don't recall it - that may be in a director's cut and I look forward to seeing how on the nose its use is. One of the aforementioned tracks appears over a montage that includes a baby, and a motorcycle, and the other I think when there was some ghost stuff.

I blame Zack Snyder. Not just for director-cut level issues, but the whole tone of the DC cinematic universe, its over reliance on time stretching for impact, its colour palette, its runtimes. There's a slo-mo "Nooo!" that made me "Ho ho ho," but I don't think my laughter was intentional. At least they've taken a leaf out of Watchmen and let Patrick Wilson eat something, though there's a perhaps overly literal exploration of "water weight" in his physique. Jason Momoa is as hench as ever, his new duds as a new dad apparently both machine washable and line-dried. It's just a shame that the film is machine-reproduced and dishwater dull.

The opening sequence uses a voiceover, and one eventually realises that it's because it's a story being told to a baby using action figures. I leave it to you to decide what Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom is really saying to audiences with that. I keep having to check the title of this film, because I keep reading it as Aquaman And The Last Kingdom in the hope there won't be any more.

Reviewed on: 06 Jan 2024
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Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom packshot
Aquaman balances his duties as king and as a member of the Justice League, all while planning a wedding. Black Manta is on the hunt for Atlantean tech to help rebuild his armor. Orm plots to escape his Atlantean prison.
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Director: James Wan

Writer: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, James Wan, Jason Momoa

Starring: Jason Momoa, Ben Affleck, Patrick Wilson, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Dolph Lundgren, Temeura Morrison, Nicole Kidman, Jani Zhao, Amber Heard, Vincent Regan

Year: 2023

Runtime: 124 minutes

Country: US


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