Jason Momoa Becomes Deep Sea Royalty in Underwater Spectacle ‘Aquaman’

Aquaman” leaves your eyeballs quite exhausted after 2 hours and 22 minutes. Nearly every second seems dedicated to proving that every penny of its reported $200 million budget was spent, mostly on gargantuan digital effects that in IMAX feel like being sucked into the world’s largest videogame. It is Warner Brothers’ biggest gamble yet with the DC Comics universe, following titles like “Justice League” which have received lukewarm responses in their attempts to compete with the Marvel behemoth. It is the better of the platter, because it avoids trying to cram three or four movies into one like its predecessors. But it still makes the same mistake of putting eye-popping CGI ahead of the story, leaving it lost at sea.

We open on a dark and stormy night (indeed) on the coast of Maine (as it must be), where a lighthouse keeper named Tom (Temuera Morrison) finds a beautiful sea siren washed ashore, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman). It turns out she’s a runaway royal from an underwater civilization, Atlantis. Tom doesn’t seem astonished at all and the two immediately shack up, giving birth to a son, Arthur (Jason Momoa). Fast forward 30 years and Arthur is now a well-built, half-man, half-Atlantean who stops raiders and villains on the high seas. He’s known locally as Aquaman, content to drink with his dad and stop a crook here and there. But after stopping a submarine raid by mercenaries led by Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), Aquaman is summoned to Atlantis by Mera (Amber Heard), who is betrothed to the underwater realm’s King Orm (Patrick Wilson). It turns out Orm wants to literally drown the surface world in order to wipe out humanity because it’s been polluting the oceans and doing other nasty things. Of course what he really wants is power, in particular over all underwater kingdoms. Because Arthur is Orm’s half-brother, he too has claim to the throne and can challenge the mad king. Arthur has little interest in returning, since he blames Atlantis for losing his mother. But the fate of the world hangs in the balance. After one failed stadium match (literally), Aquaman and Mera flee to try and crack the code for getting hold of an ancient, golden trident which will determine once and for all who is king, etc., etc., etc.

What “Aquaman” has going for it is that it’s not necessarily bad to look at. Director James Wan, who has worked on smaller thrillers like “Saw,” “The Conjuring” and at least one other action behemoth, “Furious 7,” seems hypnotized by what a massive budget can let you imagine. There are many, grand shots of bestial waves, storm clouds and buffed people raising their fists or tridents as dolphins and sharks leap around like Frank Frazetta paintings. When Arthur and Mera first enter Atlantis the surroundings look like a vast neighborhood out of “Avatar,” where foliage and structures have a neon glow. As we learn later, this is the actual Atlantis from classical myth, it sank centuries ago and the inhabitants simply “evolved” into underwater supermen or fish and crabs capable of forming armies. There are nice little details like ancient armor strewn around decayed ruins. Yet we never get to see any Atlanteans who are not men dressed in leftover costumes from “Gods of Egypt,” riding sharks and making bold proclamations. Only when Arthur and Orm have a trident battle in a giant stadium, ala “Thor: Ragnarok,” do we see the plebs cheering from the stands. What Atlanteans do during the day or week remains a mystery. Some action scenes have memorable flourishes, like a battle on a ship between Arthur and some snarling, fish creatures who then swarm in a monstrous swirl underwater and chase him and Mera into the deepest depths. He then emerges in some hidden jungle in the Earth’s core, with a set design that looks more expensive than the entire budget of “The Mule” and “Roma” combined.

The big flaw here is that “Aquaman” is all look. It barrels forward at a speed where little of the story is developed. One moment simply leads to another. How astounding that the screenplay apparently went through 6 writers. None of the characters are interesting or have the wit and charm of the casts of “Black Panther,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Wonder Woman.” They are simply straddled with empty dialogue that has little purpose other than to explain who wants to blow up what. The movie is so desperate to distract us with huge CGI sequences that it never bothers to even explain how major characters even came into Aquaman’s life. For example there is Vulko (Willem Dafoe), a high ranking Atlantean who we learn in one or two flashbacks, taught Arthur how to fight with a trident and develop his underwater skills. But earlier during the film’s introduction we see how Nicole Kidman’s Atlanna left Arthur and Tom to avoid putting them in danger because her people would come searching around. So then when did Vulko introduce himself to Arthur? How is it that Arthur even learned of his royal heritage? No doubt comic book devotees in the audience will know, but a film must cater to a wide audience. As for King Orm’s scheme, his claim about fighting pollution seems ill-conceived considering he plans to obliterate the industrialized surface, which would no doubt create even more wreckage, toxic spillovers and environmental disasters.

Everyone is like a prop for the action, which is why the eventual romantic sparks between Aquaman and Mera lack chemistry or even a reason for happening. Their banter has little humor or flirtation. They just end up locking lips at the end because they’re expected to. Wan makes some weird music choices as well that don’t flow at all with what we’re seeing on screen. Much of it feels like a marketing ploy, like having Arthur and Mera fly to Africa as a tacky sampling of Toto’s “Africa,” done by Pit Bull and Rhea, plays over a slow motion shot of the pair walking out of the ocean. Aquaman seems more like a Weezer type, but that’s just a wild guess.

There is not much to say about Jason Momoa except that he certainly looks the part of Aquaman. He has the capacity for good humor, but the script gives him few good jokes or that much dialogue. He just kind of hulks, gives the camera a mean squint, has one moment where he shows off his knowledge of Ancient Roman history and spends the rest of the movie as a half-CGI character crouching on whales, smashing through waves and clinking tridents with Patrick Wilson, who also spends most of the movie snarling and screaming macho war cries. Momoa has presence, but he’s forced to play Aquaman as an awkward tough guy, with little gusto. There’s none of the imposing authority from his Khal Drogo in “Game of Thrones,” who one could easily imagine ruling Atlantis.

By the end, when the whole movie spirals into an underwater apocalypse complete with laser sharks, marching crabs and Momoa standing atop some Kraken-like monstrosity that shatters out of the ocean’s depths, it has all become redundant. You can easily sense the lingering influence over DC of director and producer Zack Snyder, who is the guru of covering up a weak script with CGI overload which can even look beautiful at first, but after nearly three hours gets tiring when the story offers little else. Still, there is little doubt “Aquaman” will be a hit, because audiences do love the allure of spectacle. With the world the way it’s going, it’s not surprising people would rather watch a buffed guy swim with dolphins. But with so many resources spent on it, this is one underwater adventure that dries out fast.

Aquaman” opens Dec. 21 in theaters nationwide.