It’s hard not to talk about the fledgling DCU without grading on a curve. Wonder Woman was a great success and a definite step in the right direction but it still had clear Act Three problems. However, when your previous movies are the abysmal Suicide Squad and Batman vs. Superman, anything in the right direction is seen as enlightenment. There are currently no planned Superman films, no planned Batman films, and it looks like the teetering DCU is banking its future on the success of Wonder Woman and Aquaman. If you had told me that the future of an interconnected series of franchises would rest upon the shoulders of a man who talks to fish, I would have laughed. Enter director James Wan, best known for the Conjuring franchise and plugging into Furious 7 without missing a beat. Warner Bros. desperately wanted Wan’s stewardship to get a notoriously difficult comics property to float in the modern market. The early marketing was not encouraging but I held out a slim degree of hope that Wan would make it work. While Aquaman as a whole has its share of problems, Wan has done it. He’s made a big screen Aquaman movie that is fun, visually immersive, weird, and packed with great action. I was just as surprised as you, dear reader, but the smile on my face was evident.
Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is heir to the undersea throne of Atlantis. His mother (Nicole Kidman) fled her arranged marriage and had a son with a human lighthouse keeper. She retreated back into the ocean to prevent further harm to her shore side family. Arthur is approached by princess Meera (Amber Heard) to return to Atlantis and claim his birthright to the throne, currently occupied by Arthur’s half-brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson). The reigning king is planning to unite the seven sea kingdoms to launch an attack against the surface-dwellers. Arthur must go back to the people who reportedly killed his mother and challenge his half-brother for supremacy. Along the way he’ll have to venture across the globe with Meera for a series of adventures to reclaim lost artifacts, while also dodging Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a pirate gifted with underwater technology who swears vengeance against Arthur for letting his father die.
Make no mistake, there is definitely a ceiling capped for Aquaman. The characterization is pretty standard stuff with little added nuance. It’s a dash of Chosen One destined to bridge communities, a dash of Prodigal Son outcast trying to make amends and duty, and there’s the general pledged vengeance that reappears again and again for motivation. The plot is reminiscent of a video game, structured so that Arthur and Meera have to travel from one stage to another, finding an important artifact and then going to the next stage. Sometimes there are mini-bosses at these various video game stages. The antagonists are acceptable but without much in the way of depth or charisma. You might even find yourself agreeing with King Orm as far as his pre-emptive strike over mankind (the latent racism of “half-breeds” maybe not as much). The leads are also given little. Momoa (Justice League) is a naturally charismatic actor but his range is limited; he basically has two modes, off and on. This might have been one reason why the screenplay resolves to merely push him toward his “call to action,” which I thought was his Justice League arc. Still he’s an affable and handsome presence even with lesser material. Heard (London Fields) is struggling to find her character’s place in the story. She’s a romantic interest, quest cohort, and there are attempts to push through more feminist agency but it’s too murky. It feels like she’s trapped by her character and her giant Halloween store red wig. If you cannot get over these deficits, it’s going to feel like a relentless 143-minute video game.
And yet the movie works thanks to the talents of Wan and the overall abundant sense of exuberant fun. Wan has become a first-class chameleon, able to adapt his skill set to whatever genre he attaches himself to, be it high-octane car chase thriller, slow burn horror to grisly torture porn, or now splashy superhero blockbuster. Early on, I knew we were in good hands when Wan showcases a destructive fight scene between Kidman and a group of aqua storm troopers in long takes and wide angles, letting the choreography speak for itself and allowing the audience to fully take in every smash and crash. The action is consistently interesting and filmed in ways to highlight its best points. An underwater brotherly battle takes the movement within water into account, adapting fight choreography to add this new dimension. That’s what good action movies should be doing, applying their unique settings into the action development. There isn’t a boring action moment in the film. Even when we get to the big CGI armies duking it out, Wan instinctively knows to pull back to avoid overkill. Even the otherwise normal hand-to-hand combat is clever and consistently entertaining. The highlight of the movie is actually on land, an extended chase through the villas of Tuscany. Arthur and Meera are battling Black Manta but they’re also divided, and Wan’s camera will zoom back and forth between the two, connecting each on their parallel tracks. They jump from tiled roof to tiled roof, escaping danger. There’s one super aqua storm trooper who takes a more direct approach and just runs through room after room, and the camera follows him on this direct line of destruction. There’s even a payoff where Meera uses her powers in a wine shop to her great advantage. It’s moments like this where Wan is clearly having fun and demonstrating that he and his team have put good thought into their action.
The visuals are wildly immersive and amplify the sense of fun the film has to offer. There are plenty of cinematic reference points of influence here, from George Lucas to James Cameron, but Wan and his team do an excellent job of making this universe feel full. We visit many different undersea realms and people, including seahorse people, crab people, and just taking ownership of the weirdness without irony is refreshing. With the exception of Momoa’s need to undercut moments with quips, the film feels genuine and proud of its old-fashioned mentality, taking the ridiculousness and treating it with sincerity. That doesn’t mean there aren’t campy and absurd moments that are enjoyable precisely because of their camp and absurdity. There are people riding great white sharks and battling crab people to the death. How can that not be silly? There’s one group of creatures that feel plucked from Pitch Black, a band of feral monsters vulnerable to fire. There’s a fun and effective sequence where Arthur and Meera must dive to escape with their lit flare and we see the full totality of their situation, a literal sea of these monsters breaking apart just so as they dive. It’s a creepy moment made even better by Wan’s visual choices, which always seem to correspond to what’s best for the experience. The special effects are uniformly great and the attention to the undersea worlds is pristine.
Ultimately your view of Aquaman will come down to what you’re willing to forgive in the name of fun spectacle. Its best Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) equivalent are the pre-Ragnarok Thor films. There are definite deficits with the minimal characterization and the familiar hero’s journey plot arc, but the execution level and the sheer energetic entertainment are enough to rise above. The action sequences are routinely thrilling, eye-catching, and wonderfully alive and clever thanks to Wan. They’ve found a way to make Aquaman cool and fun, which is what rules the day when it comes to the film version. Aquaman is another step in the right direction for the notoriously gloomy DCU. If Wan was attached for a sequel, I’d genuinely be interested. This is nothing you haven’t seen before in any number of movies (just now underwater), it’s not exactly intellectually stimulating or emotionally involving, and yet the sheer success of the visuals, action orchestration, and the sense of fun override the rest of the detractions for me. It reminds me of the Fast and Furious franchise. I don’t care a lick for any non-Rock/Statham characters; I’m just there for the physics-defying stunts and set pieces. It provides the goods when it comes to action spectacle, and so does this movie. If you’re looking for a 90s throwback to big, fun action movies, then take the dive with Aquaman.
Nate’s Grade: B
Days after viewing writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch, I’m still contemplating what I just saw. That can be the sign of a good, thought-provoking movie, or it could be further proof that The Bad Batch is really an empty experience.
In a not-too-distant future, the United States has found a unique solution to crime. Those deemed irredeemable are tattooed with “bad batch” and abandoned into the American Southwest. It’s a dusty land of outlaws that the U.S. doesn’t even recognize. Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is deposited into the wastes of the Southwest and she is abducted by cannibals who make a meal out of her right arm and leg. She escapes and finds Comfort, a small outpost where she can heal and find community. The makeshift leader of Comfort is The Dream (Keanu Reeves), a messianic figure who doles out free drugs to the townspeople. He also has a harem of pregnant women. Miami Man (Jason Momoa), one of the hunkier cannibals, loses his daughter and forces Arlen to help him.
I’m going to summarize the sparse two-hour plot, dear reader, to share with you just how little there is to this film (will keep spoilers mild). Arlen gets kidnapped. She escapes. Months later she kills one of the cannibals. She quasi-adopts a little girl. Her father goes searching for her. Arlen loses the little girl. The father finds Arlen. They find the little girl who was unharmed. They eat a bunny. The end. Now admittedly any movie can sound rather flimsy when boiled down to its essential story elements (Star Wars: “Space farmer accepts call to adventure. Rescues princess.”) but the counterbalance is substance. Characters, world building, arcs, plot structure, setups and payoffs, all of it opens up the film’s story beats into a larger and transformative work. That’s simply not there with The Bad Batch. It’s a vapid film that has too much free time to fill, so you get several shots that are simply people riding motorcycles up to the camera. I grew restless waiting for something of merit to happen. Arlen simply just walks out into the desert like three different times, and this is after she was captured by roving cannibals that are still out there in healthy numbers. If you went to a store and the owner captured you and cut off your arm, would you venture back in that direction? Maybe there’s a commentary about victimhood and the cycle of abuse and exploitation, or maybe I’m left to intuit some kind of grander implication out of a filmmaker’s lack of effort. There’s just not enough here to justify its running time. It feels stretched beyond the breaking point.
If the film is meant to be about immersion, something that holds together via hypnotic Lynchian dream logic, then it better work hard to hold my attention since plot has already been abandoned. This is where The Bad Batch also lost me. It’s just not weird enough, though even weird-for-weird’s-sake can be insufferable, like Harmony Korine’s Gummo. Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home at Night) has an innate feel for visual arrangements and little quirky touches that can burn into your memory, like the sight of Arlen sidling next to a magazine clipping of a model’s arm she taped to a mirror or a well-armed pregnant militia. The most interesting elements of the story are left unattended though. This is a vague dystopia where the government has decided to let the “bad batch” fend for themselves in a desert. It screams neo-Western with a lawless land populated with criminals and killers. There are only ever two locations we visit: the cannibal’s junkyard and the outpost of Comfort. Do we know anything about these locations? Are they at war? Is there some kind of understanding between them wherein Comfort offers sacrifices for protection? Is there an uneasy peace that could be spoiled thanks to Arlen’s vengeance? It’s all just vast wasteland, but even when they get to actual places, it still feels like empty space. How can you make something about dystopian cannibals be this singularly boring?
The characters just aren’t worth your attention and ultimately don’t matter in service of story or even a potential message. Arlen is much more of a figurehead than a person, and perhaps that’s why the director chose Waterhouse (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) as her lead. The former model certainly makes a visually striking figure and knows how to arc her body in non-verbal ways to communicate feelings. However, I don’t know if there’s a good actress here. There’s no real reason to take away her arm and leg except that it looks cool and edgy. Initially it presents a visceral vulnerability for her and a disadvantage of escape, but after she arrives in Comfort, it’s as if she’s just any other able-bodied character. It feels like the director just liked the look and thought it would grab attention or say something meaningful. Momoa (Justice League) has a natural intimidating screen presence but he’s given so little to do. He’s just on glower autopilot. Miami Man is a killer and we watch him cook people’s limbs for some good eats. It’s almost like the movie wants you to forget this stuff when his paternal instincts kick in. Rather than embracing the light-and-dark contradictions, the movie just has him shift personality modes. There’s no confrontation or introspection. Reeves (John Wick 2) gets an idea of a potentially menacing character but even he isn’t presented as an antagonist. The Dream is living large thanks to the cooperation of those in Comfort. He has a harem of willing ladies for breeding but he doesn’t seem dastardly. He’s like the grown-up rich kid throwing the party that everyone attends. Then there are near cameos by Giovanni Ribisi, Jim Carrey, and Diego Luna, which make you wonder why they ever showed up.
The depressing part is that The Bad Batch starts off with a bang and had such potential. Amirpour is so assured early on and draws out the terror of Arlen’s plight in a gripping and satisfying manner. Her drifting is then met by a futile escape, and then we witness the relatively tasteful dismembering of our heroine. It’s disorienting but establishes the conflicts of the scene in a clear and concise fashion. The odds are against her and Arlen uses her captors underestimating her to supreme advantage. The opening twenty minutes are thrilling and well developed, presenting a capable protagonist and a dire threat. And then the movie just drops off the face of the Earth. I haven’t seen a movie self-sabotage an interesting start like this since perhaps Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. The first twenty minutes offer the audience a vantage point and set of goals. We’re learning about Arlen through her desperate and clever acts of survival. The rest of the movie is just bland wandering without any sense or urgency or purpose exhibited in that marvelous opening (hey, the amputated limbs special effects look nice).
Vacuous and increasingly monotonous, The Bad Batch valiantly tries to create an arty mood piece where it re-purposes genre pastiche into some kind of statement on the broken human condition. Or something. The story is so thinly written and the characters are too blank to register. They’re archetypes at best, walking accessories, pristine action figures given life and camera direction. It’s flash and surface-level quirks with distressed art direction. It feels like it’s trying so hard to be a cult movie at every turn. I’m certain that, not counting Keanu’s cult leader, there might only be 100 words spoken in the entire film. I feel like The Bad Batch is going to be a favorite for plenty of young teenagers that respond to its style and general sense of rebellion. Until, that is, they discover movies can have both style and substance.
Nate’s Grade: C-