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
In 1982, TRON was a movie ahead of its time. It took place in a world inside the world of computers, which couldn’t have been that advanced back then. But “ahead of its time” and good are not the same things. Arguable one of the most influential science-fiction films in terms of design and CGI, the original TRON was a financial dud for its film studio. All this makes it so curious why Disney would spend upwards of $200 million dollars on a fancy, shiny, big-budget sequel to a movie people didn’t really give a damn about before. TRON: Legacy looks to capitalize on a generation of geek nostalgia. At least it doesn’t fare as poorly as the Star Wars prequels.
Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) is 27 years old and the lead shareholder of Encom ever since his father, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), mysteriously disappeared in 1989. Kevin had found a way inside the world of computers, which he called The Grid. He studied it and based his company’s arcade games on what he found. Then after saying he was going to break the world of gaming wide open, he vanished. Then in 2010, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, a sight for sore eyes) visits Sam with a message. He got a page from a number that’s been disconnected for over 20 years. Sam ventures into his father’s old arcade/workstation and gets zapped inside the world of computers. Now he’s amidst all those racing light motorcycles and flying disc battles. The slinky program Qorra (Oliva Wilde) rescues Sam from the gladiatorial battles. Inside this realm, the Grid is run by Clu (CGI Bridges), a digital doppelganger of Kevin Flynn. Sam is reunited with his dear old dad and together they try to escape this digital prison and stop Clu.
Never have I felt more like an old man than after watching TRON: Legacy. All the special effects dazzled, but after a while it felt relatively empty and insubstantial. But what did all those gleamy flashes of light and snazzy 3-D effects do, ultimately? Distract from the void of a story. I consider myself a fairly intelligent individual, able to follow complicated narratives and appreciate complex storytelling. And yet, when the lights came back up in my theater, I turned to my wife and said, “There is a lot that I never understood.” The setup is relatively painless, but where the movie grinds to a deadly halt is for an exposition-heavy 20 minutes in the middle after our second big action sequence. When father and son are reunited they get to talking, and talking, and talking some more about God knows what. I think my brain shut off from all the stilted dialogue. Every character seems to stop and unload a pile of exposition. Even though the characters seem to explain so often, you always feel like you’re still missing something important. You still feel left out. But after this dreadful slog, suddenly there’s Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon) to save me from my stupor exactly like he did at the end of the turgid Twilight film, New Moon. He brought me back to life, but after his campy, cane-guitar rockin’ sequence of battle, I was trying to get caught up on the parameters of plot and setting. But then the film just flew from one set piece to another and I was forever lost. I couldn’t tell you why anything happened in the last hour of the movie. It just seemed like one thing was following another without any sense of logic or foresight. I got the idea of the need to escape this virtual world and that there was a special doorway to make this happen, but after that it all became an unintelligible chain of ones and zeroes.
The incoherent screenplay by Lost scribes Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis is a bleak vehicle for special effects. TRON: Legacy will certainly melt your eyes but it leaves the brain cold and overlooked. The rules of the TRON universe are never adequately explained. When Qorra suddenly drives a vehicle off the Grid and says, “We can do this, they can’t,” you’re forced to just shrug and go with it. Why is Clu trying to kill Sam and his dad when he’s pretty much had the run of things for 20 years? What exactly is his plan for world domination? He thinks his electro-tanks will be able to take out the military powers of the real world? Do these programs have free will or does their engineering trap them? Why would they gather at a stadium to cheer the death of other programs in violent sport? All of these walking/talking computer programs got me thinking about The Matrix and how much more creative and effective and overall better that movie was with storytelling. There are some token nods to character, mainly Sam’s reunion with his long lost pop, but this is a movie designed to mesmerize with flashing lights rather than story and character. I would find this somewhat acceptable if I wasn’t bored so much, let alone paid an extra four bucks for the luxury of being bored in three dimensions.
But if special effects are what you want, TRON: Legacy delivers big time. The sleek production design is married seamlessly with the flashy, techno-oriented effects inside the computer world. Watching the floating spaceships and zooming racecars is a luscious, exhilarating rush to experience. The visual style obviously has to hew close to the first film in 1982, which seems to handcuff the imagination of the crew. We’ve made gigantic leaps in the world of movie special effects but we’re stuck with characters in glow-in-the-dark jumpsuits and cityscapes that look at like half-finished neon outlines. I haven’t seen a 3-D movie since two-time reigning king of the world James Cameron’s Avatar, but I would readily advise people to see TRON: Legacy in 3-D if available. It gives the film that extra whiz-bang quality. This is not just a cheap grab at extra cash where the studio throws a 3-D rush on a film late in the game. The 3-D, which kicks in when Sam travels inside the computer world (like the change into color from the Wizard of Oz), feels more immersive without resorting to hurling countless objects at the audience. The greatest 3-D effect, bar none, is Olivia Wilde (TV’s House, Year One). Director Joseph Kosinski has a steady background in computer effects, and it shows. His handle on actors is another matter entirely.
But the biggest misstep with the special effects occurs with the 1980-version of Bridges. Whenever we get a glimpse of this Bridges of old, whether it’s from Clu or a brief and distracting scene in the film’s 1989 opening, it’s another opportunity for the movie to remind you of its lack of authenticty. The de-aging technique still needs some serious tinkering. What it does is make an actor look like a plastic doll, with dead Polar Express zombie eyes. It’s creepy and off-putting and every time you see the de-aging effect it rips you out of the movie. Watching young Bridges take on older, current Bridges would have been more interesting if we had an entire digital rogues gallery of Bridges characters. Imagine the Dude and his drunken, self-destructive country singer from Crazy Heart involved in digital games of combat.
There are some nice action sequences that begin to touch imaginative possibilities of this unique world. The flying disc duels are interesting enough for the time being. The first few disc battles make fine use of the unique features of the boomerang-esque weapon. The motorcycle battle where the ribbons of light/exhaust create a wall is still a great idea for battle of wits at high-octane speeds. It just never fully materializes. The edits don’t occur in that hyperkinetic Michael Bay fashion that discombobulates the senses; however, I never really grasped the geography of the action realms. In order for the viewer to appreciate the action and the moves and counter-moves, we need to understand the arena and boundaries of the setting. With the cycle chase, it just seems like they’re all appearing at random. An action sequence is less satisfying if it doesn’t seem like it’s building and making use of the particular surroundings. The moody score by electornica duo Daft Punk gives the film a thematic lift, though having them score with a full orchestra feels like hiring Yo Yo Ma and forcing him to play a trombone.
TRON: Legacy feels at times like a super-sized Light Bright meant to dazzle and distract from the gaping void at heart. The story merely exists to get the characters from one place to another. The leaden exposition pretty much destroys the film’s momentum. It becomes plodding and tiresome. It would be like if Luke Skywalker sat and listened to 20 years of history rather than actually, you know, doing something. It’s been 28 years since the first TRON and the world has gotten far more computer savvy, and the jargon from the first flick would be readily understood. TRON: Legacy doesn’t feel like you’re in a computer, just whatever weird alternative universe. It seems like the real legacy of TRON ends up being hollow special effects.
Nate’s Grade: C