January 26th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The Natural Family as an integrative social force in American history

EDITORIAL The Remnant, resistant, creative minority

ENERGY POLICY Enough hot air about carbon dioxide; let's talk LPG

CANBERRA OBSERVED Federal election: the media have done our duty at the polls for us

NSW ELECTION NSW is just starting to sizzle

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Archbishop Wilson free, but trial was no witchhunt

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Awaiting Hayne: full report sure to shake finance sector

LIFE ISSUES The unvarnished truth about surrogacy

HIGHER EDUCATION Massification: that's the name of the game

SOCIETY Dover Beach: a mordant post-Christmas reflection

IRELAND TODAY Celtic Tiger changed out of all recognition

MUSIC One note does not a monotone make

CINEMA Aquaman: High fantasy in ocean depths

BOOK REVIEW Uninformed consent

BOOK REVIEW A thoroughly modern movement

BOOK REVEW The foundation of a successful society


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Aquaman: High fantasy in ocean depths

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, January 26, 2019

It is often said – especially by this critic – that superhero stories are a form of modern mythology. They have great stakes and grand characters and tap in to the deepest drives of humanity.

But, for the most part, superhero movies have emphasised the “realistic” over the epic. Marvel, in particular, through such films as Iron Man and The Avengers, has aimed for a “heroes like us” approach, one where the intimate human drama takes centre-stage. DC, on the other hand, has a much grander, more operatic vision, as can be seen in the almost Wagnerian – and hyper-serious – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

This vision can be a challenge to rea­lise, as it requires creatives who take their work seriously, but not themselves. Moreover, it’s easy in such a setting to resort to “stopping the swirling beam of death in the sky”, which can mean little things like character development and plot go by the wayside.

With Aquaman, DC has crafted a film that not only fulfils this potential but does so in a spectacular and stunningly beautiful way, one that embraces the high fantasy aspect of the superhero story, drawing from the likes of the Arthurian mythos and J.R.R. Tolkien’s intricate world-building.

Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is the son of Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), Queen of Atlantis and a lighthouse keeper, Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison). To stop the Atlanteans pursuing her and endangering Tom and Arthur, Atlanna returns to Atlantis, never to return. Arthur grows into a rough-hewn and reluctant hero, saving sailors in peril and defending the oceans against villains, but a hero who resents the underwater kingdom for taking his mother from him.

After rescuing the crew of a submarine that has been hijacked by brutal high-tech pirates led by David Kane/Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), Arthur is confronted by the Atlantean Mera (Amber Heard), princess of the kingdom of Xebel, the other great undersea power. Arthur’s half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), now ruler of Atlantis, wants war with the surface world. He gains the support of Mera’s father Nereus (Dolph Lundgren), king of Xebel, and the two kings go on to seek the support of the last remaining kingdoms, the Fishermen and the Brine.

Mera and Vulko (Willem Dafoe), vizier of Atlantis and secret teacher of Arthur, believe the only way to stop Orm is for the Arthur to find the lost trident of Atlan (Graham McTavish), the first king of Atlantis. The trident gives its bearer command over the seas and all therein.

At first, Arthur refuses, but after Orm causes tidal waves that devastate coastal cities and almost kill his father, he agrees to join them. Thus begins a grand globetrotting quest for Arthur to become king and prevent Orm waging war.

Aquaman is a sumptuously beautiful and inventive film. The underwater setting and the Atlantean hybridisation of advanced technology and classical Greco-Roman decor results in a visual feast, at once strange and familiar, with a riot of phosphorescent blues and greens and golds emphasising the otherworldliness of the ocean kingdoms. There is a grandeur to them, one that befits a people that once ruled the world but, through their arrogance, destroyed their civilisation and permanently changed their biology enabling them to thrive underwater so much that only their highest-born can survive on land.

The storyline echoes high fantasy and the legends of Arthur, with a hero raised as a commoner who thinks himself unworthy and the quest for a royal super weapon. At the same time, the filmmakers, especially director James Wan – who is responsible for the excellent gothic horror Conjuring series – know the story is meant to be a ripping good yarn and act accordingly.

The result is a fun film, one that has sharks with lasers and crab people with lava-flinging catapults, and where the climactic battle rivals those of The Lord of the Rings. It has the sort of seriousness seen in children’s television, one that is imaginative and entertaining, one that does not shy away from weighty themes but treats them lightly, and where humour is used to counterpoint the drama rather than undermine it.

Mythologies are, by definition, popular. They are shared by a people. The resonances between the myths of the past and those of today act as a reminder of our shared humanity and that things like heroism are universal.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).

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Last Modified:
April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm