The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Written by Josh Schulze.

Photo from the article Refreshing Priorities

There are so many things to admire about James Wan’s magnificent Aquaman, from its prioritisation of moment-to-moment character beats over a broader narrative and placement within a serialised cinematic universe, to its mastery of spatial dynamics and the sense of scale in its action sequences. The film adopts an almost-operatic approach to world-building and visual storytelling. The shot preceding the film’s title card, for instance, framing a young Arthur (Kaan Guldur) in front of the looming glass of an aquarium tank, as a multitude of underwater species congregate around him, is perhaps the most visually emotive and expressive composition from a superhero film in a decade.

On the playful side of things, the balancing of Jason Momoa’s often knowing and detached leading turn (one that leans precariously towards irony and self-deprecation, but reels itself in for the necessary climaxes) with the otherwise childlike and earnest approach towards having fun, is a pleasure to witness. This is perhaps most obnoxiously evident in the final kiss between Arthur and Mera (Amber Heard), during which the Trident of Atlan, firmly in Arthur’s grip and by his side, begins to rise incrementally. Any superhero film that incorporates a dick joke into its closing moments, remaining within the boundaries of its 12A BBFC rating, wins itself a place in my heart.

Something about creating the impression of watching a child play with their action figures achieves an emotional and narrative simplicity that is frequently impossible to resist. Holding the shot, for example, of Arthur burying his face into his mother’s (Atlanna - played by Nicole Kidman) shoulder for just a few more seconds as they reunite, struck me as a quietly radical change of pace from the rivaling Marvel entries. Where the latter might favour an efficient and swift approach to an "emotional reunion scene", hastily going through the motions to skip ahead to another action set piece, the composition and editing in Aquaman seem almost expressly designed to draw your attention to their elongation. It’s okay, the film seems to be saying - you’re allowed to feel something! This is actually really sad! Let it be noted, for the troubled reader, that I am not trying to aim so many digs at Marvel films - it is rather that the comparatively contained quality of Aquaman, in its relative disregard for (or, at the very least, subordination of) the ‘wider picture’ in the DC Extended Universe, effectively focuses its efforts on delivering moments that are wholly enjoyable in isolation. To pay Wan’s film a great compliment would be to say that, for the majority of its running time, I forgot that this was another entry into a serialised cinematic universe. I was too busy enjoying the myriad of pleasures and achievements of the film as I saw it, and not the film as I placed it in an arbitrary context.

The Trident Rises
The Trident Rises

Two Worlds, One Family

Aquaman’s prologue is chiefly concerned with the relationship between two seemingly incompatible worlds - above and below the water - the collision between which gives life to the eponymous half-breed hero. This is wonderfully conveyed by the synthesis of composition, editing, and performance. When the treacherous push and pull of the ocean brings an unconscious Atlanna to the surface world, and to the doorstep of lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison), she reacts with initial confusion and hostility to the alien environment when she is taken inside. The visual marker of inter-worldly conflict and hostility, in this instance, is the instinctive plunging of her trident into the nearby television. Shortly after, groggily trying to stabilise herself, Atlanna collapses into the arms of the bewildered Thomas. The camera then tracks laterally to the left, and as the arm of the couch momentarily obscures the camera, a disguised cut delineates the passage of time: we now find Atlanna snugly lying on the couch, wrapped warmly in a blanket.

Mother and Son
Mother and Son
The expressive qualities of this kind of camera move, usually considered cold and objective, have been gracefully analysed in a video essay by Tony Zhou. In Aquaman, the move is employed in a similar mode to that of Up (2009) and Wolf Children (2012), aiming to highlight temporal progression in a way that draws us closer to the characters, rather than keeping them at a distance. The development of their relationship unfolds before us through these moments of delicate, sincere, yet efficient filmmaking. Moments later, when Atlanna comes to, Thomas brings her a cup of tea and sits down. The decision to stage their first moment of mutual recognition over blowing the tea to cool it down is an act of genius. It allows a romantic seed to be planted (it enables them to lock eyes, and pucker lips) while maintaining an endearing innocence and playfulness to the whole affair.

As they share a gaze, the camera moves in to a snow globe of the lighthouse that sits between them, initiating a digitally rendered match-cut; the camera eventually plunges through the globe’s glass until the model lighthouse dominates the frame, and before we know it, we are seeing the real lighthouse in the midst of real snowfall. Atlanna is looking out over the sea, extending her arms in anticipation of her first touch of snow. Thomas brings her a blanket from inside and drapes it over her shoulders; he provides unquestioning comfort while she experiences a new world. She turns to kiss him in acknowledgement, which signals another match-cut: they are now lying in bed together. The snowy, expansive outdoors is juxtaposed with the cozy warmth of a bed, and yet these spaces remain connected by the burgeoning love between Thomas and Atlanna. Already, we are witnessing their ability to combine disparate worlds - radically different temperatures, temperaments, and worldly experiences - all of which are no match for the constant that is their affection. The ultimate compatibility between them is visually confirmed when the camera pulls away from their embrace to reveal Atlanna’s pregnancy.

A Ray of Sunshine
A Ray of Sunshine

A Welcome Contribution to Kidmania

Central to the success of these moments are the performances themselves, which are tasked with conveying a wide spectrum of emotions in a short space of time. In an uncharacteristic turn that marks her first foray into the world of superhero films, Kidman, as Queen Atlanna, is truly Aquaman’s beating heart. Her familiar breathy tones that so often possess a coldness and a sense of distance are here reconfigured to exult an unwavering sense of sincerity. Gone are the mysterious, deadpan qualities of her iconic whispers; instead, her line deliveries in Aquaman seem designed to comfort the surrounding characters with a level of care and attentiveness that suggests that to speak louder would be to frighten. Whereas in other performances, her masterful control of feathery vocals and statueesque physicality were geared towards the sinister and the untrustworthy (as in To Die For [1995], Eyes Wide Shut [1999], and Stoker [2013] - culminating in her casting as the villain of Paddington [2014]), here, they permeate the film like a ray of sunshine. And Wan, in turn, duly acknowledges this: her re-entrance during the film’s closing scene is marked by an actual ray of sunshine.

Atlanna stands her ground
Atlanna stands her ground
Indeed, several moments in the film exhibit a commendable grasp of how to manage such a singular persona. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the extraordinary opening sequence, in which Wan deftly works around Kidman at her incomparable best. When storytime with young Arthur is hastily interrupted by an ambush of Atlantean guards, Atlanna, without hesitation, tells her lover and son to find shelter. Wan makes space for a fleeting moment, shot in slow motion, in which Atlanna stands up and pushes her chair behind her. Ostensibly unnecessary, the allotment of time to her preparation for and acceptance of what is about to happen, signify for the audience the narrative weight of the moment. It draws attention, naturally, to her posture and expression, which demarcate a refusal to be moved: she acts as a fortress between the oppressive guards and her family.

Although she stands steadfast and determined, however, the tone soon shifts in emphasis from her fierceness, and the sense of love’s triumph, to something more melancholic. When the guards announce their orders to capture her, Wan stages a shot that keeps Atlanna on the right side of the frame and occupying the largest amount of space, with a guard standing behind her to the center, and Thomas through the doorway, and in the distance, on the left. As he calls out her name, the camera shifts to the right, and draws closer to her face, until Thomas heartbreakingly vanishes from the frame. Pulling in to her expression of unimpeachable emotional strength in the face of inconceivable hardship, the moment encapsulates her acknowledgement of the apparent incompatibility of the two worlds. Atlanna realises her role, her true place, and accepts the impossibility of one outside those parameters. She vanquishes Thomas from her sight, and turns her attention to the guards in an effort to protect him, and her son.

Kidman captures the seething anger at her happiness being stripped from her, the determination to protect it, and the hardship of the necessary sacrifice, all in the same stare. The contrast between this expression, at which the camera seems to marvel in fascination, and her teary gaze towards Thomas that shortly follows the chaos of the fight, highlights the underlying heartbreak beneath such unbridled power.

In these two wordless moments, only an actor of Kidman’s caliber could manage to tinge the explosive action and the exhibition of physical dominance with such vulnerability. As the adult Arthur’s voiceover confirms, “they were never meant to meet.” We are made to wait the entirety of the film before the gravity of Atlanna’s sacrifice reaps its reward; during Arthur’s closing narration, he returns to finish the sentence: “they were never meant to meet, but their love saved the world.” Only Atlanna knew the price to be paid, and the weight of sacrifice that was necessary to pay it. And only an actress of Kidman’s ability would be able to tell us this, to reach out to us, and to plant the seed - in the space of a single glance:

This Alternate Take was published on March 08, 2019.

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