AQUAMAN AND THE LOST KINGDOM Review: Drowned By Exposition Overload

Contributing Writer; Chicago, IL (@anotherKyleL)
AQUAMAN AND THE LOST KINGDOM Review: Drowned By Exposition Overload

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom has an exposition problem.

Sometimes the 'it's an adaptation of a comic about a guy who talks to fish' explanation holds up, as when characters shout at one another that they have to stop the bad guys. But from Aquaman/Arthur Curry's (Jason Momoa) opening voiceover that functions as both a "previously on Aquaman" and stage-setting forward, it feels as if the explanations only ever pause for the requisite action scenes.

To be fair, there's a lot of ground to cover and a very heavy handed message to deliver. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom introduces ancient Atlantean fuel that, as Nicola Kidman's former queen Atlanna puts it, releases "greenhouse gasses."

The villainous Black Manta/David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) returns from the first film, continuing to swear vengeance for the death of his father at Aquaman's hands, and begins to deliberately burn the climate catastrophe-inducing fuel for reasons only known to him and the spirit possessing him through a recently discovered ancient trident that may originate from the eponymous lost kingdom.

Again, there's a lot of ground to cover. But the exposition is awkward and thoroughly halts narrative momentum for lengthy explanations. So instead of building out the undersea world of the franchise in an exciting and wondrous way, these attempts at grand world building end up confusing, overwhelming, and eventually just boring.

It certainly doesn't help that at several points, director James Wan and screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick choose to flashback to the first film to, if we're being kind, emphasize themes, and less kindly, ensure that the audience knows what characters are talking about. Even the kindness of the thematic emphasis reading, however, only goes so far when, at one point, Wan flashes back to about 20 minutes earlier in the same film.

There are definitely themes to emphasize, but they're so explicit that their introduction is emphatic enough. Making the villain's goal to accelerate global warming, albeit while commenting that his actions are simply "fast forwarding" what the world is already doing, feels almost like a direct response to the first film's villain having too sympathetic a mission.

In Aquaman (2018), Atlantean Prince Orm (Patrick Wilson) sought to amass power to go to war with the surface world for their mistreatment of the Earth and its oceans. In Lost Kingdom, Orm gets a redemption arc as he battles alongside his half-brother Arthur against Black Manta, who aims to literally melt ice sheets.

To the film's credit, most of those battles look good. Wan's skill with geography shines in the mid-sized and large-scale action set pieces. He moves the camera through water and air to let audiences see every combatant, the tools used in the fight (whether they're chains or warships), and the environments.

The film's 3D conversion isn't revelatory but adds some depth to Wan's compositions, allowing audiences to see characters smash into distant objects more clearly. Sadly, and surprisingly when compared with the first film and Wan's work on Malignant, the smaller scale hand-to-hand and/or trident-to-trident fights are relatively chaotic and more difficult to make sense of than thrilling.

Similarly alternating between successful and disappointing are the film's sets and creatures. One sequence sees Arthur and Orm run from gigantic mutated bugs through a field of beautifully colorful and even more gigantic carnivorous plants. Yet the titular lost kingdom looks mostly like a lackluster recreation of the underground city home of the Army of the Dead in The Return of the King and its inhabitants appear just different enough from the Army of the Dead to avoid copyright issues.

Most exciting among the creatures are the centipede-like steeds and desert-dwelling former sea-dwellers who ride them in an early action scene. But like everything else in the film, those creatures are over-explained, in a voiceover that seeks to evoke heist films and instead washes over as meaningless.

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom has some interesting ideas about fantastical worlds and potential undersea mythologies, and its message is well-worth sharing. But the film's commitment to over-explaining every aspect of its world, narrative, and message turns it into a slog despite the sometimes eye-popping production design and battles.

The film opens December 22 throughout the known world, only in movie theaters. Visit the official site for more information.

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AquamanDCJames WanJason MomoaPatrick Wilson

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