A couple of weeks ago, on the night of an Aquaman screening, I accidentally went to the wrong theater, and was chagrined for more reasons than one to find myself sitting through the first few minutes of Peter Jackson’s dystopian Mortal Engines (which went on to tank with both audiences and critics).
Since I had blown my chance to catch Aquaman that night, I briefly toyed with the idea of staying for Mortal Engines, but quickly decided against it. What I saw in those few minutes struck me as off-puttingly bleak, ugly and dull, like so much Hollywood spectacle these days.
So many blockbusters pour millions of dollars in immense computer-generated illusions that may be more or less persuasive, but aren’t especially worth looking at. Superhero movies, especially, are guilty of this. Cities are laid waste, planets are imperiled, fleets of starships clash, but not a single memorably crafted image of beauty or poetic power lingers in the imagination.
There are occasional exceptions. Black Panther’s Wakanda was a production design triumph. Doctor Strange, above all, crafted a dazzling visual vocabulary to express the magical world its characters inhabit.
What else? I recall no visual poetry in Avengers: Infinity War or Justice League. I’ve seen Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 twice each, but their brightly colored fantasies are as ephemeral as cotton candy.
So, now that I have managed to see Aquaman, there is this to say for it: Like the Star Wars prequels, like James Cameron’s Avatar, it’s a movie with tons of problems, but it also contains images that made me catch my breath — gorgeous and even numinous sights I will remember forever.
At times it feels almost like a setting for a live-action Hayao Miyazaki film, which is about the highest praise I could give for blockbuster production design.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.