Returning director James Wan and screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (one of Wan’s go-to collaborators; he wrote the first “Aquaman” and two “Conjuring” sequels) don’t waste a lot of time either setting up the story or laboring to convince us that the rest of the cast of the first film (including Temuera Morrison and Nicole Kidman as Arthur’s dad and mom, and Dolph Lundgren as Mera’s father Nereus) had dramatically sound reasons for staying out of the way so Momoa and Wilson could carry the picture. Probably two-thirds of this sequel’s running time is devoted to Arthur and Orm doing the argumentative buddies-on-a-mission thing, with a bit of estranged-brothers-reconciling, plus dashes of redemption narrative, lessons learned, and admitting you were wrong so that you can grow.
This is a fun movie, but not anywhere near a great one. It lacks the go-for-broke bigness of the original, with its flagrantly melodramatic family dynamics and knowingly ludicrous spectacle (like the seahorses that whinnied and the sharks that roared). There’s a cluttered too-muchness to the production. You may get the sense that there was chaos behind the scenes, and stuff that was staged and shot with the intention of having it play out full-length had to get pulverized and reconstituted in the editing to make the totality work for audiences and exhibitors. The narrated-by-Aquaman opening montage plays like an attempt to shave 20 minutes off the running time and get scene-setting and expository throat-clearing out of the way so the movie could jump ahead to the bits with the brothers getting in and out of trouble and working through their relationship issues while toppling statues, punching giant bugs. and zapping people with laser guns.
“How many influences do you think they referenced in this?” my viewing companion asked afterward. I wouldn’t dare offer a number, but the film is upfront about its fondness for “Star Wars,” Jules Verne, H.P. Lovecraft, Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the “Matrix” films (in particular, the sentinel bots) and the works of H.G. Wells (one spectacular extended action scene is built around Arthur and Orm trying to fend off a “War of the Worlds“-like tripod machine). We follow the duo through a dazzling variety of settings, including the aforementioned necropolis, which Wan has said is modeled on Mario Bava’s “Planet of the Vampires,” and a secret underwater lair constructed from the wrecks of pirate ships, and a volcanic island full of green-goo-mutated flora and fauna that’s like something Ray Harryhausen would have stop-motion animated in the ’60s (the Harryhausen showcase “Mysterious Island,” based on H.G. Wells’s novella, is a charming fantasy adventure that’s perfect for young kids, by the way).