Aquaman 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray review

After his proper introduction in 2017’s Justice League, soggy superhero Aquaman (Jason Momoa) gets his own vehicle. And the good news is this day-glo blockbuster swims rather than sinks. It’s a thrilling, fast-paced adventure that offers some of the operatics of other DC Extended Universe flicks but works entirely as a standalone piece.

Plot-wise, we’re in origin territory of sorts, beginning with a brief recap of how Aquaman’s mother, Atlanna, Queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman), fled the underwater kingdom and began a relationship with the kindly lighthouse keeper who rescued her, Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison). But no sooner are they celebrating the birth of young Arthur than some pesky Atlantean troops show up to capture Atlanna (cue the first of many well-constructed action beats from director James Wan), leaving the young ‘half-breed’ to be raised by his father.

We then skip to the post-Justice League world to witness a grown-up Arthur/Aquaman saving a submarine from pirates – inspiring his nemesis Black Manta in the process – before being tracked down by princess Mera (Amber Heard), who wants him to return to the sea kingdom and claim his right to the throne before his evil half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) instigates a war on the ‘surface world’.

What follows is a largescale fantasy flick with a quest narrative, that at times echoes the Indiana Jones series and LOTR, and mixes Julie Andrews voicing a sea monster with battle sequences crammed with laser cannons and giant crabs.

An obvious star of the show is Momoa, who has effortless charisma and the acting chops to carry off Aquaman’s progression from beer-swilling, care-free superhero free agent to the King of the Seven Seas. Equally important, however, is the peerless CGI work and set design. The sequences set within Atlantis (and other underwater kingdoms) are mind-melting, colour-infused spectacles that demand bigscreen viewing.

Criticisms can be laid at Aquaman – leaden expository dialogue, a couple of incongruous soundtrack choices, slapdash ADR work and a few gags that fall to the ocean floor – but the film swats them away with ease. The focus here is on action and fun, sensory overload and epic set-pieces. And on that basis is delivers by the trawler-load.
Movie rating: 4/5

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Aquaman Ultra HD Blu-ray picture quality
Even at this stage it’s easy to peg Aquaman’s 4K HDR Blu-ray release as a potential disc of the year. Warner’s platter (which includes a Dolby Vision encode in addition to HDR10) is destined to become a demo favourite.

The wide colour gamut and HDR grade combine to create an image that is – and this isn’t an exaggeration – astonishing. This is particularly true of the myriad sequences that take place in Aquaman’s aquatic environments, where bioluminescent creatures positively glow with radiant blues and the regal costumes of the Atlanteans are richly hued. Golds, greens, purples and reds (such as Mera’s hair) are oh-so vibrant, while bright highlights from searchlights and fireballs are pushed to extremes. This is drink-it-all-in-stuff and worth the entry price alone.

The surface world scenes are less psychedelic (and more naturalistic) but no less proficient. External shots during the Sicily chase/fight showcase gorgeous blue skies and solid whites, while darker scenes (such as the sub-Saharan expedition or those beyond the Trench) retain colour punch and shadow detail. Even tricky dim-lit underwater scenes don’t descend into murk.

There’s a strong contrast across the board, ensuring an image with a wonderful sense of depth. Consider Chapter 4's meeting between Mera and Aquaman outside the harbour bar. Here, the HDR grade picks up the reflected moonlight on the jeep and the water's surface, and the neon bar signs glow strongly, yet the rest of the image is varying shades of dark without crush, the sky a deep black.

Clarity is good, albeit with some softening from CG backgrounds, particularly the sunset lighthouse scenes. The IMDB reports Aquaman was captured at 3.4K for a 2K DI, but this supposed upscale doesn’t stop fine details – grains of sand, the lashing rain during the film’s climax, strands of wavy hair – from being easily discernible. It’s not the sharpest 4K image you’ll ever see though.

A word on framing. The film kicks off using a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, but Warner’s 4K Blu-ray switches to 1.78:1 at times to mirror Aquaman’s theatrical IMAX DMR presentation. We say ‘at times’ – in truth the film employs the full-frame for its majority. The first 32 minutes (approx) are at 2.40:1, while the rest (apart from a 15-minute scene around the 90-minute mark) are at 1.78:1. And the large-frame scenes pack a little more pixel detail.
Picture rating: 4.5/5

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Aquaman Ultra HD Blu-ray audio quality:
As with Aquaman himself, this film’s Dolby Atmos soundtrack is a big, brash bruiser, one that loves nothing more than cutting loose and barrelling around from scrap to scrap with barely a pause for breath. This is most definitely not a complaint, because the result is an astonishingly dynamic and expansive aural experience that fully immerses you in the world James Wan creates.

Right from the off with the storm that opens the film, cracks of thunder rolling above let you know the sound designers haven’t been shy about using the Atmos track’s height layer. So it’s no real surprise to find further effects constantly thrown up there; be it the pirate’s submersible moving from the back to the front of the soundstage above your head at the very start of Chapter 2, or the sound of Mera’s footsteps darting across rooftops as the Atlantean soldier Murk gives chase inside the building and tries to locate her from below, in Chapter 9.

More impressive still is how naturally the mix incorporates the height layer into rest of the soundfield. There’s never a sense of dislocation, with sound effects movingly fluidly across the entire Atmos bubble – this is particularly evident whenever Aquaman goes zooming around underwater. This aspect is aided by the clarity and precision of the overall mix, which allows you to trace the bullets being fired, plus the ejection and fall of individual cartridges, when Aquaman tackles the pirates on the sub in Chapter 2.

The most impactful part of the soundtrack, however, is its prodigious levels of bass. Every action scene is underpinned by weighty and powerful low-end frequencies. A forceful as all of this is, it’s also remarkably well integrated within the mix, hitting home with real speed and precision (although some of the underwater LFE effects can seem a little ‘looser’, closer examination reveals it’s because of reverb added to enhance the underwater effect). And just when you think it couldn’t possibly get any more impressive, Aquaman’s arrival in the final battle with his new friend (Chapter 12) plumbs new depths of bass that threatens to rattle your windows out of their frames at any moment.

A quick comparison with the Wakanda battle from Avengers: Infinity War immediately afterwards served to hammer home just how depressingly anaemic and underpowered Disney’s home entertainment mixes are by comparison to what Warner Bros. has delivered with Aquaman’s Dolby Atmos track. But lest Warner gets too big-headed, it does deserve a slap on the wrist for persisting with the inclusion of a completely redundant DTS-HD MA 5.1 track alongside the Atmos/TrueHD mix on its 4K and Blu-ray platters, and (even worse) making it the default option.
Audio rating: 5/5

Aquaman Ultra HD Blu-ray extras:
Director James Wan has not recorded an audio commentary for any of his films since Saw (the nearest he has come since then being Fast & Furious 7’s Talking Fast feature), so it’s not surprising to discover that Aquaman doesn’t sport a chat-track either. Instead, the Full HD Blu-ray (the 4K platter is as barebones as they come) has a collection of featurettes focusing on different aspects of the production.

Becoming Aquaman (13 minutes) focuses on the casting of Jason Momoa, from his early thoughts on the role, through early rehearsals with the swimming rig, the shoot itself and even a surprise birthday celebration. Going Deep Into the World of Aquaman (19 minutes) offers a broader, chronological look at the making of the movie, taking in pre-production, the use of rigs to simulate movement underwater (and how time consuming it was), shooting bluescreen, set design and creating Aquaman’s armour. James Wan: World Builder (8 minutes) looks at both the director’s hands-on approach to designing the film’s undersea realms and the massive amount of visual effects used to create them (as one VFX bod points out, there are over 500 shots in the film where they had to add digital hair to the cast to recreate its movement underwater).

The Dark Depths of Black Manta (7 minutes) sees actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II discussing his character’s comic book origins, motivations and tech/weaponry. Heroines of Atlantis (6 minutes) finds Amber Heard and Nicole Kidman discussing their characters and what attracted them to the roles. Meanwhile, Villainous Training (6 minutes) sees Patrick Wilson bulking himself up to play opposite Jason Momoa, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II going through fight training. A Match Made in Atlantis (3 minutes) sits down with Momoa and Heard to discuss how much they enjoyed working together. It’s also peppered with outtakes of the pair goofing around on-set.

Atlantis Warfare (5 minutes) shines a light on the design of the Atlantean weaponry – both physical props and digital visual effects.

‘How do you get past the joke of Aquaman riding a seahorse? What James wanted to do was embrace it… Let’s make them cool and make them awesome,’ says screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick in Creating Undersea Creatures (7 minutes), a look at how the film’s digital bestiary of fantastical undersea critters was brought to life. Aqua-Tech (6 minutes) then shines its light on some of the technologies used to create the movie, including pre-viz and ‘virtual production’, VR set design, and the use of lighting walls in conjunction with gimbal platforms and swimming rigs.

Scene Study Breakdowns contains three short (3-4 min) behind-the-scenes vignettes, each dealing with a specific scene. Submarine Attack centres on Aquaman’s opening fight scene, Showdown in Sicily is primarily concerned with staging the scene where the Atlantean warrior Murk crashes through a building, while The Trench is all about James Wan bringing some of his trademark horror into the film.

Rounding things off are Kingdoms of the Seven Seas (7 minutes), with Dolph Lundgren acting as your guide to the six kingdoms of Atlantis seen in the film and teasing one more for the inevitable sequel; plus Shazam! Sneak Peek (3 minutes), a short scene from DC’s next superhero blockbuster.

Overall, there's plenty here for Aqua-fans to enjoy, even if some of it is a little brief.
Extras rating: 4/5

We say: Fabulous wide colour HDR images, Atmos soundmix and array of extras make Aquaman quite the catch on 4K Blu-ray. And the film is heaps of fun.

Aquaman, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, Ultra HD Blu-ray & All-region BD, £35