by Scott Mendelson
Rob Marshall's Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is arguably the movie most of us thought we were getting back in summer 2003 with Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. It is a weightless, thoughtless, undisciplined, and juvenile bore. It replaces plot and character with non-stop frantic action that provides little entertainment value because there are no clear stakes. Unlike the first picture, it gives us no characters worth caring about and no story worth following. Unlike the bloated but surreal, challenging, and ambitious sequels, it lacks any kind of cinematic life, feeling less like a big-screen extension of the mythology than a made-for-TV pilot reboot. It is the very definition of half-assed cash-in. Eight summers ago, the initial exploits of Will Turner, Elizabeth Swann, and Jack Sparrow surprised us by being a real film that happened to be based on a Disney theme-park ride. This fourth installment can't even hold a candle to The Haunted Mansion or The Country Bears.
A token amount of plot: Will and Elizabeth Turner have found their ten-year delayed happy ending (the epilogue in At World's End implied that Will's curse would be broken if Elizabeth stayed faithful), so Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley are nowhere to be found (and very much missed). As such, comic supporting foil Jack Sparrow (the sad and embarrassed Johnny Depp) is promoted to the would-be heroic lead this time around. As hinted at in the third film's finale, this picture centers on a quest for the Fountain of Youth. While Sparrow seemed set on finding it at the end of that film, here he has no interest until he is shanghaied by the fearsome Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and his daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz). Also racing to find this fabled treasure is Sparrow's old friend/nemesis Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who has given up his pirate ways and has been hired by England, along with a fleet from Spain. Mixed into this quest is the noble pastor Philip (Sam Caflin), who becomes torn after Blackbeard begins kidnapping mermaids in order to extract their tears (which is key to finding the treasure).
Alas, my fears of Jack Sparrow: ROMANTIC LEAD/ACTION HERO are relatively true (think a Shrek sequel starring Donkey). Frankly, the daffy Jack Sparrow had already worn out his welcome by the third picture, as the return of Barbossa provided the gritty comic relief that was more appropriate for the dark and bleak finale (killed off at the conclusion of Dead Man's Chest, Jack should have stayed dead). Sparrow is forced to dial back his off-the-cuff absurdities and observations, and most of his wacky behavior consists of merely taking pratfalls from very long heights. His would-be romantic past with Anglica is constantly referenced and emphasized in dialogue but never shown or convincingly displayed. With no chemistry between Depp and Cruz, one can only presume that it's romance-by studio demand. It's either because someone high up said 'Let's give him a girl this time!' or Disney execs were somehow concerned that conservative audiences were taking Depp's 'Jack Sparrow is gay!' comments seriously. Despite his star-turn this time around, Depp oddly finds himself absent or on the sidelines for much of the picture and with no real role in the overall outcome of the story. It's as if Depp politely reminded everyone once on set that Sparrow was not the lead character (at best, he's the Han Solo of the series), and no real backup plan was in place.
Besides, the film already has a halfhearted romantic subplot, as Phillip finds himself falling for a captured mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) in an obvious case of "Gee, we need some random young heartthrobs to put on a poster since Bloom and Knightley aren't around!". Blackbeard is a dreadfully dull villain, constantly exclaiming his own evil but rarely acting on it. McShane certainly can't compete with the sexually-threatening charm of Geoffrey Rush's original Barbossa and the oozing anger of Bill Nighy's Davey Jones (sadly, Nighy gave a better performance with only his eyes than McShane gives without any special effects impediments). As for Barbossa, Rush is almost as neutered as Jack this time around. Although the film very briefly comes to life during a brief moment where Jack and Hector are reunited for a common goal, and you'll find yourself wishing that Disney just did a buddy picture with Depp and Rush. Berges-Frisbey plays imperiled and Caflin does noble, faith-based romantic, but charm escapes both of them throughout. Even Cruz, stuck having to swoon and flirt with a character with whom she has no chemistry, fares poorly here, shows once again how often American filmmakers cast her purely as a piece of meat. We're constantly told that she is a rough-and-tumble pirate who is as tricky as she is beautiful, but she doesn't only a candle to Elizabeth Turner's fleshed-out piracy. Frankly, she is constantly at the mercy of the men throughout the film.
Despite their reputation as full-on adventure pictures, none of Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean films are what anyone would consider non-stop action. Each film has around three major set pieces inside a 2-3 hours worth of story and character development. In fact, if there was anything that the first three films were known for, it was their overabundance of plot. While everyone swore this one would be simpler, the film is still endlessly padded with various subplots and/or rules that stretch out the film by a good third. Much of the dialogue consists of exposition, either of the plot up to now, the plot going forward, or the various intricacies that must be acknowledged. The rest is painfully on-the-nose character exposition that painfully states the character arcs that our heroes and villains are allegedly partaking in. I'd blame screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, but the film feels so unlike the previous three films that I can only presume that directorial mismanagement and/or studio edict played the key role in the lifeless storytelling (oh how I hope they chime in for a commentary on the DVD, as they did with parts I and II).
And in the place of knotty narrative, twisty character turns, and sliding scales of morality is mere incident. Chases, fights, escapes, and unimpressive action carry the day, with none of the theatrical verve that Verbinski brought to the set pieces back in the day. There is nothing in this film that equals the unending sword fight atop a giant spinning wheel in Dead Man's Chest, or the epic rain-soaked battle at sea in the finale of At World's End, or even the character-driven sword-fight meetup between Will Turner and Jack Sparrow in the opening act of Curse of the Black Pearl. Ironically, it is in the action scenes that Marshall's musical background becomes a hindrance. Like any number of musicals, the film stops dead in its narrative tracks whenever an action sequence is required, only to often pick back up again with little of consequence having occurred.
It's no secret that I think Marshall is an overrated filmmaker, having got by on the talents of his actors (Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, etc) and writer Bill Condon in Chicago and then botched Memoirs of a Geisha and Nine. But his bare competence here is truly shocking. While there is a token amount of practical stunt work, there is no imaginative staging or blocking for any of the pointless action sequences on display. We have a complete lack of visual poetry in a big budget adventure film set in a jungle. Most of the film takes place at night, so I can only imagine how much darker and uglier it looks in 3D. Gone are the rich colors and vibrant cinematography from the previous films, replaced with murky grays and ugly hues. Again, one could blame Dariusz Wolski, but he also shot the previous three films, so one can only wonder why this film looks and feels like a direct-to-DVD spin-off of the prior trilogy (perhaps, again, shooting on location with the 3D Red camera was an issue).
Say what you will about the original Pirates of the Caribbean films, but they were artistically inspired bits of popcorn entertainment. They were filled with high adventure, multi-dimensional characters, an overstuffed plot (that still more-or-less made sense), and an amorality that set it apart from the usual blockbuster fare. The original trilogy was only guilty of trying too much, of having more movie than perhaps we are accustomed to (it may have also been a War-On-Terror metaphor, natch). So while the original films were flawed, their flaws were born out of artistic ambition and experimentation. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is a film born of laziness, half-hearted check-cashing, and borderline incompetence. It turns wild-card Jack Sparrow into a borderline straight man and gives him no one to bounce off of. It replaces two romantic leads who some (wrongly) claimed were dull with an entire cast of dullards. It is the first film of the series that truly feels like it was based off a theme park attraction, and it is about as exciting as an episode of Disney's Jake and the Neverland Pirates.
Note: Am I harsher on this film because Disney has tried to sell this film by bashing the previous films and convincing those of us who enjoyed them that we were mistaken? Damn right I am. Am I harsher on this film because Disney has been implicitly trashing original director Gore Verbinski in order to sell Rob Marshall as an upgrade? Damn right I am. You don't trash the previous films in a given series as a means of selling audiences on the next sequel only to deliver a machine-produced piece of thoughtless, witless, audience-insulting garbage that does nothing more than make you feel guilty for ever saying a harsh word about Dead Man's Chest or At World's End. It is a clear case of failing to try, and its likely blockbuster success is a clear case of audiences being taken for granted.