Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

As regular readers of my site already know, I am a good candidate for the biggest Pirates of the Caribbean fan currently living. Yet in spite of this, I pushed myself back from the table of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and declared myself completely satisfied. I had no real desire or need for a Pirates 4, but here it is anyway, and here’s my review:

Allow me to pose you a question. Would you ever want to see a Star Wars movie with Han Solo as the main character? If you answered yes, that’s fine: I hope you are never in a position to greenlight major motion pictures. If you answered no, even better: you understand the difference between what an audience wants and what an audience needs.

That the makers of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise do not know the difference between what an audience wants and what an audience needs has been plentifully in evidence since at least the second film in the cycle, Dead Man’s Chest, which was also nearabouts the last time they tried to make Captain Jack Sparrow the protagonist of a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. (In the final analysis, witty Jack was not the protagonist of Dead Man’s Chest, nor any of the “original trilogy” POTC movies, though in Chest, at least, he occupied so much of the screen time that it’s a tricky distinction.)

Now Bruckheimer and Elliott and Rossio and Depp are at it again, with Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. We get it: audiences loved Captain Jack Sparrow, when he burst out of the screen back in 2003, and the filmmakers are trying to give the people what they want – more Sparrow – thereby evincing absolutely no working understanding of the product they have created. There is, perhaps, only one positive result: if you ever, for even a second, thought the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies were dull, you may find yourself in a position to complain a hell of a lot less about them from now on.

I was reading a lovely essay by Michael Chabon today (here) in which he defined, among other things, the nature of the rogue; he outlined in grand fashion the manner in which the rogue may tilt virtuous or rascally, apertaining the direction of the wind at any given moment – the wind in this case being the whims of the particular rogue at the particular moment. It is this mercenary unpredictability that makes rogues so… well, rogueish. It is a quality which Captain Jack Sparrow (and Han Solo) possessed in spades in their respective trilogies. But here, On these Stranger Tides, with no Will or Elizabeth to shoulder the burden of actually having to achieve something in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, our rogueish Jack has been straightjacketed into unadulterated Leading Man status. It plum doesn’t fit. This is the least fun you will ever have with Captain Sparrow, who is here consigned to be occasionally heroic, sometimes reckless, once in a while romantic, and most often dull and forthright. Actually, it’s likely the least fun you will have with the lead character of any blockbuster this year, even the Transformers.

Shame on these filmmakers. Shame on them for campaigning ceaselessly to inform audiences that Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom were gone, and that Gore Verbinski was gone, and that with them, the perceived flaws in the first three Pirates movies were gone. Bullshit. Instead, the axles of the Pirates wheels are gone, and the carriage has slammed to a stop. On Stranger Tides doesn’t feel much like a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, being instead a weird and unsettling reanimation of motifs, ideas, and visuals, which are familiar only in the manner in which they are so unlike what we enjoyed about them the first time.

Here I am in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and all I can think about is Indiana Jones. Not just because of the warmed-over Marion Ravenwood call-backs shamelessly dredged up in the Jack Sparrow / Angelica “romance” (to remove those quotes cheapens the word); not just because of the throwaway voodoo-doll subplot straight out of Temple of Doom; not even because at the end of it all, these armies are fighting their way to a Grail temple with life-restoring waters per Last Crusade. Nope: it’s because Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is as dreary, and listless, and generally needless as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. And boy oh boy, that is not a comparison I make lightly.

What we have here, first and fundamentally, is a failure of direction. Remember Thor, not two weeks ago? That film, above all, was a triumph of direction, as Ken Branagh swashbuckled his way through a tonal balancing act in a fashion that would do the rigging-diving grace of Captain Sparrow, circa Curse of the Black Pearl, proud. In Stranger Tides, though, Jack’s feet are leaden, and so are newbie director Marshall’s, who should have his DGA card ripped up, because y’know what? He’s incompetent. Sure, he shoots the set pieces dutifully, and communicates what’s going on as successfully as one can while simultaneously doing so in perhaps the least interesting manner possible given the ingredients. But, more importantly, Marshall never lends his film a single moment’s lift, or fall, or any emotional contour at all. Pirates 4 plays entirely straight, one long uninterrupted flatline of unbearable emotional monotony. It is the boringest film imaginable, or certainly the boringest film imaginable that also features three competing pirate navies, and schools of mermaids, and carriage-chases through cobblestone London streets.

I suspect Gore Verbinski was pushing the Pirates machine a lot more than perhaps he was thought to. I suspect he was encouraging screenwriters Terry Elliott and Ted Rossio – or is it the other way around? – to find more inventive ways into and out of their scenes than appeared in their first drafts. I suspect Verbinski was finding ways to reveal characters, and keep them alive, in the insane sea-chase universe of a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, by capturing beats and moments for everyone that made characters more than just extras in their own scenes. I suspect, even, that Verbinski was driving Johnny Depp to go beyond his first inclination in each of his beats as the rum-sozzled pirate hero, compelling the actor to play against the moments, rather than straight into them like a gale-mad sailor.

Such effort is not in evidence here. The script is a rum job, all right; a not-insignificant story of a race to the Fountain of the Youth, but one held down by an abundance of literal-mindedness and only a few instances of genuine invention. (Wait for that reveal of the Fountain of the Youth, or of Ponce de Leon’s ship, if you want to see what the rest of the film has been missing. The scene with the mermaids, too, is pretty damn good, I’ll not deny.) Characters are introduced, sometimes badly, sometimes less badly (Blackbeard’s reveal is, far and away, the best scene in the movie), but are then almost unilaterally consigned to background action for the rest of the story. Why? Why would you introduce a character as terrific as Blackbeard – okay, perhaps the word “terrific” applies only due to the unearned joy of seeing Al Swearengen repurposed wholesale for the 17th century, complete with a voodoo pirate ship that, inexplicably and unnecessarily, shoots fire – only to have him trudge around in the jungle for the rest of the story, barking orders?

Why would you have Jack Sparrow break out of Buckingham Palace? He’s just been offered a chance to leave peacefully, by the King of England no less, but instead, he needs to break out of the most heavily fortified castle in the British Empire. Why? Time was, witty Jack would wait for the opportune moment, before engaging in piratical maneuvers. Not any more; there’s a fucking movie to make, after all – and as surely as you can hear that theme song swell in the soundtrack, you know when it’s time for Sparrow to do something the filmmakers presume is cool. In fact, the swordfights come with such metronomic regularity in On Stranger Tides that one might nearly set one’s pocketwatch by them, except that this would require looking down, which, with 3-D glasses firmly in place, reveals only further gloom.

I found myself grasping for liferafts. Here’s Sam Clafin, as a missionary who falls in love with the mermaid played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey, who looks twelve – though no one, I’m sure, is complaining. There’s nearly an emotional throughline there, though these two are, beyond question, bit players in a larger, stupider story. But the story needs them so badly, because otherwise it turns on whether or not you believe Jack Sparrow would love Penelope Cruz’s Angelica, a woman with whom, perhaps, various palm fronds in the film would, and do, have more chemistry. Or how about Hector Barbossa, returned from the previous franchise in entirely new form, at first completely incongruous with everything we know about the man? The reasoning behind his complete character makeover, when finally delivered, is delicious, but boy, it is too long in coming and too little in arriving. Where did these people learn to tell stories?

And why, why, why, why, why, why am I watching a Pirates of the Caribbean movie in 3-D? These are movies of bright colours, and rich landscapes, and rope swings through hot summer air. To watch one through sunglasses is criminal, whether it was shot that way or not. I took my sunglasses off for great portions of the movie, because there simply wasn’t anything to be gained from them. You’ve been had, folks. As it turns out, only James Cameron, Werner Herzog, and Johnny Knoxville are able to use this horrible 3-D in a manner that makes it worthwhile… and if you ever thought those three names would be linked together in anything, I’ll give you a shiny dollar and a bottle of rum. Me, I’m retiring to my cups.

One question for the Pirates geeks (like me): Given the relative orientation of the Fountain of Youth when it is finally revealed, what do you reckon is its relationship to the Land of the Dead, as seen in the previous film? There’s a good idea there, though evidently, of the filmmakers, only composer Hans Zimmer noticed it.

One more, for the Losties: how much did you want to see Hurley standing by that big donut, when it was finally revealed? It would have been a better ending to both franchises.

Matt Brown
Matt Brown co-hosts the Mamo! podcast and has a weekly column at Twitch Film called Destroy All Monsters. Imagine Thor crossed with an 11-year-old girl.

36 Comments

  1. This is exactly what I feared.

    (In all fairness, I’ve not seen part 3, and wasn’t a very big fan of part 1 – too much dreariness and too much Bloom/Knightly monotony — but I did enjoy the heck out of the ‘flat out fun’ that was Part II.

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  2. Isn’t Firefly/Serenity a Han Solo experiment? I have watched three episodes and really, really do not get the appeal. It is also my first foray into the Joss Whedon universe… if it is all like this, give me J J Abrams! Started watching Fringe, pretty good so far if a bit front-loaded, like they are desperate to hold your attention.

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  3. Mike you fool! You’re going to bring the entire weight of the Firefly fan base down on your head!!

    The differences between Mal and Han are, I would argue, inherent to their design. Mal is certainly designed to echo Han, but he is also built from the ground up as a protagonist with a complete moral ecosystem. (It leans to one side a bit, but it’s there.) Han, on the other hand, was designed explicitly as a foil for Luke. He would need to be completely remodeled to be a hero – which one might argue happens in Return of the Jedi – and others might argue really sucked the wind out of the character.

    Firefly gets damn good around episode 6, and genuinely awesome around ep 9. Keep ‘er going.

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  4. I have to agree with Matt. Mike, you may not want to hear “wait, it gets better!”, but it does. Nathan Fillion is a big part of the reason why, but all the characters become more interesting and warm as things move along. In some ways, it works like Community – I liked the first few episodes, but wasn’t sure what the big deal was. But the characters get inside you and you just enjoy spending time with them. And Firefly opens up to much more interesting premises as well…

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  5. Some day, Matt. I will certainly catch up with it some day, I figured they peaked with Pirates2 in the silly-set-pieces-in-the-sun department (which I found very entertaining), and would go back to dreary CGI skeletons and whatnot, so I skipped out on 3.

    And both Matt and Bob are right with Firefly. Not so much that the episodes get massively improved as the series goes along, but just that the ensemble cast and dynamics (dictated by Mal’s character) really, really GROW on you. It’s the Whedon self-deprecating, but still quite serious manner of building character and executing dialogue which makes the series (and the feature film) a winning entertainment for me. It ain’t too deep, but it doesn’t make itself laughably portentous (or as a parody magnet) as JJ Abrams is prone to do. People rag on Mission Impossible 2 and all the Woo-isms, but at least it looks cinematic. JJ Abrams still looks like he is making TV shows with MI:3. He seems to have fixed this with the Star Trek reboot, and much moreso with the trailer for Super 8.

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  6. Notice I never brought up my issues with Firefly on twitter :)

    I own the series, so I will watch the whole thing, I am fine if it gets better. Also, clarify, I prefer the first couple episodes of Fringe to the first couple episodes of Firefly. Have you watched Fringe, Matt? Giacchino just repurposes some of his music from Lost and “The Pattern” mythology is promising as a replacement for the island mythology. I am digging it as next generation X-Files.

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  7. I’ve yet to dig into Fringe… actually I’ve yet to dig into much of anything from the past five years. In the past week my girlfriend and I have jumped into The Office (US), Community, and I’m working through the Matt Smith Doctor Who… this is a major, major step for me.

    Fringe is on the list, as is, yes, BSG.

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  8. Dying to watch season 2 Community, my favorite sitcom.

    I find less to be defensive about in recommending Fringe (again 2 episodes I have seen) than Lost… it is a different beast, the writing is stronger, the narrative is tighter, acting is better, but there is the Abrams “mystery box” hook, the familiar tuba sounds of Giacchino when shit hits the fan, Lance Riddick is there… and it is solidly funny. The guy who plays the crazy scientist has comedic timing that is beyond the call of duty.

    Also highly recommend BSG, I am comparing Firefly in my head to it, and I feel myself pulled towards the BSG universe, granted it is an unfair comparison.

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  9. I realize with this movie, that when a movie is really good, I will tolerate 2 bad sequels before I give up on it and stick with the original. I might have been convinced to see this movie if the reviews were really, really good, but everyone seems to be trashing this Pirates movie, so not only do I have no plans on seeing it in the theatres, I don’t plan on wasting my time & money renting it.

    That said, I still think it will make a boat load of money at the box office.

    Personally, Firefly sold me first off the first episode with the whole “girl in the box” mystery. However, the second episode was restructed to be another introduction to the series, after FOX wanted to hold off on showing the pilot. So yeah, it’s hard to get a feel of the series after 3 episodes. Still while there are some incredible stand alone episodes, I think the series really holds together best as a whole, with all sorts of little moments adding up.

    Also to add what Matthew Brown mentioned, one of the reasons Firefly works as a Han Solo tv show, is the emsembled cast and so many characters for Mal to play off of.

    Fringe meanwhile I don’t think really kicks into high gear until the final episode of season 1. Similar to Buffy, I think the first season is passable, but really sets up the pieces for a pay off in later seasons.

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  10. If it isn’t playing somewhere in 2D I’ll be skipping this. Wanted to see some Penny in a bustier and swinging a sword. Secondly hoping for a better, fresher direction. Sounds like it ain’t so.

    Maybe a Sunday morning matinee is in order. Then screen hop into something worthwhile.

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  11. Finding 2-D screens is getting harder and harder, and will continue to do so as films start actually being originated on 3-D (as this was) rather than post-converted.

    Let’s all fingers-cross that Batman does INSANE business next summer, and reminds Hollywood that nobody actually gives a shit about this 3-D nonsense.

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  12. Funny, in our end of year episode 09/10, I figured we’d be hitting the barrier of it getting harder to find desired films in 2D by summer 2011 (I think), and while we are not quite there yet. I missed Tangled, Drive Angry and at least one other film because I missed the window to catch it in 2D.

    This summer will be interesting with nearly all the major releases coming out in 3D in one form or another, particularly of franchises that made their name via 2D productions. Sucker Punch’s failure (for many other reasons besides that it was only 2D) sends a convenient excuse for 3D happy executives, but yea, Christopher Nolan and J.J. Abrams will give me hope with their major geek-cred productions that are managing to come out in 2D. Right now, 3D tends to be a ghetto, with a few final-cut auteurs holding onto 2D. Time will tell.

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  13. Oh since we are talking about tv in general here, I have finally cracked open Deadwood. Watched the pilot. I can see liking this show, but I need subtitles on for some reason, hard to follow what people are saying.

    Also I finished Season 4 of Mad Men and goddamn that is a great show. I said a lot of bad things about it in the past, but the first three seasons are prologue to the genius of Season 4.

    Also started watching Justified which is pretty good too.

    Yes I am becoming a tv junkie.

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  14. It’ll be easy to find Pirates on 2D screens as theatres are loading up because the film isn’t going to have any legs at all.

    And for a film conceived and filmed in 3D, what a terrible use of the medium. Quite possibly the most pointless 3D I’ve ever seen.

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  15. I’m tied into taking my 8 year old to this one on the weekend. I really dug the first flick and really disliked the next two. I’m not really looking forward to it but he’ll enjoy it and who knows maybe my low expectations will help.

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  16. I have an extreme love of part 2’s in film franchises.

    Matrix Reloaded, Temple of Doom, Empire Strikes Back, 28 Weeks Later, Pirates 2, Ocean’s 12, Spiderman 2, Blade 2 and The Wrath of Kahn. I do not know why this is so.

    Exceptions that prove the rule: Not much of a fan of Ghostbusters II, Ironman 2 and Troll 2.

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  17. WHO IN THE NAME OF FUCK DOESN’T LIKE TROLL 2?!

    My fondness leans towards parts 3. Actually, there aren’t a lot of examples where I actually think the third film is the best one in a trilogy, but I **empathize heartily** with third films. They have such a difficult job to do. When they achieve even glancing successes – Jedi, Return of the King, Search for Spock, even Back to the Future 3 – they fill me with a rosy glow.

    Props for the Ocean’s 12 recognition, though. When are people gonna “get” that movie?

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  18. There are about a dozen of us who think OCEAN’S 12 is the best in the series ***BY FAR*** and I think that movement is slowly growing.

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  19. See also: Miami Vice, Boarding Gate, Birth. All of my little pet movies, If I browbeat enough people, they’ll eventually come around (to my face anyway!)

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    • The difference between all of those movies and Ocean’s 12 is that those are actually good movies. O12 turns a franchise upside down and makes it pretentious, dull, confusing and uninteresting.

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  20. It’s the Fred Astaire of heist films. Watch the meta-dance and be amazed. I love this film and here is a sort of amalgamation of past thoughts on it:

    The Ocean’s 11 remake is a movie that treats its criminals like casual celebrities without taking itself too serious, but it never really transcends or reinvents the genre, merely content to be a solid bit of stylish (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) Hollywood entertainment. The actors (and director) constantly posture for handsome/glossy camera work and editing. But. The sequel certainly does lend itself a jumping point for Soderbergh and company to further start blurring the line, and hey, even make the film in the spirit of having a working-vacation on the studios dime (see the original Rat Pack Oceans 11 which ended up being a rather middling film.)

    Only Soderbergh and company turn out something pretty ambitious in spite of its casualness.).

    I can understand that breaking down the walls between the movie and the viewer is grating to some. I believe this approach gave the expectations and potential sequel slump of Oceans 11 a much-needed kick in the pants, I personally do not accept this sort of free-form experimentation to be desperate, but a rather innovative blockbuster — even a logical next step, for a director who constantly straddles the line of mainstream and experimental. This is the best of both words if you get off on pure Craft and Form.

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  21. I prefer to describe it as “breezy”…I think Kurt and I both gave the proper context to why we felt that way in that O12 thread (Andrew’s link above).

    I must point out that the analysis isn’t exactly correct…Aside from our obvious disagreements regarding how we felt about the film, you were wrong about some of the plot points and how things didn’t make sense (e.g. there’s a clear reason why they pretend when they are alone, etc.). I point that out in the comments, so hopefully you don’t steer too many people wrong through your review… 8)

    I think we hashed it out quite well over in that thread though. Unless someone wants to add something new?

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