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!, Super Zero, Get Your Cast To Mars, and My So-Cast Life podcasts, and has a weekly column at Screen Anarchy called Destroy All Monsters. Imagine Thor crossed with a 12-year-old girl.