Everywhere you look in Hollywood right now, someone seems to be apologizing for something. Shia LaBeouf and Michael Bay have been effusive in their insistence that they knew something was wrong with Transformers 2 all along, while Johnny Depp has been no more enthusiastic about the two previous Pirates of the Caribbean sequels.
I enjoyed At World’s End, even if its final act did go overboard on the CGI, and felt it recaptured a lot of the swagger and humour missing from the pedestrian Dead Man’s Chest. I am also frequently compelled to defend Jerry Bruckheimer (as if he needs it) against suggestions that his productions are soulless factory line releases playing only to the lowest common denominator. There’s no question that a lot of his movies apply a similar formula, but it’s one that generally works. While the sequels tend to miss the boat, his filmography is littered with some of the most iconic ‘event’ releases of the past two decades.
But whilst I’ve had fun in several of the movies he’s been reviled for (most recently Prince of Persia), I doubt you will hear me putting up much of an argument in his favour following this latest entry in the Pirates of the Caribbean juggernaut, which is as cynical and creatively void a movie as I have ever seen. It’s not just Bruckheimer who should be ashamed of himself for this deplorable enterprise, an obvious attempt to end his barren run of hits since the last Pirates, but everyone whose name features on the prolonged credits reel.
It didn’t surprise me to find out that this movie cost $100m less than its predecessor (and considering Johnny Depp was paid $55.5m to sacrifice what little credibility he had left after The Tourist, the production total probably isn’t far off that of the original) because you can see where corners have been cut at every turn. All the Pirates movies have been talky, playing into Capt Jack Sparrow’s legend of impossible escapes by relaying his often contradictory history by word of mouth rather than visuals, but Stranger Tides takes that neat little character note and uses it to disguise how we hear about everything that should be big and exciting in the movie rather than seeing it.
Important events that should have been the big set-pieces, such as the naval battle where the Black Pearl was lost, are relegated to endless streams of exposition between the ‘action’ scenes we do see, which are undercooked and directed with a leaden touch by series newcomer Rob Marshall. Gore Verbinski may never win an Oscar, but he’s a solid workman director who can put together a sequence with a decent sense of pace and location. For someone whose career was built on directing musicals, Marshall has no sense of timing, rhythm or even basic shot placement, making Han Zimmer’s score seem uncomfortably bombastic. His camera seems to watch rather than shoot as the actors pace out their choreography with no effort to make the movements seem natural or fluid.
To be fair, he doesn’t have anything decent to work with. Sword fights are mostly set in locations that recycle the imagery of the first film – a pub storage room recalling Will Turner’s forge; an overcrowded climactic duel in a poorly-lit cave – and a mermaid attack that should be vicious is instead a mess of obvious CGI. Sea battles are omitted entirely, with the single piece ship-based action being a mutiny that mostly comprises Jack running around while his fellow mutineers deal with the crew in the background. As for the 3D, it mostly either doesn’t exist (a lot of the movie can be watched fairly comfortably without the glasses) or doesn’t function, producing blur whenever the camera moves at pace and emphasizing the artificiality and flatness of the visual effects – check out that sword being stabbed through a door.
Everything that isn’t hopelessly staged action consists of talking heads. Virtually every key point in the story is delivered through dialogue and considering how sparse the basic plot is and how little it seems to mean for anyone involved (I defy anyone to come up with one character’s motivation for needing to find the Fountain of Youth), everyone drones on and on for what seems like forever. Extra years of life is the only stated prize – immortality is mentioned, but doesn’t fit the description of how the Fountain’s water supposedly works – yet living for two hours in this world where everything has to be explained over and over again makes time slow to an arduous crawl anyway.
Because so much time is spent conveying exposition, there’s no time for developing characters beyond the most rudimentary sketches. Blackbeard is evil because he wears black and has a barely-defined magic power, Angelica is the sassy female that every summer tentpole movie has to include, while Barbossa is subject to an inelegant rewrite for no good reason. Most of them are superfluous anyway, notably the insipid missionary who falls in love with a mermaid (played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey, whose appearance just about the only pleasurable thing in this loathsome endeavour) to satisfy the need for every movie to have a love story, even if it has no relevance to anything else going on. The actors push on through – although Penélope Cruz horrendously overplays her lines and accent – but are not given the material to deliver anything approaching performances.
The eccentric wit that made the first Pirates such a treat and redeemed At World’s End is completely absent. This is felt most keenly than in the figure of Jack Sparrow, whose dialogue either consists of thudding puns that barely count as such (“I agree with the missionary’s position”) or verbal tics that take what made him an offbeat personality first time around and blow it up to the point of grotesquery. Considering the wealth Johnny Depp plundered for returning to his most iconic role, he too seems to have little grasp of who Sparrow is anymore, assuming he even cares, performing more like someone doing a particularly over-exaggerated imitation at best. First time around, Sparrow’s tics were an eccentric, rum-addled expression of an inspired pirate mind, misdirecting his foes into taking him for a fool as he conjured up escape plans and schemes that no-one else could see but him. Here it’s a drag act that rings false within seconds and is agonising to watch by the end. If there’s one thing that can be said for this version of Sparrow, he perfectly embodies Depp’s transition from a free-spirited character actor to just another empty movie star vessel.
Writers Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott couldn’t even be bothered coming up with an original plot, quietly crunching these ill-fitting characters into a spiritless adaptation of Tim Powers’ novel On Stranger Tides (hurriedly acknowledged in the credits with no greater dedication than it has been in the extensive marketing campaign), seemingly chosen for no greater reason than it also involved a Captain Jack and Blackbeard, one of the few well-known piratical figures not yet to feature in the franchise.
In every conceivable way, this movie is a loveless, irredeemable hack job, at once insufferably boring, brain-dead and reprehensibly lazy. The only thing separating it from the ungodly likes of Jonah Hex is that the basic story just about holds together (even if that courtesy is not extended to the mechanics which keep it moving) and doesn’t feel technically incomplete. At least The Last Airbender, as dire as it was, had some kind of ambition. On Stranger Tides just regurgitates turgid versions of what has proven popular before. It is a black spot on the credibility of everyone involved, especially those feigning to care what the audience think by issuing insincere apologies for the comparatively insignificant faults of the series’ previous installments. On Stranger Tides is a cash-grab so blatant it represents the movie’s only genuine act of piracy.
Matthew Razak: Not as clever as the first, as fun as the second or as epic as the third, On Stranger Tides is still a decently fun swashbuckler it just isn’t a very good one. Jack Sparrow was never a true headliner and when given the full reigns Depp’s iconic character gets truly tiring. The story is relatively harmless and the action, though cool at points (especially a Jaws inspired mermaid sequence), just seems like a letdown from the previous films. Clearly an extension of what was a completed trilogy On Stranger Tides lacks the true excitement it should have, but it still has swashbuckling pirates and you’re not going to find much of that anywhere else. Score: 58 – Bad
Oh, and if you do go see it do not pay the extra whatever amount to see it in 3D. One of the worst uses of 3D I have ever seen.