Dead Men Tell No Tales
If any franchise is in dire need of retiring or a really fresh revitalisation, it’s the Pirates Of The Caribbean series. In truth, the only decent instalment was the first one and everything that followed has seen diminishing returns of substance and quality. It’s clear this latest entry tries to recapture the elements that worked so well in the original but what we end up with is an overcooked disappointment and a question which must be nagging every Disney producer: is this the best we can do with quarter of a billion dollars?
Set five years after the last instalment (and some twenty years after the first film), Henry Turner [Thwaites], son of Elizabeth Swann and William Turner, is working a lowly position for the navy. Defying the orders of his commanding officer, Henry uses his vast knowledge of folk-lore and myths of the sea to correctly predict that following a pirate ship into a cove called the Devil’s Triangle is extremely ill advised. Not wanting to lose face, the captain throws him in the brig and continues ahead. Entering the rocky cove, the ship is attacked by ghosts commanded by Spanish captain, Armando Salazar [Bardem]. He kills the entire crew but leaves Henry alive to tell the tale and hunt down Jack Sparrow for him. Simultaneously we learn that Sparrow has fallen on hard times, with his ship still encased within a bottle and we are introduced to Carina Smith [Scodelario], a female academic (something derided and branded as sorcery) who is trying to honour her deceased father’s memory and continue his scientific pursuits.
For a lot of people, the mainstay of this franchise is the acting; more specifically, the role of Jack Sparrow. People seem to project a curious amount of nostalgia and ownership on the character and revel in seeing the drunken pirate’s exploits without noting whether it’s any good or not. I will happily admit the role is absolutely brilliant; when Depp first appeared as the eccentric Captain, it was memorable and mesmerising. Since then it has become a parody of itself, trapped in the same stupid swagger without evolving or challenging Mr Depp to do anything other than the bare minimum. There is a clear effort made to flesh out his character some more while pushing him back into a peripheral view but what we end up with is little more than a slurring, screeching, dad-joke-spewing idiot. Harsh words but without a decent script and a high-energy performance, there isn’t much to be reaped from the role. Mirroring Curse Of The Black Pearl, we have two new young leads but they’re not exactly new, they’re simply the new generation, tying them heavily to the ageing original cast. While Elizabeth Swann and William Turner were painfully annoying at times, they were never unbearably flat or devoid of chemistry; these two are – despite proving themselves in previous projects. Without spoiling things, the whole obsession with fathers in On Stranger Tides didn’t work then and it sure as hell doesn’t work now. Interestingly, no matter how poor a Pirates film is, one can always count on a memorable and really impressive villain. Geoffrey Rush, Bill Nighy, Ian McShane, all three had powerful presence accompanied by impressive visual effects to create something impactful. While I respect Javier Bardem I don’t think he really cut it. Salazar’s initial entrance is pretty damn cool, flush with waning guitars riffs and mystery but there’s nothing new about him and one of the most criminal acts is that he isn’t really much of a villain; he’s a man who lost his family to piracy and is seeking revenge. That.. in fact.. is a hero’s origin. So when he meets his ultimate demise (I really don’t see that as a spoiler) I mostly felt bad for him. Having said that, I’ve just realised that in actuality, the most criminal act was gathering a boatful of Spanish sailors who talk to each other in English.
For all their good intentions, those behind the film have produced something that is surprisingly mediocre. For all Dead Man’s Chest and The World’s End’s flaws, they were at least adventurous and entertaining with a broad, ambitious scope. Everything one could expect of a Pirates film is present but it’s nothing we haven’t already seen before. So with the same cast and the same old story tropes it falls on the directors to produce something vibrant and different. Regrettably while there are a handful of interesting shots or transitions, the majority seems to be lazily shot centralised close-ups and awkwardly obvious outlines as people are clearly stood in green-screen studios. Oh, and the film makes the classic error of assuming two objects colliding (one made of wood, the other of rock) explode. Yeah, yeah, gunpowder on-board, I get that but that’s not what is shown in the visual effect. Seriously, why do all these ships explode? But I digress, the only true saving grace of this film (and the reason it’s not a 1/5) is the continually superb production design. The towns, the ships, the costumes, the hair, the make-up – these people are doing a damn fine job and it’s very difficult to point to a particular physically created set or character and say “that doesn’t work.” To carry so much weight on their shoulders, these departments are performing spectacularly.
So is this the end of the franchise? Probably not. While Depp-driven features aren’t nearly as bankable as they once were, they’re still serviceable and audience fanaticism will keep the series going for at least one last outing. But to reiterate what I said earlier, I don’t think the franchise is beyond saving, it just needs an overhaul and a stern conversation about what works and what doesn’t. Although I have a dreaded feeling that was how this film started.
26th May 2017
The Scene To Look Out For:
I was going to talk about a fairly interesting scene but I’m afraid I need to address the humour instead. As stated before, the dad jokes are appalling but one played on my mind longer than it deserved to and when I finally understood it, a wince slowly crept across my face. With Carina to be hanged on charges of witchcraft, Henry rushes under the scaffold and holds her aloft, preventing her death.. or at least postponing it. The exchange between them is painfully lacking in charisma, charm, chemistry and culminates in a joke which rears its ugly head a few times. The joke in question is that, while holding Carina up, Henry has his hands on her nethers (it’s never exactly defined where) and says he’s holding her by her port (i.e. left side of a boat). She corrects him explaining it’s the stern (the back part of the boat). He seems confused and tries to correct her and a forced married-couple, love/hate bickering ensues. Now, I could be wrong but I think the whole left/back joke is that port can also mean a window in a boat.. or more aptly a hole. You.. you see where I’m going with this, right? It’s most likely an anus joke. A really poor anus joke. That stayed in every draft of the script and was brought out multiple times. Good clean family fun, right kids?
It has taken an exceptional amount of willpower not to talk about Paul McCartney’s godawful cameo (and I’ve evidently failed) but the truth is, there isn’t really any one standout performance. There’s a wealth of talent on display but none of it is utilised. Actors who have performed magnificently in the past are given so little to actually work with that it all feels very tired. Even the mighty Geoffrey Rush, who I still maintain is one of the greatest cinematic pirates ever, looks bored. And when you’ve got swashbuckling seafarers, supernatural elements and a budget the likes of which filmmakers can only dream of, there’s absolutely no excuse for subpar results.
“She breeds donkeys”
In A Few Words:
“Yet another disappointing journey rife with lacklustre and unimpressive feats”