What’s the Story?
You remember how, at the end of At World’s End, Captain Jack Sparrow had that map and was heading for the Fountain of Youth? Yeah, well he’s still trying to get there. On the way, he encounters old enemies (Barbossa, sans one leg), old romances (Penelope Cruz), and new enemies (Blackbeard; the Spanish).
I should probably warn you before we go any further that At World’s End was my favourite of the Pirates films. So much backstabbing and double-crossing and crossed purposes and grand battles. So many characters all with their own agendas acting horribly in order to achieve their ends while inadvertantly (or advertantly) betraying one another. Ah… good times.
What’s the Problem?
There’s none of that here.
Here’s it in a nutshell: the first Pirates film was new, different, edgy, risky. A drunken pirate for a lead character? Scary skeletons in a kid’s film? Hell, a film based on a ride?
Now Pirates has a formula, and this film clings to it for dear life and ends up drowning them both.
This isn’t a reboot, but it clearly doesn’t want you to have to worry about all those pesky details from the last films, but they still feel the need to explain why you should forget everything that’s happened.
Barbossa is back, but they have to explain why he now works for the King of England and doesn’t have the Black Pearl (seriously, has anyone captained this ship for more than about a week without awful things happening? Why do people still want it?).
Jack is back, but they never bother explaining why – in the time since the last film (clearly a period of at least months, since Barbossa has had time to lose a leg, recover from said wound, have a new wooden one attached, and get used to it) – why Jack hasn’t already reached the fountain. Or at least tried.
Gibbs is back, and needs to conveniently burn the map that shows the location to the many assorted mystical pirate places acquired from Sao Feng in At World’s End.
In short, they keep referring to the past in order to tell you to forget about it.
Let’s look at the rest of what’s wrong by character, shall we?
Captain Jack Sparrow
hasn’t changed at all. There has been no character growth, except away from believability (he didn’t have much to spare, to be honest) and toward silliness. The Jack from films 1-3 is random, but usually seems to have a plan that, boiled down, is quite simle: hit that, fly up there, swing down, run off and hope you don’t get caught. The Jack in this has plans that are far more convoluted, less clear, far less likely to work, and less brilliant. We don’t get the impression he’s a brilliant madman, just that he’s a lucky son of a bitch.
Also, in the other films Jack always seems somewhat in control or cocky; in this he’s lost that power and just seems weak. Gone is the Jack who sits in Barbossa’s cabin eating his apples and pontificating; instead he scrubs floors and acts as a general deckhand.
No power, no brilliance; just more silly is-he-drunk-enness.
Richard Griffiths makes an appearance as the King of England, and if you thought he was over-acting as Mr Dursley in Harry Potter, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The king is so over-the-top that he’s barely coherent. If the rest of the players were similarly big this might not be a problem, but (apart from Jack) they all play it much as they have in other Pirates films.
If he’s supposed to be the bad guy of the piece, Pirates fails. Blackbeard is not as interesting or as much fun as either Barbossa (who has been relegated to the role of Captain Jack’s sidekick) or Davy Jones.
But, since he’s a pirate captain, he gets a special power (though no one explains why, or how, or makes us care about it or him). His power: voodoo. He’s turned some of his crew into zombies. Which basically means, uh… that they’re hard to kill. Just like Jones’s fish-crew or Barbossa’s skeleton-crew (accidental pun; no I’m not deleting it). But they’re not zombies in any other regard (brain dead; seeking after brains); they’re just lightly pierced. At first I thought they were mute, but it turned out that they just hadn’t been given any lines.
How does he know how to make zombies? Where did he learn? Why does he bother? These are all questions that On Stranger Tides utterly fails to even acknowledge the existence of.
His speech, too, isn’t anything new. He has the same “I’m a pirate, therefore I don’t congugate the verb ‘to be'” thing that the others all have. “I be smelling a mutiny”, that kind of thing. But it’s not original or clever and doesn’t fit the rest of his speech; it serves only to make him seem exactly like every other pirate in the franchise.
And it’s all a shame. Having seen Ian McShane in Deadwood, it’s clear he can do bad well, but he’s given nothing to work with. Why is Blackbeard a feared pirate? Who is he? What drives the man? Why did he sink the Pearl? Why is his beard on fire only the first time we see him, not every time?
Because every single gorram pirate on the seas needs a superpower. At this point, it’s like the filmmakers are perpetuating their own cliches. What was once fresh and interesting (“pirates + the supernatural? How novel”) is now tired, necessary, predictable. It’s lost its spark. It doesn’t provoke “Oh, cool”, just “Okay, get it over with”.
Blackbeard’s other superpower is he can control a ship using his sword. By rubbing the handle (don’t make me make a “Thar she blows!” joke) he can make the ropes and rigging come to life and attack the crew. He even did it to the Pearl, which is how he won the battle. But how does it work? Why? They never answer us that.
And it’s actually his sword, not Blackbeard. Not the ship. It’s, like, a magic sword or something, I guess. They don’t say. They also don’t say why Blackbeard has a crew if he can command the ship itself (and make it go faster than any crew could, by the look of things). Maybe he just likes the company?
Angelica has a secret past with Jack Sparrow. Well, actually not that secret. Or interesting, because we only get the surface details (he came across her in a nunery, then seduced her, and now she’s an evil pirate. That’s the deepest Character Development in On Stranger Tides! And it all happens years before the film!). We’re told (not shown) that she’s the closest Jack ever came to Love, but there’s barely a relationship between them. There was more romance, fire, and passion between Elizabeth and Jack. This is a pale shadow.
And, again, the film doesn’t try to make us care about it. It just assumes that we will, because it’s Cap’n Jack. That might have been a good enough reason in the past, but not in this film.
Captain Teague (a.k.a. Jack’s dad)
Yes, he’s back. But where he provided vital plot details in the form of exposition during At World’s End, this time he… provides vital plot details in the form of exposition. But it’s far less impressive. His purpose seems to be to inform Jack that the fountain isn’t as easy as just drinking the water and becoming youthful. You need to complete a Ritual. He doesn’t say what the ritual is, though, possibly to provide suspense (fail). If you’re going to be vague and mysterious, you need a reason. And no, a celebrity cameo is not an adequate reason.
Sorry, vampire mermaids. They have long, sharp teeth (but never bite anyone). You see, a mermaid’s tear is required for the Ritual. Luckily, you can find mermaids on the shoals around the very island that houses the Fountain of Youth. Isn’t that a happy coincidence?
Sigh. This just seems like another occasion of “We need more monsters. Uh… mermaids plus [throws dart, checks which supernatural creature it hit] vampires. Okay, we’re good!” Again, not enough set-up or explanation or character (or idea) development.
Here’s a thing: there’s something wrong with your Pirates of the Caribbean film when the most interesting character in it is the ship’s cleric. You know, the bible-basher cliche? That guy. He’s the closest they come to a new and interesting addition to the series. He introduces morality, religion, sanity, the sense that this might all be absurd (everyone else takes vampire mermaids as a daily occurance; more annoyance than anything).
Better, he brings the impression that Philip – unlike every other character – is actually a real person. He’s thinking about things and then doing, not just performing random actions. He cares about the world he’s in, and makes it seem like the things that are happening actually matter, which Jack, Angelica, and (to a lesser extent) Blackbeard all fail to do.
Oh dear. The film has run out of characters.
Fear not! I haven’t run out of criticism!
You remember the Pirates theme? Sure you do. If not, you sure as hell will by the end of this film. It’s hard to say whether they wrote any new music. They probably did. But I didn’t spot any new themes, and every time the action ramped up, it was back to the known and loved theme from films past. Like everything else, the music in this film fails to stand on its own, desperately leaning on the past.
You have to introduce Cap’n Jack spectacularly in each film, apparently. Either he’s on a sinking ship, or in a coffin, or in the land of the dead. In this film, he’s pretending to be a judge in a court of law. And everyone believes him. His disguise is to put a bit of talc in his beard. That’s it. His eyeliner is as visible as ever. His tan is absurd. He steals the robes off the real judge and no one notices that he doesn’t look the part in the slightest. Not one person in the whole court says, “Uh, hold on. You’re not the fat, clean-shaven bastard it says on the nametag. In fact, you look exactly like the poster of this man ‘Jack Sparrow’ who is supposed to be on trail. Arrest him!”
There are limits to how far you can stretch disbelief. An entire crew of unkillable skeleton men? Fine: there’s some ancient curse at work. It makes sense within the world that you created. That the court mistakes Gibbs for Sparrow? Unlikely, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt since he hangs out with him a lot. That no one in a courtroom recognises that the wrong person is acting as judge, ignoring all rules of law and sounding utterly sloshed? Nope; not buying it.
that you need to perform to drink from the Fountain of Youth contains two silver cups. It specifies these cups only may be used for the Ritual. But these cups have only been around for a few hundred years. What did people use before that? How did they know they could only use those cups the first time? How many cups (and variations of mythical creatures’ bodily fluids) did they go through before they found what worked?
Because the Ritual has clearly been performed before, because there are a ton of corpses surrounding said fountain (the fountain drains the life from one person and gives it to another, so every time you drink of it, someone dies). Which begs the question, why are the necessary cups not at the Fountain, but on the ship of their namesake (which is perched precariously on the edge of a cliff, obviously). Did the last person to perform the Ritual, having drained the life from their dupe, then return the cups to the ship? If so, why the hell would anyone do that?
Would you not keep the cups yourself, just in case you ever wanted to nip back to the fountain to steal 80 years of life from someone else? Why put them back, where any old pirate (or the Spanish) can find them and take them, and then where would you be? You’ve got your mermaid, you’ve found the fountain, but it’s all for naught because you don’t have the right cups because you put them back and some other bastard stole them.
What’s the Solution?
It needs something new. This is a kid’s film masquerading as a Pirates’ film (yes, they were always a bit kiddy, but not solely). Rather than walk a line the whole family can enjoy, they’ve gone for “make the main character sillier and randomer and throw logic out the window”.
The solution? Make it rated MA.
No, not a gritty reboot, but ignore kiddifying it and dumbing it down and do something unexpected to make the films fresh and give them back some energy. Take the characters we know – especially Jack – and push them further than they’ve gone before. Push them to breaking point. Show Jack go from brilliant-crazy to dangerous-crazy. Make him have the same effect he had in the first film – unpredictable and dangerous.
Don’t give us mermaids with hair that always conveniently covers their breasts, give us nudity or get rid of the mermaids. Show us beauty and turn that to horror. Use the essential characteristics of the characters (or monsters) to dictate how they behave (in this case, exploit sexuality to lure sailors. I thought that was the Sirens, but hey – what do I know?) and twist the audience’s fears or delights into horrors. Otherwise they’re just fish-chicks: not scary, not unexpected, not interesting. Surprise, shock, horrify. Rinse, lather, repeat.
Don’t kill off minor characters by having them tackled into the water and dragged away, take characters we love and kill them on-screen in ways we wouldn’t expect. Rather than bigger action, give us greater depth so that when characters die in less spectacular ways it means more to us.
In case the previous 2,500 words didn’t tip you off, no. It’s a mindless kid’s film, and not even a good one.
The rest be about the ending. Here there be spoilers!
The Spanish wanted to find the Fountain of Youth and destroy it, because it was an affront to God. Cool. Good plot twist that not everyone was after the fountain for the same reason. To achieve this, they smash the Ritual’s cups and pull down the pillars to destroy the place. So here’s a question: if they were never intending to perform the Ritual, why steal the cups in the first place? To destroy them? No, because they had them for many hours and didn’t so much as dent them. In fact, they polished them up so they could find the entrance. But if you need the cups to find the entrance, just destroy the damned cups!
And the movie’s end? I get that they wanted to do a nod to the time when Jack was marooned on an island with one pistol, but really. Angelica could have just climbed back in the dingy with Jack. If she didn’t want to be stranded, why not cling to the boat for dear life, or keep climbing back into it? Or fetch the pistol, wade out, and shoot him in the back of the head. Instead she shoots at him from the beach, misses, and then shouts at a boat that’s all of five metres away. Do try to grow a brain, dear.