Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (review)

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Sail On

Oh, thank the gods. Thank crazy Walt Disney’s head in a cryogenic freezer. Thank the army of producers and FX geeks and writers and cast and studio execs and focus-group gurus and everyone else who made this prepackaged, ready-for-synergy-marketing, lowest-common-denominator junk cinema the most cheesalicious, escape-a-riffic it could be. It’s not Shakespeare. It’s not Fellini. It’s not even the best three-quel ever made (that’s still Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and unlikely to be beaten). But it’s Jack Sparrow and it’s Will Turner and it’s Elizabeth Swann and it’s Captain Barbossa and it’s Davy Jones and it’s Pirates of the Caribbean, and It. Is. Good.

I mightn’t have been so nervous if the other three-quels of the infant summer — Shrek the Third and Spider-Man 3 — hadn’t been such a letdown, and here me with my little geeky heart so tender and wounded. It’s possible that I was ready to throw myself at anything that had a kind and silly word to say to me, that I was ready to cling to anything fun and even a little bit funky in the wake of a sad and sorry May. But I think I’m still discerning enough. I think I am.

Look: there’s swordfighting and adventure and romance and treachery and the pirate life for me and all that, but there’s more, which makes me think I’m not seeing something that’s not there. It’s Guantanamo Bay in the Caribbean as At World’s End opens, good innocent folk rounded up and rights like habeas corpus and having a lawyer to argue for ye suspended and so the wretched and vile East India Company is just hanging everyone right and left who has so much as breathed on a pirate lately. Even children. (Somehow, the story that was perfectly content to be cheerfully about nothing in its first outing takes on a bit of about-something in its last, and it’s just what was needed to raise the stakes for us, the viewers.) And these fine good folks through magic singin’ or whatnot have summoned the pirates to a council so they can fight for their right to be bad guys, or good guys, or just left alone to do their piratin’. It’s not about who’s breaking the law, per se, but about who’s making laws that deserve to be broken, and who’s fighting for freedoms that deserve to be fought for.

So the supposed bad guys — the pirates — have become the good guys, fighting for their right to exist, for their sovereignty from corporate piracy that cloaks itself in respectability; and the supposed good guys — the fine corporations who rule us, er, rule the 18th century — become the bad guys, trying to eliminate the independent contractors who are their fiercest competitors. Oo, and earthy gods are angry, too, Nature showing her displeasure at the way humankind is behaving, and it’s impossible not to see something of an inconvenient truth here in the sea goddess Calypso — who makes a spectacular appearance — and her mighty wrath. And impossible not to snicker and shake your head with wonder to realize that The Walt Disney Company, defender of corporate rights to the exclusion of all else, is one of the East India Companies of today, and yet here is comfortable enough to cast itself as villain, and cast everyone who will download illegal copies of this movie off some anonymous Russian server as the champions of liberty.

Or else Disney knows its position is unassailable and is just toying with us, appeasing us because we’ve already lost. This is entirely possible.

But there’s Johnny Depp! And Orlando Bloom! And Keira Knightley! And I am distracted! And there is something like the heft of classical mythology in the resolution of their tale: in how the film is nearly a three-hour Mexican standoff between the three as they shuffle through betrayals and deceits and cheats and being horrible to those they love in the name of that love. Keeping track of who’s faking the betrayal of the moment and who’s for real and who’s genuinely heartbroken and who’s merely pretending to be in order to fool Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush: Candy) or the East India toady Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander: The Libertine) or Davy Jones (Bill Nighy: Hot Fuzz) is part of the fun, and part of what keeps you thoroughly enraptured through three hours on your butt in a movie theater. And that’s never-minding the magnificent FX that aren’t simply cool and awesome but actual contribute something to the story, so that you forget to boggle at them as merely stunning technical accomplishments and marvel at them for their deep and potent impact on the story or the characters.

Like the journey through the mythos-heavy iceberg-laden waters to get to World’s End, which really is just like the old stories always promised us: an edge to fall off. Like Jack’s surreal interlude in purgatory or Davy Jones’ locker or whatever it is: what it is is a hell of his own making, and it is funny and bitter and exactly what you’d expect Jack’s psyche to throw up at him. And not much at all what you’d expect from a summery popcorny kind of movie from a big Hollywood studio. (That that’s so surprising even though the second film was darker than you’d expect from a summery popcorny kind of movie from a big Hollywood studio is a measure of how much this whole series has stretched and dared and bet big on the outrageous and the bizarre.)

And there are nine pirate lords who must hang together or they will surely hang separately — including Chow Yun Fat’s (Curse of the Golden Flower) way cool Captain Sao Feng, who gets neither the brief cameo nor the immense role to play that I thought he would, yet leaves just the right kind of impression on the film. And Norrington (Jack Davenport: The Wedding Date) and Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgård: Beowulf & Grendel) and Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris: 28 Days Later) and the monkey get exactly the right kind of ending to their tales, and so does everyone else. It all wraps itself up in precisely the way that it should, even if it is all surprisingly bittersweet and melancholy, and there’s no Ewoks at all.

see also:
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (review)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (review)
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (review)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (aka Dead Men Tell No Tales) movie review: yo ho no

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Thu, May 24, 2007 7:50am

Awww, now the Ewoks weren’t THAT bad… but then again we’ve lived long enough to see Jar-J… uh He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

Thu, May 24, 2007 9:52am

The first sentence told me all I needed to know, so I’ll come back to read the rest of the review later. I was so worried that At World’s End wouldn’t redeem Dead Man’s Chest. I mean, DMC is half a movie. This one should determine whether that one was worth sitting through, and the two reviews I’ve seen so far tell me that it is.

Thu, May 24, 2007 10:48am

W00t! Yay! I shared your trepidation, but now I can go without worry, dressed in me pirate best. Arrr!

Thu, May 24, 2007 6:31pm

Well you seemed to like it so thats good. Course you liked Dead Man’s Chest, even though Dead Man’s Chest was on the level of Matrix Reloaded. Hopefully after this weekend, World’s End will make me happy that they made two more Pirates movies.

Fri, May 25, 2007 5:11am

Oh, thank the Lord, a critic who gets it! I saw AWE yesterday, and really liked it. I laughed, I cried, I was blown away by the effects and the emotion. And every review I’ve read finds it unfunny, overlong and somehow overcomplicated. The plot’s not that difficult to understand.

So hurrah for you and your down-to-earth movie-loving reviews, Mary-Ann – a beacon of sanity!

Fri, May 25, 2007 1:09pm

Isn’t it funny that the critics who most want to prove how smart and intellectual they are can’t follow the plot. World’s End requires you actually pay attention, but how is that a bad thing?

I agree with Joanne. MaryAnn is the first reviewer I’ve read who’s smart enough to actually understood the movie and down-to-earth enough to enjoy it.

Fri, May 25, 2007 6:31pm

World’s End requires you actually pay attention

Yet unlike with *Spider-Man 3*’s bloated plot, the plot here feels organically complex, not simply overpacked with too much crap.

MaryAnn is the first reviewer I’ve read who’s smart enough to actually understood the movie and down-to-earth enough to enjoy it.

Oh, but wait till I trash some other big dumb movie that’ll be hugely popular this summer: then I’ll be accused of “thinking too much” about the movie and being too “intellectual.” :->

Sun, May 27, 2007 1:16am

“Yet unlike with *Spider-Man 3*’s bloated plot, the plot here feels organically complex, not simply overpacked with too much crap.”

Kidding Me????

This sentence makes no sense to me whatsoever. Spider-Man 3 is as complex as “See Spot Run” compared to Pirates. The problem isn’t that Pirates makes you work to understand it, it’s that it’s not worth the work. What was great about the first movie is its breezy charm, something completely thrown out the window here.

And off the subject, I haven’t been able to comprehend the “overstuffed” complaint about Spider-Man 3. I’m hard-pressed to find anything in Pirates 3 that matches the emotional impact of Sandman struggling to be born, Parker sadly fishing his wedding ring out of the champagne glass, or even Harry’s face as Spidey tells him how his dad hated him. Bleh.

I’ll give Pirates 3 this, it starts great and it ends pretty good. There’s a lot of stuff here that shouldn’t be there though.

Sun, May 27, 2007 2:02am

Ugh, got away from me. It’s not like Pirates 3 is a bad movie, it’s got some very good parts in it. The subtext about criminal pirates vs. legit pirates is wonderful, MaryAnn really nailed that part. But it frustrates me to see it get catapulted above Spider-Man 3; those films’ virtues are separate and all their own, but their flaws are shared, and in every case (weak characterization, too many characters, too much goofy humor), Pirates 3 is far, far worse.

Sun, May 27, 2007 7:32am

Yeah, for once, i’m gonna have to disagree with MJ.
Spider-man 3, Shrek 3 and Pirates 3 were disappointments.
The summer is not of to a good start, quality-wise but $-wise, all 3 will make over $350 million.

Ipray to the cenima goda that Bourne Ultimatum doesn’t share the same fate.

Sun, May 27, 2007 9:40am

I’m hard-pressed to find anything in Pirates 3 that matches the emotional impact of Sandman struggling to be born

Ugh. I found no genuine emotion in that at all. But boy, the FX were cool, though, huh?

On the other hand, the moment in POTC3 when Jack struggles with his own conscience over stabbing Davy Jones’s heart when perhaps there’s someone else at that moment who could use it more… It’s a brief moment, but a powerful one.

The problem isn’t that Pirates makes you work to understand it, it’s that it’s not worth the work

Obviously, I disagree.

Sun, May 27, 2007 11:49pm

MAJ- I agree with you. The movie was spectacular. I laughed (more than the people around me, as usual); I cried (not as much as I thought). I’m waiting for the fantastic quotes to start hitting. My fave being “talk to the tool” (a non-laughing moment in our theatre, surprisingly).

Hope all is well.

Mon, May 28, 2007 2:11pm

“Obviously, I disagree.”

Yes, obviously, and I disagree right back. This is what happens when you let any jackass with an opinion write on your website.

Mon, May 28, 2007 2:32pm

Overall, I think we have to commend all these people putting movies together. Pirates 3 is not really a bad movie.

Tue, May 29, 2007 1:58pm

So… I shouldn’t be worried with all the “we are about to churn out direct-to-DVD crap” that I felt right at the end of PotC II? I ask because I seriously felt that the franchise was about to die; the swamp woman” bit was a bit too much cornball for me.

Tue, May 29, 2007 11:03pm

I can’t put my finger on it, but the movie didn’t really grab me in any stellar kind of way. It was fun in parts, and it certainly had lots of stuff going on, but it didn’t grab me on an emotional level.

I think in part, the second film left me tepid, and I was not eager to see this final film.

The first film was light, fun, and adventurous. I think the last two simply tried too hard to be more than fun summer popcorn fair.

It was enjoyable, but I think the movie tried too hard to make a quasi-political statement.

Overall, it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great.

Wed, May 30, 2007 12:12am

So… I shouldn’t be worried with all the “we are about to churn out direct-to-DVD crap” that I felt right at the end of PotC II

Well, I didn’t feel that, so I guess I can’t really say.

Wed, May 30, 2007 2:15pm

That’s a silly comment. I’ve registered my disappointment with this movie already (and I want to reiterate that it’s a bizarre stretch to call this movie “organic”), but ‘direct-to-DVD”? Bullshit. It is very, very clear that tons of blood, sweat and toil went into making these movies. They are misguided at worst, but they are emphatically NOT lazy.

Wed, May 30, 2007 7:07pm

No deep thoughts, just thank the LORD someone else found this movie as satisfyingly fun and escapist as I did! Right on Mary Ann! I just found your site from a link about Jericho (again, right on!) and I can tell that I’m going to be returning for your reviews of other films, books, pop culture crap, etc that I love too.

Thu, May 31, 2007 1:17pm

Huzzah, MaryAnn! Thank you for being one of the few critics able to enjoy this film. Personally, I loved it. A lot. But then I also loved the second one (and, for that matter, the entire ‘Matrix’ series, including ‘Revolutions’), so what the hell do I know?

If you’re so inclined, check out my far-less-professional-but-equally-enthusiastic review at http://www.mania.com/member-reviews/54804/200.html.

Sherry Fraley
Fri, Jun 01, 2007 1:26pm

I did not find Pirates3 as hard to follow as I expected, given all the remarks about it being overly complicated. There’s something about the way I connected with the humor and the costumes and the mythical and historical potporri and the zig-zag plot and the cinematical feast for the eyes that made it a super fun package for me. If I had wanted to find something to criticize, I’m sure I could have found it, but I was having too much fun enjoying it. And I loved Keira’s costumes, as well as her acting of the character being so fun to watch. Oh, and one of my very favorite parts is where the East India Co. captain, meeting his fate, says, “It’s just good business” as though that idea was all he had to hang onto, but it wasn’t going to save him. I’m generally a peaceful sort, but there was something very satisfying about seeing that ship explode, and I felt like rejoicing along with the pirates when the Armada turned around. Yoho, yoho, a pirates life for me!

Gregory Wonderwheel
Tue, Jun 05, 2007 11:59pm

This is the best review of At World’s End that I have read from a professional film critic. Almost all others totally missed the point that the Pirates’ muse has a message with a meaning. It is really laughable how many reviewers talk about action, directing, acting, special effects, etc., (important but all secondary) and miss the point that film has meaning.

Tonio Kruger
Sun, Jun 10, 2007 6:02pm

You wanna see a bad pirate movie? See “The Island.” (I mean, of course, the Michael Caine version, not the Scarlett Johansson version.)

As for this movie…

After all the praises MaryAnn has lavished on such dubious fare as “Attack of the Clones,” I expected a mess.

“POTC 3” was a lot of things, but it wasn’t really a mess. In fact, storywise, it was actually pretty good.

And yet…I could not help having the same delayed response to this that I had to the recent “Buffy: Eighth Season” comic book: Yes, it’s nice that the project came off so nicely, but was this trip really all that necessary?

Wasn’t the ending of the first movie more emotionally satisfying? And did we really have to see the death of otherwise sympathetic characters in order to “advance” the storyline? Yes, the whole idea of Lovecraftian pirates with a bit of the Innsmouth look had a strong appeal in the second movie, but in the end, I would not be a bit surprised if in the long run, these last two “POTC” movie have all the popularity of “The X-Files”‘ ninth season.


I must confess, however, that I did like the ending, even if those ten years did seem to go rather fast for Will and Elizabeth. (Maybe they crossed the International Date Line or something.)

And “POTC 4: La Aqua de Vida” doesn’t sound like that bad an idea for a sequel….

Ay, Dios, now I am confused.