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

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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