I’m “biast” (con): …but started to lose a little patience with the fourth film
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Okay, make it stop. This amusement-park ride has gone on long enough. It is no longer any fun. I’m feeling a bit nauseated, in fact.
I adored the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy: they were smart, fun popcorn flicks that worked as clever updates on the classic Hollywood swashbuckler, all adventure and movie-movie romance and total, wonderful nonsense. With the third installment, 2007’s At World’s End, the series even managed to whip up some satirical zing, in its plot about gig-economy independent-contractor pirates versus big bad corps looking to solidify their rule of the world.
I tolerated 2011’s On Stranger Tides even though there was little fresh or surprising about it, even though Jack Sparrow was no longer shocking, even though it was far too earnest to achieve the fleet fantasy of its predecessors. But it still had hints of what made the original trilogy great. Or maybe that was wishful thinking on my part, a longing for Tides to measure up.
No such luck here. My blinders are off. With this, the uncalled-for fifth chapter in the franchise, Pirates has officially outstayed its welcome. Salazar’s Revenge — inexplicably called Dead Men Tell No Tales in the US — is a cacophony of CGI spectacle that assails the senses but forgets to give us a reason to care about the people caught in the middle of it. It is desperate for your attention but has no idea what to do with it when it occasionally grabs it. It is pandemonium, and incredibly boring. It is full of the supernatural, but it has no magic.
This is especially mysterious because POTC 5 avoids one of the signature problems of blockbusters of recent vintage, in that so few of them seem very interested in crafting something new for our eyes to behold when it comes to tossing people and vehicles and buildings around in ways that are meant to be exciting. A lot of the action we witness here isn’t like anything we’ve seen before… and almost none of it actually entertains, like a joke with a great setup and an unfunny punchline. One early sequence involves a bank robbery by Jack Sparrow and his crew that goes very badly wrong, and it should be absolutely hilarious in that same way that, say, the A-Team movie made you believe that a tank could fly. And yet it falls completely flat. It’s loud and kinetic and crashy, but it has no pizzazz whatsoever. Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg aren’t only new to the Pirates series, they’re new to big-budget FX extravaganzas, and it shows. They don’t seem to know how to connect their characters to the CGI, or even to grand escapades driven by practical FX, as the heist sequence would mostly seem to be. (Their biggest previous production is low-budget real-life historical adventure Kon-Tiki, which may take place on the ocean but is very grounded in unfantastical reality.) They closest they get is with a comedic guillotine sequence — that’s right, I said “comedic guillotine sequence” — that makes you wonder if Disney is hoping to turn that into a new theme-park attraction. Which is horrifically wrong and icky.
But lackluster action takes a backseat, problemwise, to lackluster characters. One big flaw of On Stranger Tides is that Jack Sparrow was missing the Bones and Spock to his Kirk, the Ron and Hermione to his Harry, which he’d previously had in Orlando Bloom’s straight-arrow Will Turner and Keira Knightley’s proper-girl-eager-for-adventure Elizabeth Swan. A bigger flaw in POTC 5 is that the new sidekicks Jack (Johnny Depp: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Alice Through the Looking Glass) gets saddled with are incredibly dull both separately and together. Brenton Thwaites (Gods of Egypt, Son of a Gun) — as Henry Turner, Will’s son — and Kaya Scodelario (Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, Now Is Good) — as Carina Smyth, woman of science — share one expression between them (a slack-jawed, dead-eyed befuddlement), some cringeworthy banter, and a painful lack of chemistry. Their attraction for each other is inevitable even though it’s not required by the plot, and yet constitutes one of the least convincing onscreen romances ever.
The plot? Dear god, what a mess. Another problem of the 2010s blockbuster is too much plot, and POTC 5 cannot escape that one. Screenwriters Jeff Nathanson (Tower Heist, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) and Terry Rossio (The Lone Ranger, National Treasure: Book of Secrets) seem to think that more is better, but it’s just more, and in this case, the story’s attempt to find footing is confusing, convoluted, and crammed with too many characters. Jack, Henry, and Carina are all seeking a mythical object called the Trident of Poseidon, which is said to break all curses of the sea. Henry needs it to free his father, who, you recall, was cursed in the third movie, At World’s End, to endless service on the Flying Dutchman. Jack needs it because pirate hunter Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem: The Gunman, The Counsellor) — whom Jack long ago condemned to a sort of zombie-sailorhood — has vowed to get his revenge. And Carina needs it because… well, that’s never entirely clear, but it has something to do with “Galileo’s diary,” which she inherited from her unknown scientist father, and which, as an object, seems impossible. (It doesn’t seem as if Galileo could have had anything to do with it, and as labyrinthine as the plot is, it fails to account for the diary’s presence here.) And Jack’s old frenemy Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush: Holding the Man, Minions) is also hanging around, for completely unnecessary reasons until a ridiculously contrived reason for him to be present pops up, so he has to be shoehorned into the story.
As torturous as the writing is, it’s also lazy, with abuse passing as wit and coincidence as fate. Worse, it doesn’t even seem to appreciate the balancing act that the previous films managed to pull off, in making pirates romantic and heroic and making us forget that in reality, pirates are cowardly brutish criminals. For here, it’s really difficult to accept Salazar as a villain: he is portrayed as an honorable Spanish naval captain whose mission was to clear the seas of the scourge of pirates. And it’s really difficult to accept this latest version of Jack as someone we should feel any sympathy for (and that’s without even taking into account the unpleasant person Depp has recently shown himself to be offscreen): Jack is cruel to his friends, comes across as stupid rather than cunning, and lacks all the crafty charm he once had. We should be rooting for Salazar, and mostly I was.
One of the trailers for POTC 5 blares that this is “The Final Adventure,” which is as it should be. But no such luck. Pirates of the Caribbean 6 has already been announced. It should be buried at sea immediately.
• Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (review)
• Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (review)
• Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (review)
• Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (review)