Saturday, May 21, 2011

New Release Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Rob Marshall, 2011)

On Stranger Tides is the newest addition to the immensely popular Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, once again starring Johnny Depp in his now iconic role as Captain Jack Sparrow. What has happened to this franchise? I remember Curse of the Black Pearl being one of the most enjoyable experiences of 2003. The second film in the series (though still a lot of fun) was pretty ordinary, but let's face it, the third one was awful. But come the 2011 blockbuster season, we find ourselves faced with another addition to this evidently-tired franchise. I had to admit, with no consideration given to the events in the first three films, an opportunity for Black Pearl screenwriters to flesh out some fresh ideas, the newish cast and a visionary new director (this time Chicago's Rob Marshall), things looked promising. While the big special effects ('disappointingly' underwhelming this time around), the predictable cartoonish gags and the all-round silliness will be essential to the entertainment, I wasn't expecting a rehash of the first film all over again. The plot, which is 'suggested' by the novel On Stranger Tides by Jim Powers, feels a lot like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, only this time with pirates, and is a failed attempt at freshening up a now beyond-mediocre franchise. It is uninspired, calculated, flat and often downright boring.

In this film, renegade pirate Captain Jack Sparrow crosses paths with the enigmatic Angelica (the beautiful Penelope Cruz), who is using his identity in an attempt to commandeer a crew to sail under the legendary pirate Black Beard (Ian McShane), who may also be her father. Jack, who possesses knowledge about the location of the fabled and desired Fountain of Youth is forced aboard the "Queen Anne's Revenge". He finds himself on an unexpected adventure, at first leading mutiny on board, and then meeting trust issues with his companions. Black Beard, who fears the prophecy of his impending death at the sword of a one-legged man, seeks the fountain to forever preserve his soul. Also vying for the fountain is one such one-legged man, Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), who is working with the British Monarchy and enlisted by King George II (what an over-the top performance) to lead the quest to stop the Fountain falling into the hands of rival Spanish conquistadors.

Working on a smaller budget than the previous films (a modest $200 Million) might explain the surprisingly unimaginative, overly loud and emotionally disengaging fight sequences. It really seems like Curse of the Black Pearl was either ahead of its time, or technology has not advanced. That can't be the case can it? The action sequences, which feature no large-scale ship battles, are restricted to hand-to-hand skirmishes or surviving aquatic assaults from mermaids. Most of them take place at night (which spells doom for 3D viewers), with many from the original feeling larger in scale, featuring more risky choreography, and are generally more entertaining. The early sequence featuring Depp and Cruz feels very much like the one between Depp and Bloom in Black Pearl. Captured in a dimly lit tavern with all kinds of useable props and platforms to swing around on and nearly fall off, this cliche riddled fight even culminates in the revelation that the disguised sword-bearer is a woman. Whoa!

Sparrow was originally written as a supporting character, but the premise of the film centres him as the lead this time. But he is reluctant, obnoxious and unenthusiastic, and has no desire for the spoils that reward this journey. He is a pirate at heart, destined to be on the high seas, taming the tides. He is coerced into joining Black Beard because he knows the way, and he has a minuscule hope he can once again spark up a romance with Angelica and commandeer the Black Pearl, which has been captured by Black Beard somewhere between the worlds of the first trilogy and this film. Depp's performance does have all the memorable quirks of Sparrow, though it all feels less amusing this time. Perhaps we have seen it a few too many times before. His jokes are now predictable ("There should be a Captain in there somewhere") and his drunken prancing and general rambunctiousness is now only mildly entertaining.

I don't know how the filmmakers could not have recognised just how staged and calculated everything feels. The entire plot is relayed to the audience in the first twenty minutes, destined to culminate in a showdown between the interested parties. In between, the pace is deadened by offering up a romantic interest for Jack's character, a mystery behind Angelica's true motives, and several shifted alliances. Essentially, the disjointed plot is set on covering a series of necessary plot points to drive the story forward, without worrying about the history of the  characters, their loose existence in this world and the intrigues of pirate lore. Okay, so we have captured the mermaid and surrendered a tear, now we need someone to claim the chalices from a ship hanging precariously over a cliff, and so on. Cameos like Keith Richards' one pop up to conveniently reveal key information, so the narrative can be stripped down to focus on having the parties reaching their desired destinations and simultaneously overcome the various conflicts that arise to further convolute the plot. But there is nothing at stake and no dramatic engagement. Neither Jack nor Barbosa desire the Fountain, and it is never really revealed why the Spanish desire it (perhaps I wasn't paying attention; it did happen a bit in the second half). The Fountain is merely a means to have all of these individuals (essentially) come in contact with one another, and this is frustratingly obvious. If you aren't disappointed by the climactic showdown, you are easily pleased. If On Stranger Tides does have one thing in its favour, its that the plot is kept pretty coherent. Amidst the myriad of supporting characters, who knew what was happening in At World's End?

Something else that irked me was that the gags were so conveniently constructed. I mean, there always happens to be a cart passing by whenever Jack requires to jump onto something, and platforms are readily available to clamber onto. Everyone in the theatre knew that as soon as the pastry got caught on the chandelier, it would end up in Jack's mouth by scene end. It becomes an ever-worsening series of lowly attempts at humour. Once upon a time, this worked. I usually love Hans Zimmer's scores but I could not shake the realisation that it felt like a re-working of John William's 'Republic' theme from The Empire Strikes Back. Overall, I was frustrated by how many of the ideas were rehashed from earlier films in the franchise and how sporadic and misguided the screenplay was. You could always forgive the lack of 'plot' in the earlier films because they were so much fun. But sadly, that doesn't exist here either. Oh, and it's now in 3D. If I saw it in 3D I may have given it even less. Come to think of it, there is almost nothing to like about it, period.

My Rating:  1 Star (D-)


  1. Your review pretty much squares with others I've read. I'll be seeing it tomorrow night with friends regardless, but now I have low expectations.

    I will disagree with your comments on At World's End. I enjoyed that one despite its ludicrous plot.

  2. I have seen mixed responses, though most share similar thoughts to me. Its certainly very disappointing, I expected it to at least be fun, but when it is, it feels like you have seen it before. I went in with low expectations, and I was still frustrated! Such a waste of money and talent.
    I know a lot of people that have enjoyed each of the first three, and that's fine! I only saw the third film once at the cinema, and have never given it another go. I remember it being a muddled, anticlimactic mess, but this was the response of someone bitterly over the series by then. I gave this a go because of the potential for fresh ideas and the new direction etc.

  3. This one didn't feel as epic as the second and third Pirates films and in many ways that's a good thing. I also wish they did more with Captain Jack, but Depp is always amusing as him, and I still had some fun with this enjoyable Summer blockbuster. Good Review!

  4. And I thought I was harsh! But seriously, this movie deserves all the hate it's getting. Not a single gag or fight sequence that didn't feel stale or predictable I will say the 3D wasn't AWFUL compared to a lot of other films, but it did feel pretty pointless.

  5. I thought I might have been quite alone in thinking the film was boring, but it has been one of the most frequent reactions. I really hated the early scenes, and then I just got bored and fidgety. Yeah, every fight sequence was so dull and uninvolving, every gag felt calculated and predictable. None of the characters (including Jack, who was a lead pushed aside, rather than a support stealing scenes) were entertaining. Could go on and on. It would be the worst film of the year so far, but I can't go past Sucker Punch and the film I saw immediately before Pirates, Your Highness.