A Review by Noah Antwiler
It's been pretty hip for critics to bash the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I'm guilty of joining in on the abuse myself (as I recall, I called the movies "an awful, awful franchise") because it's packed with so many of the things critics like to take cheap shots at: Orlando Bloom, a fantasy setting, and Orlando Bloom. Sure, they've all got more serious flaws but there are few things critics like to do than sharpen their claws on the latest Hollywood acting pariah by describing how badly they suck, preferably in comparison to human waste or Formica countertops. It's fun! Thinking of gems like "more wooden than the mizzenmast" kept me up nights. Some people prefer Tom Cruise, but not me. Too easy. I'm a sportsman.
But contrary to what you might think, I've put a lot of serious thought into reviewing the latest Pirates movie. In fact, I've been one of the series' most stalwart defenders. Not because the movies are good, but because I recognized how good they could be. There's a lot of potential with the characters and the high-fantasy seafaring setting. I mean real greatness with endless sequel potential, and that's something you can rarely say with any series. I was really looking forward to At World's End despite the incredibly disappointing Dead Man's Chest based on the strength of the trailer and the fact that the trilogy was reaching its climax, bringing all the conflicts to a head in one final confrontation. If nothing else it was bound to have a lot of action.
I really should be more skeptical of trailers, though. The art of making huge, bombastic, thrilling movie previews has been perfected and refined into a relatively simple formula. Splice together footage from the major action sequences with enough Carmina Burana "god music" and you can make damn near anything look apocalyptically awesome. Just look at Night Watch. Great preview. Maybe they should have made the whole movie that way instead of the snoozefest I ended up seeing. Ever since The Two Towers it's hard to find a sci-fi/fantasy preview that isn't set to choirs shouting at the top of their lungs in Latin while people hold their swords in the air howling "Auuuuugh!" or "Tonight we dine in hell!" Every trailer makes the movie look awesome. That's the point.
What infuriates me about At World's End isn't that it's terrible, it's how great it could have been. Worse, it goes against every piece of advice I and most other critics gave in regards to the last film and repeats them twice as badly here. The recurring gags are back in full force: "why is the rum always gone," the two bumbling pirates and the skinny guy's damn wooden eye, Jack getting slapped all the time, the annoying undead monkey, the bickering British soldiers, the ongoing references to "sea turtles, mate," and of course, that bloody stupid dog with the keys. If that wasn't enough repetition in your sight gags for you, this movie adds new ones that make even less sense, like Jack's constant pursuit of a peanut (which I still don't get) and the inclusion of hallucinatory clones of Jack that literally start climbing out of the woodwork. Clone Jacks? Seriously? Are we going to have to deal with this from now on if there are more sequels?
Following Jack Sparrow's demise at the tentacles of the Kraken, our heroes voyage with a resurrected Captain Barbosa to Singapore to beseech the local pirate lord (played by Chow Yun-Fat) for a ship and a crew to take them to World's End. My question: why do they need a ship? How did they get to Singapore without one? It's on the other side of the planet! I doubt they managed to hitchhike. Anyway, their quest takes them to Davy Jones' Locker to spring the perpetually-wobbly Jack from the afterlife.
The plan is to save Jack and unite the nine pirate lords and their magical tokens (disconcertingly called the Nine Pieces-of-Eight) at Shipwreck Bay in the hopes of freeing the sea goddess Calypso and asking her to help them take a stand against Lord Cutler, the king's representative from the East India Trading Company who's made it his crusade to wipe piracy from the face of the earth. Somehow, both Sparrow and Barbosa are considered two of the nine pirate lords, which makes absolutely zero sense considering that, until recently, Barbosa was Jack's first mate aboard the Black Pearl until he mutinied. Either way, shouldn't it be Jack's father, played by Keith Richards in an inevitable cameo, who represents one of the pirate lords?
Not that it makes a difference who the pirate lords are or what they decide to do. Even when they decide to take a final desperate stand against the English armada, the entire battle is determined by a fight between their two flagships in single combat while both fleets watch on and do absolutely nothing to contribute. And of course, when Lord Cutler bites the dust the English forces turn tail and run despite their hilariously superior numbers. What would they care that one ship was destroyed? There are hundreds of them, all of them superior vessels with better-trained crews. It wouldn't even be a fight, just a slaughter. And when Barbosa decides to unleash Calypso despite the firm refusal of the pirate council, nobody seems to care. Not to mention that for all the fear and awe heaped upon Calypso's powers throughout the movie, when she finally does exert her powers it amounts to basically nothing.
Most people will remember how hard the movie is to follow. The name of the game in this movie is the evolving labyrinthine network of lies, double-speak, and betrayals each of the characters are enacting on each other throughout the film—an ambitious goal to be sure, but it's also made the movies hard to watch. The deceptions here will drive you crazy, because not only does everyone have a secret agenda and is betraying somebody, often there are characters who are on the same side and betraying the same people but don't know it, so often they're as surprised to find spontaneous allies as they are enemies. It's hard to tell if anyone knows what they're really doing.
These shifting loyalties reached a point with me where I realized I didn't like any of the characters except Barbosa: the only character throughout the series whose goals and motivations haven't changed at all. Strange, isn't it, that the most honest character I can think of is the guy who probably should be the most craven of the lot? Will Turner becomes particularly loathsome when he sells everyone out to ally himself with Lord Cutler so he can kill Davy Jones (which begs the question why he bothered coming to Singapore in the first place, if the Flying Dutchman is in the Caribbean), and he's only too happy to march all the other pirates into a trap to achieve his ends. Even Jack reaches a new low when he does the same, quite willing to spring the trap on his own kind to avoid risking himself. He's also trying to work an angle that puts himself in a position to kill Davy Jones, because any man who stabs his errant heart becomes the new immortal captain of the Dutchman. and immortality suits Jack right down to the ground.
Chow Yun-Fat is so wasted in this movie it makes me sad to even think of the blown potential his character had. I was so pumped at the thought of seeing him dressed as a Chinese pirate diving through the air and firing twin derringers at punkasses like some weird prequel to Hard Boiled that I could barely contain my excitement. Likewise Jonathan Pryce and Jack Davenport exist in this movie only to be written out as quickly as possible.
The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are so bipolar it's maddening. Every time—every single time something happened in this movie that was exciting or dramatic, the movie impulsively felt the need to undercut its own success by throwing in a sight gag. There are absolutely breathtaking scenes in this movie, some of the most exciting action sequences ever filmed, actually—the battle between the Black Pearl and the Flying Dutchman in the maw of a giant maelstrom amidst the battering winds of a hurricane stands in my mind as the most fantastic pirate battle I've ever seen. But just as soon as Jack and Elizabeth are making their astounding escape from their sinking ship using a sail as a hang-glider, an enduring visual moment, BAM, the camera pans down to show that stinking monkey. The moment is ruined. It's that way with every single dramatic moment of the movie. Just when I was getting interested, the movie keeps cracking lame jokes—usually the same joke I've seen before, like some juvenile who keeps making fart noises.
To contrast the phenomenal visual style of the battle, I can scarcely believe how painful it was to watch William propose marriage to Elizabeth in the middle of their swordfight with Davy Jones' pirates. It went from one of the best moments I've ever seen to one of the most face-slappingly stupid. In no reality, no way would anything like this happen. Even ignoring the fact that Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley have always had the chemistry of a pair of dead batteries, I doubt there are two actors alive who could have made that moment romantic. Nobody in the entire history of madness would anyone be this insane. What were they thinking when they wrote this?
The point I'm trying to make is that all of these movies would have been much better if they'd just grown up. I realize the tightrope you have to walk when making a movie about pirates, especially considering how the director had to answer to Disney. We are talking about a movie whose protagonists' sole profession is looting, pillaging, being generally unkind to women and shooting people in the face in between bouts of scurvy and dysentery. Jack Sparrow would be a much less-amusing character if they showed him murdering honest merchantmen. Somehow Gore Verbinski managed to let his movie squeak out with a PG-13 eating, which is higher than I thought it would be. I realize we're talking about "idealized" pirates, the kind with talking parrots, cheeky monkeys, peg legs and plank-walking, who make their living more by searching for cursed treasure in ancient Aztec ruins than privateering. What I'm saying is that "family-friendly" doesn't have to mean "childish." You can be funny without being immature.
I should talk about maturity, right? But you know what I mean. I don't think anyone realized that there's enough comic relief in the movie with Jack Sparrow's character alone, you simply don't need any more. The last half-hour of Dead Man's Chest were brilliant because it dispensed with the screwball recurring jokes and focused on swashbuckling, badass action, and artistic visuals. That's the story with At World's End: I could count so many amazing visuals and moments of true greatness that even put a lump in the throat of a black-hearted old curmudgeon like me: Cutler's death under twin broadside fusillades of cannon fire, Davy Jones meeting with his love one last time before the final battle, and Captain Barbosa laughing like a madman as he mans the helm of the Black Pearl careening around the lip of a maelstrom. And then someone shoots a flaming monkey out of a cannon,