Scholars of Greek mythology have differing views when it comes to the subject of Poseidon’s Trident. Some talk of it being a thunderbolt. Others talk of it having three prongs. The one talked of and eventually found in the fifth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise resembles less a bolt and more a crooked looking pronged fork, a really large one. Either way, whomever finds the Trident has control of the world’s oceans, and that’s what everyone’s searching for in Disney’s messy new ocean-going pirate swashbuckler, Dead Men Tell No Tales.
Much of the publicity for the new film talked of Disney going back to the beginning and building its new plot from the original template, aiming to make whatever dynamic worked in the first to work in the fifth. Had the filmmakers truly stuck to the rhythm of the original and ignored the incoherent, bloated disasters that followed, maybe we could believe the hype. But that’s not what’s happened. Part 5 is going to hit big at the box-office, that’s for certain, but parts 2 and 3 were also hits, and they were, frankly, exercises on how not to tell a coherent story.
When The Curse of the Black Pearl was first released in 2003, the box-office bonanza came like an unexpected breath of fun, fresh, sea-front air; a lively concoction of adventure, thrills, surprising humor, and a supernatural ghost story to boot. True, it was about fifteen minutes too long and didn’t quite know where to end the story, but the goodwill felt towards the film was enough to forgive adding on yet another extra chase after the tale was already done. Plus, it echoed much of the famous theme park attraction upon which it was based.
There were all kinds of elements recreating scenes familiar to those who had taken the ride, like the dog with the keys to the pirate jail hanging from between its jaws, and the chasing of wenches on land by drunken, lustful pirates. Even Johnny Depps’ engagingly foolish Captain Jack Sparrow hummed a bar of the ride’s recognizable yo-ho signature theme during the closing seconds of the original adventure as he set out once again to see the sea. The only element in this new, fifth adventure that even acknowledges its origins is the title, Dead Men Tell No Tales, a recorded phrase that can be heard as you float your boat into the cavernous, underground theme park exhibit. Everything else, sadly, is an unattractive miscalculation. It goes for the visually spectacular, but ends up spectacularly busy, smothered in Geoff Zanelli’s non-stop roaring soundtrack.
Things begin well. A young cabin boy named Henry (Lewis McGowan) purposely jumps ship and sinks into the ocean, knowing he’ll find the wreck of The Flying Dutchman resting on the floor below. Young Henry, it turns out, is the son of those two lovers from the previous adventures, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightly), and the boy knows that his dad is still down there, lying at the bottom of the sea, cursed as a rotting, decaying corpse and doomed to remain in the fathoms below with the rest of his living-dead crew and the face-eating barnacles.
All that can help dad and his men is finding the Trident of Poseidon, which the boy Henry vows he will do, no matter how long it takes. “The Trident can break any curse at sea,” the boy insists. And there’s the setup, and it’s a perfectly fine beginning, though due to the smoky dark and low-lit nature of this nighttime, underwater introduction, it’s not always easy to see what’s occurring, made all the more difficult if you view the film with the diminishing light of 3D glasses where image is sacrificed for gimmick. But despite the promising introduction, once we jump to eight years later and the boy Henry is now a young man (Brenton Thwaites) and still looking for ways to find Poseidon’s underwater Trident, the film tells its story almost exclusively through chase, action, and a lot of shouting, and it never stops.
There are several visual effects to be admired. The slo-mo way the clothes and hair of Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his undead pirates swish and sway as if they’re underwater, even when characters are out above in the open, is particularly effective; the decaying zombie sharks let loose in the ocean by Salazar’s men look terrific, and the image of the bow of Salazar’s skeletal ship rising up out of the water shows great creativity; it looks as if it’s about to swallow the vessel before it, like Bruce the shark from Jaws. But they’re technical achievements. They’re supposed to enhance the story. Instead, they dominate. There’s never a build-up or a scene-setter, no atmospheric sense of mystery, and never that quiet moment required to build tension, or create anticipation of what might occur. Instead, it’s one lengthy spectacle after another, drenched in a score that practically drowns everything, following the trend of so many action films of recent years that fuel the low-attention span of young movie-goers raised on continuous movement of CGI-created mayhem.
And I’m guessing there’s also no turning back. In a continuing effort to be bigger and louder, as if bigger and louder equal better, the incredible no longer astonishes. Action films will continue to outdo each other, with a resulting effect that nothing engrosses; scenes just happen. You might nod and think to yourself after another visual effect, now, that’s clever, but it’s an emotionally passive response; unless you’re a child new to PG-13, nothing engages or transports.
Even Depp’s popular and permanently slurred Captain Jack Sparrow feels less than he was. There’s no difference in performance and delivery, and he remains amusing, but there’s something curious about the character several movies later. His indignance when plucky astronomer Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) makes an escape as he declares, “How dare you do exactly what I would do if I were you,” gets laughs, as does the moment when he wakes from a drunken night of debauchery and finds himself in front of a crowd, then asks, “This may seem like a peculiar request, but could someone explain why I’m here?” But the act seems tired, and like a comic performer in a sitcom that execs should have canceled a season or two ago, the drunken pirate has overstayed his welcome. What should we do with him? Sparrow is best enjoyed in the original.
There’s also the cliched approach of continually presenting officers of the British Royal Navy as uncompromising, privileged fools who jump to conclusions, listen to no one, consider neither logic nor reason, and who either imprison or execute anyone who even dares to offer advice. It’s tiresome. If everyone in authority truly acted with the ruthlessness and narrow-mindedness of a Captain Bligh, as they do here in the Pirate franchise, Britannia would never have ruled the waves for as long as it did.
Those who see the film in IMAX 3D will see a different screen ratio than regular theatres. There’s more to the picture as it fills out the massive, almost square canvass, but you’ll miss out on the widescreen letterbox image of a regular screen, which, personaly speaking, is actually better looking. IMAX may be bigger and the image huge, but letterbox creates a more sweeping, wider, epic feel.
Statistically, here’s where things stand: Part 5 is marginally better than Gore Verbinski’s 2 and 3, less engaging than director Gary Marshall’s part 4, which, to be fair, almost redeemed the franchise, and is nowhere close to The Curse of the Black Pearl. If you’re a fan of the original outing and live in the hope of re-experiencing what you enjoyed in 2003, you’ll want to judge things for yourself and hope that this review got things wrong. I understand that. I was hoping the same. I loved the 2003 original. But if you’re going, here’s some advice, and it will benefit your local theatre who surprisingly makes little on actual movie rentals, only on concessions. Ignore the expensive presentation gimmicks where the volume is turned up to 15, the image is darkened by 3D glasses, and the admission price is fast growing cost-prohibitive. Rather than huge for size’s sake, enjoy it widescreen in a regular theatre; the screens are still big, it will look overall brighter, and for a family outing, the cost is considerably less. You can either save, pocket the difference, or buy yourself and the family a larger soda and an extra helping of popcorn. Your local theatre will thank you.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 135 Minutes Overall Rating: 4 (out of 10)