Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)
I’m on the fence about the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ series. During the dismal summer of 2003 (Bad Boys II, Terminator 3, The Matrix Reloaded), the first film, ‘The Curse of the Black Pearl’, was an entertaining surprise. It featured an unusual, superstar making (and Academy Award nominated) performance from Johnny Depp, a memorable villain and was above all else, fun. Then the inevitable sequels arrived, shot back to back. ‘Dead Man’s Chest’ and ‘At Worlds End’ took the fantastical elements of the first film, dropped a fistful of acid and ran screaming, naked and cartwheeling through the cineplex. Davy Jones was a squid. One characters father was a giant barnacle. There was the Kraken, limbo, waterwheels, voodoo, crab army, enormous whirlpools and Keith Richards. Put simply, it was all too much. Seemingly taking note of this, Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney have reeled in the crazy for ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides’.
Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) knows the location of the
Holy Grail Fountain of Youth. The Spanish are trying to locate it exposition meanwhile in London exposition exposition King George II (Richard Griffiths) assigns Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) to get exposition exposition Captain Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and his daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz) exposition revenge exposition mermaids exposition bible bashing missionary (Sam Claflin) exposition exposition they find the holy grail exposition THE END.
That plot synopsis is a small glimpse into the black hole of boredom that awaits you with ‘On Stranger Tides’. Bruckheimer and Co. have reacted to the overplotting of the sequels by severely underplotting this one. It all boils down to this: Three separate groups of boring characters try to get somewhere first. 90% of the dialogue (by screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott) revolves around explaining the motivations and intermingling relationships between characters we neither care about nor find remotely interesting. There are endless attempts at amusing banter throughout the film, primarily between Jack and Angelica (trying to give Jack a romantic interest fails miserably), but these are dull, witless, repetitive and fall flatter than rush hour road kill.
One of the main problems with ‘On Stranger Tides’ is Jack Sparrow. In the previous films he’s less of a lead and more of a very important supporting character. Someone that can instigate the action, set the plot in motion and weave in and out of the main story and interact with all the main characters. When he’s successful, as in the first film, Sparrow is a weasel and a drunk. He’s out for his own interests, capable of swindling and backstabbing. He’s certainly not the square jawed action hero, who puts his life on the line to save the day. But here, that is exactly what Sparrow has become. He’s the star, the main character and as such the tone of the character has changed. He’s less aloof, quirky and bonkers. He’s less of a schemer, and more of a straightforward action hero. And as a result the character is boring. He comes across as less intelligent, less independent, and more of a guy who’s motivations are based on morality and good intentions, instead of selfishness and greed. What used to be a fun character has developed into a dull, generic action hero.
But a Jack Sparrow straight-man could be excused if he was surrounded by interesting, amusing and entertaining supporting characters. Alas, this is not the case. Captain Blackbeard is the dullest villain in the series thus far. Ian McShane, so ferociously menacing as Al Swearengen in the series ‘Deadwood’ is given little to do and looks thoroughly bored. His character carries with him some sort of magic sword that can control different things on a ship, like ropes and sails. There’s some less than intriguing intrigue about his motivations for getting to the Fountain of Youth, and whether or not Angelica is his daughter. The character is introduced with his platted beard ends glowing red and smoking as if on fire. This is never mentioned and never repeated. Why? What’s the point? Was there a deleted scene where Blackbeard falls face first into a fire? It’s an inexplicable quirk that goes unexplained.
Attempts are made to build some romantic tension between Sparrow and Angelica by expositioning a back story about Jack corrupting her just before she was about to take her vows. But, as previously mentioned, the banter falls flat and instead of an entertaining back and forth it comes across as bickering. And I’m sure we all know how much fun spending over two hours with a bickering couple is. But the worst character in the film (and one of the worst characters I’ve encountered in a long time) is Philip, the bible bashing missionary. For starters, Phil doesn’t even bible bash. He merely holds his bible and spouts innocuous generalities about redemption, souls and the like. This is because by explicitly identifying his faith to the audience, the film would expose his character and potentially alienate non-christian audiences. The character is woefully underwritten, with no reasonable explanation of his purpose (apart from some vague notion that he is there to save Blackbeards soul). He’s a dull periphery character that the film bizarrely chooses to focus on in the second half when he strikes up a romance with a mermaid (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey). To call their romance shallow and cloyingly insipid is an affront to understatements. Trying to rationalise a romance between a ferocious fish-girl and a nutless twat, the film offers this pearl of an exchange:
Nutless: “You didn’t try to kill me.”
Fishy: “You’re not like the others. You’re good.”
As irrational and disturbing as it sounds, Nutless Phil is a character that made me miss Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner. Now, where did I put my shotgun? Even Geoffrey Rush, who is pretty much the best thing about anything he’s in, has had the legs chopped out from under him (literally and figuratively). Captain Barbosa as a Privateer working for the Royal Navy simply doesn’t work. His usual leering pirate swagger has been neutered by this change in role. It’s a terrible choice. The only moment the character works is when he reclaims the mantle of pirate at the end of the film. There’s also a pointless cameo from Dame Judi Dench which only makes you wish she had a substantial role that might liven things up.
Taking over the directing duties from Gore Verbinski is Rob Marshall, better known for musicals such as ‘Chicago’ and ‘Nine’. Every now and then a strange choice pays off. Recently, Kenneth Branagh made the superhero movie ‘Thor’ much better than it ought to have been, and Shawn Levy went from the terrible ‘Pink Panther’ and ‘Night at the Museum’ movies to the very enjoyable action-comedy ‘Date Night’. Unfortunately ‘On Stranger Tides’ isn’t every now and then. Marshall is a fundamentally wrong choice for a big budget action adventure. The visual wit and style that Verbinski brought is gone, replaced with Marshall’s rickety imitation of style. Despite the first hour being largely action, with chases, sword fights and mutinous fisticuffs, the film lacks momentum and lurches awkwardly from one scene to the next. The film then halts and the one honestly decent set piece takes place, where Sparrow and Co. attempt to capture a mermaid to harvest her tears (for the Fountain of Youth to work). This scene stands high above the rest of the movie, and despite epitomising everything that is wrong with the portrayal of Jack, it’s a genuinely exciting sequence. But that’s where the praise ends. After the all action first hour, ‘On Stranger Tides’ then spends the next hour (the film’s nearly two and a half hours long, but feels longer) laboriously trudging after a bunch of boring characters as they traipse through the jungle. Nothing much of interest occurs. Jack jumps off a cliff. He and Barbosa have a poorly staged showdown on a ship that is delicately balanced on a cliff, Angelica threatens Jack with a CGI snake, Barbosa collects poisonous frogs, Blackbeard gets the mermaids tear. Think of the most stilted and drearily tiresome way that these events could be staged and filmed and you’ve saved yourself the price of admission.
As for the Fountain of Youth itself, it is an anti-climax. Instead of a unique, creative design, we get a cave with a round stone and some trickling water. Surely this was an opportunity to impress with a memorable set, but instead the finale takes place in a murky, dark, overcrowded, visually uninteresting cave. The Fountain of Youth itself, when put to use, merely reminds us of ‘Raiders of the Lost Arc’ and ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’. Explicitly reminding me of a much preferable viewing experience after boring me senseless for 2 ½ hours might not have been the wisest choice.
‘On Stranger Tides’ is a thoroughly lacklustre, uninspired and safe addition to the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ franchise. With the film reportedly costing $400 million to make and market, it’s one of those films that make wonder where on earth all the money went. It certainly wasn’t on making an enjoyable film. ‘On Stranger Tides’ receives the woefully generous rating of one Dread Pirate Roberts out of a possible four.
Take it easy,