Movie Review – Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)
At the end of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides the first thought that came to me was one of nonchalance and as I start this review I am reminded that the original blockbuster film in the series premiered more than eight years ago and that this last instalment was seriously labouring with franchise fatigue. To be fair director Rob Marshall has attempted to breathe new life into the series but each success is paired with an outright sense of failure. In short, the magic that gave birth to the series is still present but its heartbeat is in serious danger of flat-lining.
Set some undetermined time after Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End this new instalment starts off with our hero Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) arriving in England to rescue his former first mate Gibbs (Kevin McNally) but as always his plan doesn’t work out quite the way he expects and he finds himself captured and brought before the rather comedic King George II (Richard Griffiths) who demands that Sparrow, along with good old Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) now under the employ of Her Majesty’s Navy, search for and secure the mythical fountain of youth before the precious artefact falls into the hands of the dastardly Spanish.
Barbossa seems to have a massive chip on his shoulder or, should I say peg leg, giving him a wholly personal stake in this endeavour as years ago he and his ship, the Black Pearl, were unceremoniously attacked and captured by the dreaded Blackbeard (Ian McShane) forcing Barbossa to amputate his leg in order to escape. To say he is angling for revenge would be an understatement.
Nevertheless, Sparrow is reunited with a long lost love in Angelica (Penelope Cruz) who so happens to be impersonating him in order to hire an able crew to set off on adventure. As the coincidences begin to pile up it is revealed that Angelica is actually Blackbeard’s daughter and soon Sparrow finds himself as a crewmember onboard Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Will Sparrow and Angelica reignite past love? Will Barbossa have his revenge on Blackbeard? In the end the answers unfortunately don’t really matter.
Part of the problem with On Stranger Tides is that it just feels like more of the same and though Depp’s Jack Sparrow will certainly go down in recent history as being one of the most memorable characters ever put to film the fact remains that four movies on his act is beginning to get as stale as one-month old bread. For the most part Depp does his best to actually tone down some of Sparrow’s over the top rantings and drunken behaviour but the film clearly fails to understand a key fundamental that is needed in every movie – namely, it needs character growth based on a coherent and forceful motivation.
On Stranger Tides feels incredibly discombulated because its main character of Jack Sparrow is basically along for the ride with no great drive that forces him to get to the fountain of youth. Instead, all the supporting characters from Barbossa to Blackbeard have a firm reason to indulge in this grand adventure which leaves Depp’s Sparrow fluttering in the wind. Without any compelling reason to sip from the fountain himself Sparrow is essentially deadweight and even worse his constant flip-flopping of support from one party to another makes him seem like a snivelling weasel. This is surely not the kind of emotional core a film like this desires as it makes the entire endeavour feel inherently cold.
One of the things that the original film excelled in was to create fully-rounded characters that Sparrow had to spar off against most notably Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightley) and though the romantic duo became much maligned in later films there’s no doubt that they had a profoundly grounding effect in the original which provided much of the film’s humanity. To make a long story short, Will and Elizabeth provided audiences with a much needed break from Depp’s more overly grandiose mannerisms and in hindsight it is now obvious that Sparrow as a character works better in smaller doses. Once the spotlight swings completely to Sparrow the later films feel off-kilter because the intimate romantic undertones between the young lovers get quickly overwhelmed by Depp’s performance and the increasingly incoherent narrative which even manages to add sexual confusion as Elizabeth, from time to time, seems like she’s drifting towards hooking up with Sparrow for a quick romp in the Captain’s quarters.
That said bringing Will and Elizabeth back would have been a mistake as the last movie managed to neatly wrap up their storyline but instead On Stranger Tides introduces new characters which are poor substitutes in a devout clergyman who falls in love with a mermaid. Both of these characters are so bland and ineffective that the film grinds whenever it begins to focus on them. This would not have been so bad if the scriptwriters gave them better back stories that attempted to go beyond their lustful attraction but alas nothing of the sort happens making them essentially swoon over one another in virtually every scene.
Newcomers Ian McShane and Penelope Cruz fare better although there are still times when the story mistreats each of them making their characters as wish-washy as a ten spin rinse cycle at the local laundromat. McShane as the feared Captain Blackbeard starts off menacingly enough but by the time he indulges in the climactic sword fight with Barbossa the screenwriters have clearly written themselves into a corner and concoct a woefully presented deus ex machina which makes less than no sense. How is it that Blackbeard’s great magical sword suddenly is as effective as an envelope opener? On the other hand Cruz’s character suffers from a lack of focus and her sexual tension with Sparrow vacillates wildly from one scene to the next so much so that you get the impression that the duo should just get in the sack and hurry up and consummate the deed. Then again, Sparrow’s constant avoidance of her smacks somewhat silly and makes one wonder if Depp isn’t hinting that his character plays for the other team, nudge, nudge, wink, wink.
In some ways the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is in the same boat as other long running series like James Bond and is now simply following formula but as the producers of Bond long ago realized that every few films something drastic had to occur since the audience was beginning to tune out. Thus after a totally overblown movie like Moonraker which sent Bond into space to shoot lasers at the villain’s massive space station the proceeding movie, For Your Eyes Only, decided to go in the opposite direction back to his roots in a more traditional espionage flick where the only thing at stake was a simple code machine which looked like a typewriter. In this sense the Pirates movies feel like they are about to jump the shark so I definitely hope some serious introspection is done to breathe new life into the next instalment.
If you are really going to have Jack Sparrow as your core, and why wouldn’t you, you might as well give him something to do with personal stakes in its outcome. At the very least, give poor Johnny Depp someone to play off against for an extended period of time since having a revolving door of named actors who indulge in short five minute parlays with him clearly isn’t working anymore.
Rob Marshall has certainly added a few elements of his own such as less emphasis on special effects and more on plausible physical action and he does construct a standout highlight in the very entertaining mermaid sequence which is both sensual yet laced with the best horror movie ferocity but he is also not an accomplished action director as every other scuffle or overblown fight has a suffocating sense of flatness nor engaging dynamic that gets audiences pumped. Throwing in Dame Judi Dench in a short cameo is a casting coup which elicited what was probably one of my only smiles but the rest of the comedic banter throughout the film felt inherently forced.
Being a Pirates movie there is no doubting the film’s technical aspects as the movie is simply filled with glorious cinematography and intricate sets and costumes yet there is only so much variation one can do with the genre and there is a strong indication that certain set design is outright pedestrian. The famed fountain of youth is such an example as it is essentially a cheesy uninspired soundstage cavern that has no unique characteristics.
The audience has certainly spoken and given their verdict on this fourth instalment and with over $1 billion USD in the bank there is now no doubt that a fifth film will soon be on its way. Nevertheless, the filmmakers and Johnny Depp should seriously consider a huge overhaul as the series has become mundane and more of the same. Watching the entrance to the fountain of youth cavern be an upside down/mirror lake harkens back to At World’s End and makes one come to the conclusion that the series has descended into stealing from itself which makes the film feel like a giant montage of Jack Sparrow’s Greatest Hits.
** out of ****
2011, USA, 136 Minutes, PG-13, Disney
Directed by Rob Marshall
Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer
Executive Producer John DeLuca, Ted Elliott, Chad Oman, Melissa Reid, Terry Rossio, Pat Sandston, Mike Stenson, Barry H. Waldman
Original Music by Hans Zimmer
Cinematography by Dariusz Wolski
Film Editing by David Brenner, Michael Kahn, Wyatt Smith
Johnny Depp: Jack Sparrow
Penélope Cruz: Angelica Malon
Geoffrey Rush: Barbossa
Ian McShane: Blackbeard
Kevin McNally: Joshamee Gibbs
Sam Claflin: Philip
Astrid Bergès-Frisbey: Syrena
Stephen Graham: Scrum
Keith Richards: Captain Teague
Richard Griffiths: King George
Greg Ellis: Groves
Damian O’Hare: Gillette
© 2011 The Galactic Pillow