review of PotC Dead Men Tell No Tales

Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Men Tell No Tales

2017

directed by joachim running, espen sandberg, starring johnny depp, javier bardem, geoffrey rush, brenton thwaites, kaya scodelario

2 out of 5 tiresome, predictable quips from jack sparrow

Here’s the new pirates, same as the old pirates. As every walmart customer knows, standardization doesn’t leave much room for fun, given that the point of a franchise is to monetize all the quirks of the original and spread it like a virus.  And so here we are, back with captain jack sparrow and co., beloved scoundrels all, on what I’m certain the marketing people call a ‘rollicking highseas adventure.’ What’s interesting is that everything bad about the movie can be chalked up to the franchise, but so can everything good.

Pirates original flavor was an unusually creative blockbuster.  Released in late june 2003, it was in some ways the perfect summer movie.  Huge sets, big name actors, adventure, action, etc etc. A plot that’s engaging but not difficult.  The unfolding tension between the three main characters whose alliance fluctuates. But the overall package had a flair that most blockbusters never capture, a certain element of style and creativity and forethought.  It had its faults but was nevertheless fun and imaginative.

Enter the machine.  The machine demands profit, which means replication, which means designing a system to churn out more pirates movies.  Now, with dead men tell no tales (number 4? Number 5? I should look it up but I just can’t be bothered) we sit down to factoryassembled fun.  

The blueprint for a pirates movie has a large section labeled ‘coolass visuals and funky bad guy.’  The various villains who’ve passed through all fit geoffrey rush’s undead mold as captain barbossa---tragic creatures who embrace their cursed unlife with a pleasing mix of menace and humor.  Here, we have captain salazzar (javier bardem, ‘nuff said), a former spanish pirate hunter obsessed with honor. Like the moonlicious skeletons in the original, salazzar and his crew get an otherworldly makeover---missing body parts are simply gone (the corpses apparently held together by ghostly force fields) and they move in strange, stilted jerks.  

The ships themselves are great characters, loaded with more style and personality than some actors (cough, johnny depp, cough).  Davey jones’ flying dutchman rising from the depths like a  nuclear sub; salazzar’s ontologically suspect spanish galleon trailing a broken mast everywhere; the black pearl with its classically menacing black sails. Visually, most impressive is the rocky island that’s, as the dialogue unnecessarily points out, ‘a perfect reflection of the heavens.’  As cheesy as that is, it looks amazing. And who wouldn’t want to stride across the horsehead nebula on their way to find poseidon’s trident?

Plotwise, things are muddled.  In the same way that the force awakens followed a new hope move for move, dead men tell no tales plods right along behind the curse of the black pearl.  A pretty young man (brenton thwaites) needs captain jack sparrow (johnny depp) to track stuff down while dealing with filial drama.  An equally pretty young woman (kaya scodelario) is thrown in as a victim of circumstance. They race captain salazzar to an island that’s hard to find except for folks who know where it is or can read a celestial map (kudos to the writers here for deciding scientific reasoning skills beat out damselness as the female lead’s main draw) to get poseidon’s trident, a powerful object that controls the sea somehow, or is magic or whatever.  It’s unclear. You get the sense that they didn’t bother fleshing out the story because they knew we knew what was supposed to be going on. The power of franchise.

The closing scene especially is headclutchingly bad.  Generic heartwarming music with generic heartwarming fields (it honestly seems like they’re trying to comp sound of music’s look) as good guys all reunite and smile and give significant looks to each other.  Whoever edited this must have been drunk at the wheel---the camera cuts over and over to give us thiry different closeups of orlando bloom’s cheekbones, which is only interrupted by the arrival of kiera knightley’s halfopen mouth and another thirty awkward cuts.  It looks like a middle school film class project. I have a pretty high tolerance for this sort of cheesy heroes prevailing crap but I barely made it to the credits without committing seppuku.

Clumsy story or creative visuals notwishstanding, the real tragedy here is johnny depp.  Pirates o.g. gave us a revelation, the role only he could’ve played.  Depp brought a depth and subtlety to a character that otherwise would’ve been the standard antihero.  But then he fell into the machine. As the pirates movies multiplied, depp had to replicate the magic, over and over.  Everything we wrote off as just cool weirdness in the first movie became expository qualities. The hat gag crops again and again, the herpes virus of running jokes.  His antagonistic relationship with that stupid monkey nearly becomes its own plot point. His grand ambitions paired with consistent underperformance (e.g. the first pirates’ shot of him sailing into town on the mast of sinking ship) turned into a cute inside joke (dead men tell no tales first appearance shows him inside an uncrackable safe, ready to stage a robbery, except he’s passed out).  We’re supposed to chuckle to ourselves, ‘oh that sparrow. Irascible.’ This is unbearably patronizing. Depp, once the versatile rogue (tom hanks sure ain’t playing edward scissorhands or hunter thompson), is now disney’s adorable little puppet.  Jack sparrow is johnny depp calcified, confined to this role for the rest of his career (e.g. kemosabe in lone ranger).

What ultimately made sparrow a good character was his quirkiness alongside his tragedy.  His sorrow over losing his ship and the systematic eradication of piracy were heartfelt, and we were right there with him.  Sparrow’s nihilism had a sympathetic side: when you’ve lost everything already, why bother to keep fighting? Why not drown in rum and women?  But four/five movies later, there’s no sympathy, no motivation, no real emotion. He just does what the machine demands, which is generate yuks.  Nihilism as comic tragedy worked; nihilism as comedy is just tiring. In that sense, he’s a good metaphor for the movie as a whole. Relatively inoffensive, but worn so thin you can practically see the crew’s cynical looks as johnny depp dons his bandana and eyeshadow one more time.               

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