Rob Marshall | 137 mins | cinema | 12A / PG-13
No one had high hopes for Pirates of the Caribbean when it set sail for the big screen (sorry) in 2003. It was based on a Disney theme park ride, for chrissake! But no, as it turned out: a witty and exciting screenplay, some properly photo-real CG from ILM, and an immediately-iconic Oscar-nominated performance from Johnny Depp were some of the ingredients that helped it become an instant blockbuster classic.
And then, drunk on success, they churned out two disappointing, overblown sequels. Picking up on elements left vaguely dangling from the first film, the filmmakers somehow fashioned it to look like a trilogy (not that the first film doesn’t work absolutely fine by itself), and given the lacklustre critical reception and conclusive nature of the story, I think everyone assumed that would be that.
But no. Not when you’re Disney and have a franchise capable of grossing over $1 billion per film. And so here we get Pirates 4, with high hopes: they seemed aware the two-part-ish sequels hadn’t gone down so well, promising a standalone adventure that returned to the quality of the first film; it’s adapted in part from a largely unknown but beloved by those that do novel (which also inspired the Monkey Island games, which in turn contributed a lot to Pirates 1 — it’s all very incestuous); plus Disney insisting on cuts for a tighter budget suggested there’d be less of the sequels’ excesses.
It still cost $250m, mind, and the fact that’s what’s considered a cutback arguably shows.
Things start really well. The opening sequences in London are a hoot, Depp bringing some of the joy back to the character of Jack Sparrow that went awry during the last two films. We also get to see why he is actually a great hero, something occasionally lost under the drunken swaggering — look at his well-plotted escape from the King’s court, which initially looks like pure lunacy but turns out to be all clever set-up, for instance. The carriage chase through London streets that follows is good fun too, undoubtedly the film’s high point.
It’s pretty much downhill from there though. The film burns through ideas and plot points at a rate of knots. While I’m all for not stretching ideas thin — something that can happen too often in blockbuster movies these days — here the opposite is true, with not enough time devoted to explaining things, to characterisation, to making us give a damn about what’s going on or why it’s going on. They seem to think we’ll care about Sparrow, Barbossa and Kevin McNally’s character just because they were in the three previous films… and, in fairness, we do, to a point (well, the first two); but they also seem to think this will transfer to the new cast, and it doesn’t.
The love story between a missionary and a mermaid barely factors. Word was this pair would be the series’ new Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, but whereas Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner were central to the plot of all the previous films (appearing before even Captain Jack in the first, if I recall), these two turn up late in the day and never have a chance to go anywhere. There’s also a surfeit of villains, meaning they either barely appear (the Spanish) or aren’t given close to enough screen time (Ian McShane’s Blackbeard). Every introduction is rushed, every subplot underdeveloped, every ending unsatisfactory. There’s too much, even for a movie that still runs over two hours.
There’s potential here, as there has been for all the Pirates films that followed in the wake of the first one, but as the quality continues to slip it’s becoming easy to believe that screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio hit a fluke with the quality of the first film and haven’t been able to meet it again since. And I would say most of the fault lies with the screenplay, because there’s little fundamentally wrong with the rest of it.
Except the 3D, maybe. I have no idea if this was a post-conversion or shot for real, but it doesn’t matter — it’s dull. Either things are too dark to matter, or it just doesn’t pop in the way you’d like. A couple of sweeping scenery shots aside, it offers no benefit. 3D is a gimmick and all about spectacle — I believe anyone who thinks it’s a serious filmmaking tool for the future is deluding themselves, at least until someone can prove otherwise (much-heralded work like Avatar certainly hasn’t) — but it’s a gimmick On Stranger Tides doesn’t engage with, in the process showing it lacks spectacle. And considering dark scenes obviously don’t work well in the format, I dread to think what Ridley Scott’s Prometheus will look like. (I probably won’t see it ’til 2D Blu-ray anyway, so that might be a moot point.)
I’m certain some will think my score for On Stranger Tides is generous, but despite all the flaws it still has its moments. I just wish that instead of churning Pirates films out ASAP they’d put more effort into developing the screenplay. Perhaps hiring new writers would help. But with a fifth and possibly sixth film on the horizon, and no significant change of scribe imminent, any such hopes are already dashed. And as this poorly-reviewed effort still grossed a phenomenal amount (third highest of the year; eighth of all time), Disney will still get their money and keep pumping them out. The whole situation is not so much yo-ho, more ho-hum.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is out on DVD, Blu-ray and 3D Blu-ray in the UK from Monday, 12th September, and in the US from 18th October. Why can’t the Marvel releases from this summer be that way round, hm?
The UK TV premiere of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is on BBC One tonight, 29th December 2013, at 8pm.