More Booty for Bruckheimer, by Josh Long
Whether we like it or not, we’re living in a world of movie sequels. In a time of economic downturn, most producers are scared of taking risks and stick to movies that will get people in the theaters based on the name alone. Thus we see franchises extending instead of new stories being told. Disney is one of the biggest culprits here (if you consider “culprit” the right word). They have publicly stated that they are only interested in projects based on existing intellectual property. Thus we get Cars 2, Toy Story 3, and Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides.
There’s something about a trilogy that gives you a sense of closure. It’s as if we’ve seen these characters in several different stories and worlds, we’ve seen them deal with various obstacles, and now they’ve wrapped things up. But when a series goes beyond the trilogy, it can feel open-ended and awkward. We suddenly are much more aware of the fact that it’s about money. How long are they going to keep making these movies? Does anyone want us to get to Pirates of the Caribbean 15?
Jerry Bruckheimer might, and he’s the one who was able to bring back Johnny Depp, who’s the heart of the series, and add an impressive cast including Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane, and Geoffrey Rush (reprising his role as Captain Barbossa). The story is based on a book, On Stranger Tides, a supernatural pirate story that was co-opted into the franchise. It follows Jack Sparrow, Barbossa and Blackbeard (McShane) as they race to beat the Spanish Armada to the Fountain of Youth. Sparrow has been captured by Blackbeard because he knows the location of the fountain, but also because he has a history with Blackbeard’s beautiful daughter (Cruz). We get the usual swashbuckling along with supernatural elements like mermaids, voodoo, and a ship with animate rigging.
There are some pretty good action sequences here. Jack has a fun escape scene when he’s captured by the King of England and asked to find the fountain. With his usual “you’re not the boss of me” attitude, he eludes the guards in a clever, well-choreographed sequence. Most of the fight scenes show the choreographed touch of director Rob Marshall, who’s known for staging movie musicals. But the problem here is that there isn’t much happening between the action sequences. Any slower or dialogue driven scenes seem like filler to get us to the next fight. In some cases we don’t even have enough back-story to explain the circumstances for the special effects. Blackbeard apparently practices some kind of voodoo and apparently uses his sword to control his living ship, but these important plot elements are shown without explanation or dropped in scant bits of exposition. It’s as if the filmmakers don’t care if we know what’s going on as long as it looks cool.
Similarly, the writing of the characters is sadly thin. Jack Sparrow is his old self, and if you like to see him wobble around from fortune to misfortune and back again, you’ll get what you came to see. But there isn’t anything new to the character. He’s there to sell tickets, and though he’s still enjoyable, it doesn’t go any further than that. Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane are fine, but there doesn’t seem to be enough time for them to have any kind of character arcs. Their relationship seems muddled; there’s vague back and forth over whether they’re really son and daughter, and we never feel clear about the answer. Considering it’s a major plot point, the actual truth seems surprisingly coincidental to the filmmakers. Barbossa turns out to be the character with the most interesting arc. He’s given good, clear intentions, and a lot to do considering he’s not really the star of the movie. Besides the big names there’s a cast of mostly forgettable faces, with the possible exception of Stephen Graham, appearing as a clumsy comic relief pirate.
The look of the film isn’t all that appealing either. One of the draws of the Pirates universe has always been exciting, vibrant locations. But this film seems to take place almost entirely in the dark, set in caves or dimly lit cabins. It remains in the memory with a dull gray feel, probably made worse by the 3D. Which, it should be noted, adds little to nothing to the movie. As we continue to see movies where the 3D is hardly memorable, it’s more and more apparent that it’s a moneymaking gimmick and nothing more.
If you like Jack Sparrow and you like swashbuckling action sequences, you can sit back, put your brain on standby, and enjoy the spectacle of this one. But the thin characters, hurried plot and dubious intentions keep On Stranger Tides from being a good movie.