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Film Review – Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017; Directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg)

The fifth movie in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise raised a question about its own future when it landed in the summer of 2017, a year whose box office was thoroughly dominated by Disney releases: Does Disney really need Pirates of the Caribbean movies anymore? Other franchises/series currently in their stable – Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Pixar’s films, CG-assisted live-action remakes of their Renaissance-era classics, even the work of the reinvented Animation Studios – are proving more profitable, more creatively fruitful, more critically lauded, and more culturally relevant. From this question, related questions about the Pirates franchise spiral off into the ether: Do moviegoers need them? Does their defining figure, Johnny Depp as the perpetually tipsy trickster pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, need them? Does anybody need them (besides one-time über-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who needs whatever he can get post-Lone Ranger)?

Undeniably, as is the case with most capitalist enterprises, there’s a certain irresistible inertia to blockbuster franchise filmmaking. Profits stand to be made from recognizable properties headed by bankable stars playing iconic characters, and Hollywood is never not there when easy money seems to be in play. Pirates of the Caribbean seemed like a silly idea as the jumping-off point for a movie series when The Curse of the Black Pearl arrived in 2003, and as big as it’s gotten and as involved as its goofball internal mythology has grown, these movies based on a theme park ride have never not been inherently silly. These consistent tides of silliness have eroded the movies’ foundations over the subsequent decade and a half, though it perhaps has worn down Pirates‘ profile less than the bare consensus view that each movie has been of lower quality than the last. I enjoyed the second and third editions more than most, largely on the strength of director Gore Verbinski’s peculiar, loopily inspired visual sense (Jack Sparrow’s sojourn into the bizarre realm of Davy Jones’ Locker in At World’s End is one of the purest extended demonstrations of Surrealism in Hollywood history). But I couldn’t have told you the title of the second movie without the aid of the internet (Dead Man’s Chest, thank you very much), and could tell you even less about the fourth film, the Rob Marshall-helmed On Stranger Tides (though I have a review on this blog to link to for that purpose, so there you go).

And yet I came back for Dead Men Tell No Tales anyway. Many others did, too. In point of fact, it did fairly well (though international grosses propped up an under-performance domestically, never a good sign financially), albeit far worse than prior editions in the series, but few loved it outside of Disney’s accountants. It’s not hard to see why. Despite a stated intention on the part of directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (whose Norwegian film Kon-Tiki proved them dab hands at epic seabourne adventure) to circle back to the elements that made the unquestioned franchise pinnacle Black Pearl feel undeniably fresh and delightul, Dead Men Tell No Tales settles indistinguishably into the swirling bilge of overwrought CG effects, over-convoluted plotting, and relentless bad jokes that defined the diminishing returns of the Pirates sequels. There’s some fun to be had now and again, and some clever and imaginative touches break through the busy interference. But it’s not clear that the franchise’s downward trajectory is effectively reversed.

Like all Pirates movies, a detailed plot synopsis of Dead Men Tell No Tales is an exercise in futility. A series of pursuits at sea, on tropical islands, and in colonial outposts are marked by sudden reversals, double- and triple-crosses, and fleeting alliances between foes and mismatched partners. Magical, sea-controlling mythical relics are quested for. Flesh-and-blood buccaneers are pitted against supernatural ghost-pirates (this time led by Javier Bardem’s implacable Spanish pirate-hunter Captain Salazar) as well as law-and-order British imperial pirate-tracking subalterns in command of the considerable resources of the Royal Navy and Army (David Wenham represents the latter group on this occasion, but it’s pretty thankless and non-notable stuff for good old Daisy).

Reintegrated into this formula after the unwisely Jack Sparrow-centric On Stranger Tides are the heroic romantic squares, whose dull pretentions to bourgeois respectability and honourable conduct clash with the slippery disingenuousness and dizzying betrayals of piratedom. Just as Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner and Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann (both of whom have cameo appearances in this film after being absent in the last installment) provided Depp’s Sparrow with useful straight-person foils for his sashaying unreliability in the first trilogy, young rising actors Brenton Thwaites (as Will and Elizabeth’s son Henry) and Kaya Scodelario (as Carina Smyth, a determined astronomer with a hidden family connection among the film’s returning characters) act as pale reflections to those roles here.

Henry Turner has immersed himself in sailors’ myths and gone to sea in search of a powerful artifact called the Trident of Poseidon that could free his father, who is cursed to escort souls to the ghostly deep as captain of the Flying Dutchman. Carina, apparently due to be executed as a witch by superstitious provincial authorities who distrust her scientific practices (history lesson, this film ain’t), pledges to aid him with her knowledge of the stars and a cryptic diary left to her by her absent, unknown father. They fall in with Jack and his on-again, off-again crew (chief among them Kevin McNally as Joshamee Gibbs, but the always-delightful Stephen Graham shows up as well) and set about tracking down the Trident. They get an assist in this mission from Jack’s longtime frienemy Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, as always the movie’s secret weapon), who has become an ostentatious pirate-fleet CEO, flaunting the spectacular wealth of his ill-gotten booty.

The production design of Barbossa’s opulent gilded ship is a hoot, and only the most literal of the many imaginative displays of Dead Men Tell No Tales‘ handsome budget splashed across the screen. Jack’s reintroduction kickstarts the movie’s earliest and most spectacular action setpiece: an audacious robbery of a supposedly impenetrable bank safe that involves his crew driving a team of horses dragging not just the safe but the entire bank through the streets of the colonial island town of St. Martin (physics lesson, this film ain’t). A later Buster Keaton-influenced execution escape scene features some inventive gags but is likewise physically unlikely. Salazar and his ghost-crew are visually stuck in time, differing from the first Pirates movie’s horror-flick skeletonizing swashbucklers in that their forms are gradually vanishing rather than decaying. Their ship is reduced to its wooden ribs, which fold back and open like the jaws of a voracious predator to consume other vessels. At one point, they release putrifying zombie sharks to hunt down and devour Jack, Henry, and Carina. When our heroes finally locate the Trident’s home island, it’s a captivating post-volcanic precious-stone-spangled reflection of the starry night sky.

There are plenty of fine ideas in this film, but each one is force-fed money until it’s ready to burst. Dead Men Tell No Tales achieves nothing more notable than a solid mid-level simmer of fun, never coming together as a whole as enjoyably semi-trangressive as The Curse of the Black Pearl or as magnificently strange and vaguely tragic as its ambitious sequels. Its narrative barely holds together, despite the surplus of exposition, and fails to cohere or build impact in thematic or emotional terms, despite a climactic heroic sacrifice. It’s often desperate to please, but far too often comes across as tired and uninspired, checking off less-than-necessary boxes (how distracting is Paul McCartney’s self-referential cameo as Jack Sparrow’s uncle?) rather than building and dramatically opening novel and exciting boxes.

It’s difficult not to key in on the big name on the movie’s marquee as Exhibit A of its problems. Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, perhaps the most iconic original blockbuster film character of the new millennium, might have portended a career renaissance for this purveyor of elaborately, eccentrically detailed misfits. Instead, it’s trapped Depp in stagnating creative patterns which have exposed his limitations as an actor. That this career rut has coincided with troubling revelations of domestic violence has proven a threat to his Hollywood prominence, especially in the current moment of #MeToo and the shame-faced fall of other chronic sexual abusers in the movie industry. Harry Potter fans have called for his removal from the role of the villainous Grindlewald in the current Fantastic Beasts franchise, and maybe Jack Sparrow is trying audiences’ patience, too; his highly-evident alcoholism, consistently played for laughs here, is an old-fashioned joke whose retirement should perhaps be nigh (sensitivity lesson, this movie ain’t). Maybe, given his recent career and public-image struggles, Johnny Depp still needs Jack Sparrow and Pirates of the Caribbean. But maybe, given how Hollywood and the cultural landscape have changed since 2003, the rest of us no longer do.

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