When ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides’ was released in 2011, it was poorly received, with many critics blaming the decision to focus on Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) as an out-and-out protagonist. The original trilogy (‘The Curse of the Black Pearl’, ‘Dead Man’s Chest’ and ‘At World’s End’) tempered Jack’s more off-kilter behaviour (and Depp’s scenery chewing) with a host of compelling co-leads, including blacksmith-cum-buccaneer Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), rebellious runaway aristocrat Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and Jack’s nemesis, the dastardly Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). The fourth film abandoned that balance and found that Jack really couldn’t carry the weight of a two-hour feature on his lonesome. This fifth film, subtitled with the mouthful ‘Dead Men Tell No Tales’, looks purpose-built to address this criticism, serving up almost a soft reboot of the first film with plenty of characters to dilute Jack, including a young, attractive couple destined for romantic involvement. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s a bad movie – it has a few great moments and it’s entertaining for most of its runtime – but like the once ageless Depp, the Pirates formula is certainly starting to show signs of fatigue.
Through various story machinations, our three protagonists all end up on the Island of Saint Martin, a fictionalised British colony set in the Caribbean. Carina Smith (Kaya Scodelario), a woman of science accused of witchcraft, is incarcerated there and awaiting trial. Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Will and Elizabeth, is also imprisoned, accused of cowardice after being the lone survivor of a British naval shipwreck. In fact, his ship was attacked by the ghost vessel of Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) after sailing into the Devil’s Triangle, and Henry was left alive to tell the tale of Salazar’s assault. Salazar, once Spain’s greatest pirate hunter, was tricked by Jack Sparrow decades earlier and cursed to spend eternity immortalised with his crew as aqua-ghosts. Finally, Jack and what’s left of his motley gang, including first mate Gibbs (Kevin McNally), are there to celebrate the inauguration of Saint Martin’s enormous new bank vault.
What does their celebration involve? Well, stealing the vault of course. Picture the bank vault chase scene from ‘Fast Five’, but replace the two Dodge Chargers with a dozen pack-horses – that’s the basic idea. As an action scene, it’s great – highly implausible, but it’s big and it looks impressive, exactly as an action-adventure should. It’s also a decent reintroduction to Jack Sparrow, who begins the sequence drunkenly waking up inside the vault with the wife of the colony’s Mayor, before spending the chase leaping about from the bank to the vault to nearby buildings and back again.
Carina and Henry are eventually liberated and join forces with Jack to search for the Trident of Poseidon, an artefact that grants its holder dominion over the seas. Carina wants to find the Trident to connect with her absent father, who left her at an orphanage with a notebook containing a map to the relic, while Henry wants its power so that he can free his father from the curse of the Flying Dutchman (you’ll need a general sense of the previous films to fully understand what’s going on). Jack wants the Trident so that he can remove Salazar’s curse of immortality, thus ending his bloody quest for revenge on Jack.
Elsewhere, Barbossa makes a deal with Salazar do deliver him to Jack, while in return Salazar will stop picking off ships from the large fleet that Barbossa has amassed in the time since the last movie. The final player in the game is British Naval Officer Scarfield (David Wenham), who wants to get his hands on the Trident to ensure supremacy at sea for the Empire.
There are a lot of moving pieces that screenwriter Jeff Nathanson must corral together, and his solutions are more practical than elegant. Where the screenplay comes up truly short is in its tone, which lurches between hit-and-miss slapstick and po-faced drama, action and romance, a balancing act that the original trilogy (all written by Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot) seemed to manage even as their plots grew more unwieldy and outlandish. The narrative in ‘Dead Men’ also suffers a little from this ballooning out that plagued instalments two and three; by the time the final act begins, there are as many main villains as there are heroes (or anti-heroes) and there are too many curses waiting to be broken or reinforced to really follow. When you consider that the first act has a repetitive ‘someone is arrested, escapes and is arrested once more’ loop (this happens to three characters), plus the film bizarrely pauses midway for a wedding sequence, an overstuffed film should have appeared inevitable to all involved.
Furthermore, the rehashing of the ‘young couple to be’ plot feature from the early Will and Elizabeth stories doesn’t work this time around. Firstly, it’s too easy; where Will and Elizabeth contended with belonging to separate classes, not to mention the roguish Sparrow hovering between them, Henry and Carina have no real friction against their coupling, which is inevitable from the moment they appear onscreen. This bridges to my second point: Thwaites and Scodelario are no Bloom and Knightley. Sure, they look the part (young and impossibly handsome), but they don’t have the same magnetism or chemistry.
Norwegian directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, presumably selected to helm the picture after their successful high-seas adventure movie ‘Kon-Tiki’, can mount large scale set pieces with a strong understanding of geography (the bank scene, a later rescue sequence and the final battle all stand out), but they too can’t fully nail down that mercurial dynamic that made ‘The Curse of the Black Pearl’ such a winning, memorable picture.
It’s not all bad news though. The design of Salazar and his crew is impressive, with members missing large portions of their bodies, resulting in vaguely human shapes composed of detached pieces suspended in space. Their hair floats in air as if suspended in water, while their flesh and clothing are painted with cracks, with small flakes occasionally coming away to float nearby. Much like Barbossa’s skeleton crew in 2003, Salazar and his men will surely populate a few nightmares in the coming months. Bardem, now on a roll of memorable franchise villainy after ‘Skyfall’, leans into the spooky design, with a hunched physicality that speaks to wretched decades of captivity.
‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales’ sets itself a difficult task. In hewing closely to the narrative of ‘The Curse of the Black Pearl’, they made comparisons with the well-received and fondly remembered film inevitable. It would have taken an excellent movie to meet those expectations; ‘Dead Men Tell No Tales’ is not that excellent movie. It’s fine, and it will satisfy anyone hankering for another dose of Sparrow and Co., but its greatest enemy is the legacy of its own franchise starter, which leaves the film with an aftertaste of been there, done that.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting