On the 30th anniversary of the release of the original Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End dropped. Pirates, more than any other series since Indiana Jones, has positioned itself as the direct descendant of Star Wars, that high-water mark in adventure film.
Though the first Pirates movie was less than stellar, it had a memorable performance from Geoffrey Rush and an icon-in-the-making turn from Johnny Depp. But it was in the second Pirates film, Dead Man's Chest, where things really got cooking. It was, simply, the most fun I'd had at a theater in a long time: pure spectacle, but with an emotional gravity. The action set pieces weren't just perfect; they kept coming and coming and coming.
In my 2006 "best of" list, I named Dead Man's Chest my favorite film of the year. In recounting the movie, I said, "If director Gore Verbinski can avoid whatever amounts to the Caribbean Ewok in the final installment of the trilogy [At World's End], he's positioned to do George Lucas one better." I'm sad to now report that I was a fool to trust Verbinski so.
The director avoids Ewoks, but he makes mistakes in World's End that doom the film to a watery grave. What I didn't see coming was a Pirates third act as underwhelming — and yet interlaced with moments of brilliance — as the Star Wars final chapter, Return of the Jedi. All that's left is for Verbinski to crank out several prequels that do the same. If he can't do Lucas one better, he might as well match him flabby pound for pound.
Unless you've seen and were paying attention to the first two Pirates movies, it's not recommended you see the third. It would be akin to watching a foreign-language film without the subtitles. World's End begins overtly political: The British East India Trading Company — the boo-hiss villains of the piece — are suspending rights right and left. Habeas corpus: gone. Jury of your peers: gone. What is this, Guantanamo? Piracy is even equated with modern-day terrorism (in the subtext-iest of ways).
All this takes place some months after Dead Man's Chest ended. Jack Sparrow (Depp) is still dead, and pirates/enemies of the state Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann
The crew travels to Singapore to try to convince Captain Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat) to unite with them against the common enemy, the Brits, and to share a map in his possession which shows how to get to the titular geographic spot, where the dead Sparrow has gone to. From Singapore, it's off to Antarctica, then to World's End; for a film whose title refers to the Caribbean, the place sure doesn't show up much in this final installment.
The section where we see what Sparrow has been up to while banished to the afterlife is bizarre, surreal, and risky for a film with so much earnings potential riding on it. Sparrow has gone mad, stranded in a world with a ship but no water or wind — in the middle of the bleakest, whitest, most featureless desert imaginable (that's right, it's Utah, where the scene was filmed). Sparrow has gone mad, and he imagines a crew of Jack Sparrows running amok on his ship. (It's like the classic scene in Being John Malkovich, where the actor sees a restaurant full of others of himself, but without the brevity.)
The section introduces one of the major flaws in the film. World's End spends much too much time winking at how great Depp as Sparrow is, in all his eccentric glory, but it doesn't actually have him do enough original things worthy of the attention. If ever there was a resting on the laurels, this is it.
Another fundamental flaw is how low the stakes in the film are. Barbossa, the villain in the first film, is now a paternal type, approving of Elizabeth's gusto when she acquits herself like a man. (The film is framed in strictly male terms, the presence of a heroine and a crucial female character to the contrary.) Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), the best part about Dead Man's Chest, is back, but he's sidelined and defanged in favor of Brit baddie Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander). I like Hollander, too, but his character doesn't have a tentacle face or a heart-rending back-story. Stick with what works, people.
Dead Man's Chest was able to mix complex but not convoluted storytelling. This is something the first and third films are not able to do. World's End suffers from too many double-crosses among the film's principals, to the point where a good fifth of the film has the consistency of mush. The movie is preoccupied with moving pieces on the board, from the brig of one ship to another, but there's no sense of a grand, clear-headed strategy from the filmmakers, and there's too much exposition to ever just have fun.
Some reviewers have pointed to the fact that Pirates is based on an amusement-park ride. It's a criticism of the whole endeavor. I see it as a blessing. Book adaptations are so last year. I'm ready for the days when the flimsiest of source materials is greenlighted and put in the hands of talented filmmakers who don't have to fill a quota for a rabid fanbase. With no expectation of plot, no expectation of casting, no expectation of slavishness to a story, Pirates' makers are free to create the world in the image that they see fit. Would that, in this case, the results were better.
One of the best parts of World's End is reveling in a Disney movie doing things Disney's never done before. A little more each time, Verbinski has pushed the bounds of violence, grossness, and mayhem in each of these films. In any other story, the hanging death of a young boy, people shot in the head (and being able to see the bullet's entry point), and characters with frostbite to the point of broken-off phalanges would be troubling. In this one, it's devilish fun to think to oneself, Wow, Disney just hanged a kid!
The worst part about World's End is how it renders Dead Man's Chest inconsequential. The brilliant connector of the series now is saddled with two deadweight anchors. Is it too late to call a do-over?