Review: ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides’ – an arduous journey that offers few rewards As far as cultural phenomenon are concerned, I admit that I’ve never been a huge fan of the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ film series; when I caught the first one a few months after its release, I found myself bored by almost everything in the film except for Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, and the second and third installments were an exercise in diminishing returns somehow writ increasingly large. All of which is why ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides’ lived up to my subconscious expectations, in spite of having no conscious ones: a joyless, mediocre exercise which nobly attempts to resolve the problems of its predecessors, but which in ignoring its own further drowns this once-interesting franchise in cynical, repetitious audience pandering.

Depp returns as Captain Jack Sparrow, the rascally pirate from the previous film, who this time teams up with a former girlfriend named Angelica (Penelope Cruz) to search for the Fountain of Youth at the behest of her father, the evil pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane). In the meantime, Sparrow’s longtime foe Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) became a privateer for King George and is determined to get to the Fountain first – that is, if the two of them don’t kill each other en route, or worse yet, if a fleet of Spanish conquistadors doesn’t take both of them out.

That the above paragraph encapsulates all you need to know about the plot is a testament to how uncomplicated the film is, and yet at more than two hours, there’s not a single detail that cannot be explained, explored, repeated, repeated again, or otherwise discussed damn near to death in the dialogue. The previous two films suffered criticism that their stories were too complicated and too confusing, and while what happens and why it happens is still as befuddling as ever, screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio attempted – in quite frankly the laziest way possible – to avoid any possibility that the audience will not know what’s going on at any given time. But they neglect to make the audience care what’s going on at any given time, mostly because of endless streams of expository dialogue that talk about what’s happening instead of simply setting up the action.

The famous story of the first ‘Pirates’ film was that Disney was initially horrified by Depp’s performance as Jack Sparrow, until ‘Curse of the Black Pearl’ made a mint as a direct result of his contributions. Appropriately, Sparrow’s role was expanded in the sequels, but even in the second film, ‘Dead Man’s Chest,’ it was already obvious that his garnish was taking over the whole plate, and ‘On Stranger Tides’ feels like a buffet of side dishes bereft of a main course: every scene in the film feels like interstitial plot-building for a bigger idea, but there’s no idea, and no end of attempts to try and conceal that fact. Notwithstanding Depp’s somnambulent performance – it truly feels without inspiration or energy – each new character that joins the ensemble seems more superfluous than the previous one, primarily because he or she adds nothing to the film’s drive towards its inevitable destination.

While it should come as no surprise that Sparrow and co. do eventually arrive at the Fountain of Youth, how and why the other characters compete to arrive first makes either too much sense or not enough. It’s too much in the case of Blackbeard, whose motivation is so crassly engineered (and overshadows a lot of far more interesting and provocative ideas that go unexplored) that there’s no reason to care whether he succeeds or fails, especially since he’s written so poorly that even the brilliant Ian McShane can’t figure out how to make him interesting. Meanwhile, it’s not enough in that of the Spanish, who evidently do not believe in the Fountain of Youth, but are still inexplicably willing to send a fleet of ships to recover the sacred chalices that are required to find it, take them to the site of the Fountain, and then try to destroy them and the Fountain when they pass through a magical, upside-down waterfall and discover that it really exists.

And again, the film dilly-dallies on moronically unimportant details that further distract the audience from the fact that there’s no there there. The hands-down worst moment of the film comes when Blackbeard, Sparrow and Angelica pause to discuss the possibility of playing Russian Roulette in order to decide who will jump off of a cliff, but the introductory scene between King George II and Sparrow is so obsessed with depicting George as a gluttonous, self-glorifying slob that it fails to provide any reason to pay attention to anything that’s being explained. (Thankfully, any unclear exposition is immediately recapitulated by Sparrow in each the next five scenes.)

Most egregiously, after the producers decided that Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley’s characters from the first three films weren’t interesting (or more likely, cost-effective) enough to bring back for the fourth, Elliott and Rossio create a new subplot about a young missionary who falls for a mermaid as a shameless, almost underhanded way of including a romantic element that quite frankly was never going to be there with Jack Sparrow, regardless what character they created as a companion for him (or who played her, for that matter). To wit (less), Sam Claflin plays the self-righteous Philip, who spends the movie futilely appealing to Blackbeard’s humanity in the name of God – that is, until he falls for Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a comely wisp of a creature whose safety becomes his number one priority.

At one point, when Blackbeard calls Syrena “it” while instructing his men to carry her through the jungle, and outraged Philip screams, “she has a name!” The only problem with his indignation is that she in fact does not have a name, and he only anoints her “Syrena” in a frantic moment of improvisation. That their story is left open-ended is a testament to the confidence/ desperation of the filmmakers, who not only vastly overestimate the audience’s interest in this absurd, pointless little romance, but wrongly anticipate their appetite for seeing more of it in future installments.

Speaking of improvisation, the action scenes (particularly Jack’s) are meant to have the shaggy energy of random circumstances converging upon one another to create a set piece, but they’re mostly terrible and lifeless, although notably not because of director Rob Marshall’s generally unemphatic use of 3D. Rather, it’s precisely his bona fides as a choreographer which rob these sequences of any fun or excitement: starting with Jack’s escape from King George, there’s not a single action scene that doesn’t feel meticulously practiced or over-rehearsed, adopting the rhythms of how a chase or fight or showdown should happen instead of finding their own identity, or God forbid, genuinely suiting the personalities of the characters involved. That said, at least the characters mostly stopped talking briefly while they were fighting.

But as producer Jerry Bruckheimer repeatedly insists, it’s not about effects or spectacle or anything else; it’s all about story. Why, then, is this film’s story so crummy? There doesn’t seem to be one single moment of genuine creativity or inspiration in the entire film, every one of Jack’s punch lines feels like third-rate Catskills material, and the characters have no spark or energy to attract the audience’s sympathies, much less interest. (Jack expresses little true interest in even finding the Fountain, which is the raison d’etre of the entire exercise.) The existence of ‘On Stranger Tides’ is more of a confirmation of its predecessors’ box office returns than any need whatsoever to explore the world of ‘Pirates’ any further. And while it would be foolish to begrudge any filmmaker the opportunity to further explore a franchise that has been commercially successful, as a viewer – and especially as a fan – one would hope that the resultant experience didn’t feel like a machine where you put in your money, lose two hours of your life, and receive no discernible enjoyment from the experience.

Can a new ‘Pirates’ movie have something fun or interesting to say? Absolutely. Does this one? Unfortunately not. It’s saddest when even Johnny Depp, who appears to delight in taking on weird roles just for the sake of his own fun, doesn’t even appear to be enjoying himself, even at the price tag he can command specifically because of these movies. But as a whole, Marshall’s cash-grab is barely even by-the-numbers filmmaking, because it feels more like the folks involved said, “yeah, yeah, I know what the numbers are for – I drew something awesome last time with them, remember?” and then ignored both what was in front of them and what made their previous effort so awesome.

Ultimately, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides’ is as craven and opportunistic as Jack Sparrow himself, highlighting the difference between appreciating the art of the steal and just plain being robbed: You may not mind watching a crook fleece some unwitting mark for his money, but you will when you’re the victim –  especially when you know that the thief isn’t committing his crime out of a desperate need, some sincere motivation or even harmless fun, but just because he knows he can, there will be plenty of money, and you’re helpless to stop him.

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