Typically, despite all my own personal feelings, I would be almost unable to prevent myself from littering in lines like “the franchise sets sail”, or “this installment is in stilled waters”. I know, it’s horrible and I would feel bad about it later. There is just something about the Pirates of the Caribbean films that taps into a collective love of all things pirate-like. Which is odd, because in truth, pirates were a bit on the scumbaggish side, what with the raping and pillaging and all, yet we still love them. There are societies dedicated to the genre, and you can bet that many opening weekend screenings for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides will be peppered with people dressed like swashbucklers, endearingly looking at their 3D glasses with mock confusion saying adorable things like “what be these contraptions? Arrr…” It will be cute.
The films have mined this vein of piratey goodness, and despite some mixed reactions to the last two films, here we are with the fourth film in the franchise. Unfortunately it may also be the worst, but for the oddest reasons.
On paper, On Stranger Tides should work. The convoluted plot of the previous film, At World’s End, which threw everything possible at the audience, from ancient sea gods to naval battles to a cursed supernatural ship captained by a squid man, is gone. It was over the top (to say the least), but the movie was still a fun film that made close to a billion dollars. So some might call it successful.
On Stranger Tides strips away much of that epic scale, and in doing so it took too much off the top. There is something missing, and it is hard to pin down exactly where the film went wrong. But it did, and how.
A simpler story, a duller world
If you saw the last Pirates movie, then you should have an inkling of where the story is heading. Stranger Tides embarks on a separate adventure, not related to the previous overall story arc, but it does continue where the film left off with Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) still hunting for the Fountain of Youth. It does offer people who did not see the previous films a starting point though, but they should reconsider starting here and go back to the original film.
Before Jack can head off to continue his search, he stops in London to rescue his first mate, who has been put on trial under the assumption that he is Jack Sparrow. Hijinks, carriage chases and fights aplenty break out as Jack tries to find out who in London is posing as him and recruiting sailors.
It doesn’t take long, and he comes across Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a woman from his past who he has wronged. She has been recruiting sailors to sail under her father’s command to a mysterious location. Jack is caught up, and after getting knocked out, wakes up aboard the legendary Queen Anne’s Revenge, under the command of the infamous Blackbird (Ian McShane).
Angelica and her father Blackbird want Jack to lead them to the Fountain of Youth, while Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) — now a privateer serving the British crown — and a group of Spanish sailors also race for the prize. Along the way they encounter zombies, mermaids and multiple trials on their way to find the fountain that can grant immortality, but at a cost.
On paper, the story sounds great. It is self-contained, so it should be accessible to the masses. There are a pair of potential love stories, one between Jack and Angelica, and the other between a young preacher on Blackbird’s ship named Phillip Swift (Sam Claflin) and a mermaid named Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). There is supernatural stuff aplenty, and everyone has heard of the Fountain of Youth. But something is just missing from the movie that can’t be quite so easily defined.
Holes in the sails
On Stranger Tides isn’t a bad movie in the traditional sense, but the sense of fun from the original films just didn’t translate over under new director Rob Marshall (Nine, Memoirs of a Geisha). This is Marshall’s first attempt at a big action movie after spending his time as a director of character-driven films, and it shows. There is a subtlety to everything, which may work in dramas, but turns out to be the exact wrong ingredient for this type of movie. The actors tone it way down, almost to the point that they seem nearly tranquilized compared to the last films.
Ian McShane, an actor that has shown he has the ability to radiate menace, is underwhelming and neutered as the fearsome Blackbird — he is the bad guy, but he never really does anything too bad or good, which just makes him dull. His daughter is part con-artist, part angel, and neither side really takes control. Barbossa is something of a friend to Sparrow, which is odd, while the Spanish threat is almost an afterthought. The preacher-mermaid love story has potential, but in the end it is handled oddly and never really packs any emotional punch. Both characters are also fairly dull. They are exactly what you would expect, and no more. It is hard to care about them as they sleepwalk through the uninspired script.
The biggest issue though might be Jack Sparrow himself. Depp does a decent enough job, but the character plays a passive part in the story. Sparrow is being led to the goal, which immediately puts him in a secondary role. At the start of the film, when Sparrow is attempting to rescue his friend, the movie shines. It is fast paced and interesting, and part of that is because Sparrow is driving the story and action. After that point, the film just sort of stalls. The movie’s few action sequences are few and far between, and just never seem to take off. A huge chunk of the film relies on dialog that never really makes a difference, nor is it particularly witty or entertaining — something that would have helped a great deal as the characters wander through endless forests or wait on bland-looking beaches.
The entire film is slightly muted. While At World’s End was wildly over the top and suffered for it at times, you couldn’t fault its lack of ambition. On Stranger Tides suffers from almost the exact opposite problem. It feels like the filmmakers were so determined to reign the franchise in a bit that it lost what made the series interesting in the first place.
The fourth installation in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has a simpler plot than its over-thought predecessor, and the focus is on Captain Jack Sparrow (as it should be), but something is just missing. Call it inspiration, call it soul. The result is a film that isn’t bad in the sense that it fails in any one specific way. There are no parts that are particularly badly acted (although there are parts where the actors seem to be going through the motions), and the plot is as logical as you might expect from a series based on pirates dipped in the supernatural.
On Stanger Tides is hard to hate, mainly because it is hard to generate any emotional response at all. Love, hate, fear, anger, none of these emotions are anywhere present in the movie. In fact, it may be the worst movie of the four because it is cursed with the most deadly affliction that a movie can have. It is boring.
Bad movies can at least revel in their own badness. You can watch them and be drawn to a terrible film. The worse it is, the more you can find to rage about it. It gets your mind working and your tongue wagging. Alternatively, good films are enjoyable for obvious reasons. But On Stranger Tides does the worst thing a movie can do by falling in between. It is forgettable and bland. There is nothing to grab on to. Usually sequels are bigger than their predecessors, which can lead to them failing. The exact opposite happens here with the same results.
Regardless, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides will almost certainly make a ton of money, so maybe we’ll have better luck next time with the fifth (and possibly sixth) sequel that is already being discussed. The pirate love will continue unabated, and Johnny Depp will not lose any fans over this movie. It’s just a shame that a franchise that was at the very least ambitious has become a paint-by-numbers affair. You have all the requirements of the pirates movies present, without the spark of creativity.
Odds are, years from now this movie will neither be loved or hated. It will simply be completely forgotten, and that is for the best.