As a fan of the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, it’s going to be tough to find a bigger disappointment in 2011 than Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. While it would be reasonable to expect that the sequel may not be as good as the original trilogy, the extent to which the film misunderstands story, pacing, action scenes, its own history, and its main characters, is mind-boggling. The film does almost nothing right and it’s a tedious chore that sails through gigantic plotholes, lazy screenwriting, poor characterization, and reduces the scale and creativity of the previous films. I would rather be cursed by the Aztecs, spend 100 years before the mast serving aboard the Flying Dutchman, and get devoured by a kraken than endure another viewing of On Stranger Tides.
The film makes a serious misstep by spending the majority of its first act not on the high seas, but stuck in London. It’s an interesting idea on the page, but it makes the story and scope feel constrained. Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), having come to London to kind-of rescue his friend Mr. Gibbs (Kevin McNally), instead falls in with former flame Angelica (Penelope Cruz) and is forced onto the ship of Blackbeard (Ian McShane). It’s been prophesized that Blackbeard will be killed by a one-legged man and he’s hoping to get to the Fountain of Youth so he can avoid that fate. Meanwhile, the English are also racing against the Spanish to get to the Fountain. The one-legged Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) has gone from pirate to privateer in the King’s navy and is leading the British expedition. Barbossa has taken Gibbs along for the ride since Gibbs memorized the map before destroying it. The two ships (three if you count the mostly irrelevant Spanish expedition) begin a tedious and ill-defined race to the fountain that lack any excitement, cleverness, or joy.
I’m baffled at how screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott could so deeply misunderstand how Jack Sparrow fits into a movie. Yes, he’s always been the star, but he can’t work inside a vacuum. Sparrow needs the proper dynamic to be effective and the first three movies provided him with that dynamic by playing him off Will and Elizabeth. On his own, Jack is a static character. He can’t grow because he’s so carefully defined by his many idiosyncrasies that changing him risks ruining the character. Instead, it’s better to set him against characters who do develop and his presence becomes crucial in their development as he seeks to obtain his own goals.
On Stranger Tides doesn’t provide Jack with the supporting characters that he needs to function. The movie tries to provide a competent foil with Angelica, but she’s not a developing character either. No one in this movie has an arc. Everyone is the exact same person they were at the beginning of the movie and so everyone is rendered inert. No one has to adapt, compromise their values, or rise to the occasion. It doesn’t help that Angelica, the character closest to Jack other than Barbossa, is the bland tough-gal chick you’ve seen a billion times before and the movie almost drops her entirely in the second half anyway.
It’s tough to blame Cruz or any of the cast when the characters are so poorly written. In previous Pirates films, the villain at least engendered our sympathies. Barbossa and his crew of undead pirates were bad guys, but they were also damned souls whose punishment of spending cursed treasure was in excess of their crime. When Barbossa laments that he no longer feels the spray of the sea or the wind in his face, you pity him even if you can’t condone his actions. In the sequels, Davy Jones is also a cursed man whose broken heart turned him into a horrible monster. But there’s no sympathy for Blackbeard. Even when the film tries to build up the father-daughter relationship between him and Angelica, it undermines it with one of the worst scenes I’ve ever seen.
Here’s what happpens: Jack, Angelica, and Blackbeard have reached the island where the Fountain of Youth is located. They reach a chasm and the bridge has been destroyed so Blackbeard tells Jack to jump in below and reach the other side so he can obtain a pair of silver chalices needed to complete the extended-life ritual. Keep in mind that Jack is being carted along because they need him to find the fountain. Earlier in the story, Blackbeard compels Jack by using a Jack Sparrow voodoo doll. And yet when they reach the chasm, Jack refuses. The logical recourse for Blackbeard would be to use the doll and torture Jack until he jumps. Instead, there’s a stupid roundabout scene where Blackbeard does long-form Russian roulette with Angelica, Jack tries to stop Blackbeard by asking the party’s clairvoyant zombie pirate if he’ll survive the jump, the zombie pirate chucks the voodoo doll over the cliff, it survives, and so Jack jumps. Keep in mind: the entire time, Blackbeard needs Jack alive. Sparrow is neither expendable nor is he trustworthy but he’s the one who has to get the chalices. The stupidity of this entire scene punched my brain into a semi-coma.
And On Stranger Tides had been pulverizing my brain for a good hour and a half before this scene even happens. The screenwriting is excruciatingly lazy by relying too heavily on coincidence. Twice in the first hour does Jack end up where no one could have predicted and is either saved (by his father who randomly appears and disappears with no explanation for either) or drugged (by zombie pirate) because those character just happened to be where he showed up.
I could go on and on about the story problems. A mermaid’s tear is required for the Fountain ritual, but Barbossa and his crew don’t get one, and carry on anyway. There’s a romance between a missionary (Sam Claflin) and a mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) that is so anemic it’s pretty much irrelevant. If Blackbeard has the power to zombify his crew to make them more compliant, then why doesn’t he do it to everyone?
Even if you want to say “Well I don’t go into a Pirates movie expecting good characters or a solid story! I just want to have fun!”* You’re still going to be screwed. While not everything in the Pirates sequels work, they at least have the audacity to go big. There’s a kraken, a long sword fight on a giant wheel, and an intense ship battle inside a massive whirlpool. Nothing in On Stranger Tides comes anywhere close to that scope. Rob Marshall is a competent director, but the film illustrates the tremendous contributions that previous director Gore Verbinski brought to the series. Verbinski knew when to make the scenes operatic, lighthearted, and knew how to pace a set piece. The chase through the streets of London is lifeless, the fight against the mermaids is too brutal to be enjoyable, and the swordfight between Jack and Angelica is pointless.
That swordfight also makes the grave error of calling back the first sword fight between Jack and Will in Curse of the Black Pearl. In Black Pearl, we already had an idea of who Will was and his personality. In On Stranger Tides, Angelica is impersonating Jack and kept entirely in shadow so it looks like Jack is just fighting himself, but that decision keeps the personality of the swordfight one-sided. In Black Pearl, the reason Jack and Will fight is because Jack wants to escape and Will wants to make sure that doesn’t happen. There’s barely any provocation for the swordfight in On Stranger Tides. In Black Pearl, there’s fantastic choreography and pacing to the fight where it begins slowly, builds to incorporate more elements from the workshop, adds fun banter between Jack and Will, and then ends in a way where there’s a clear victor and we also get a hint about Jack’s pistol with one shot. The fight between Jack and Angelica is just two swords clanging against each other and then she throws barrels at him like Donkey Kong. And then they fight with the British army who show up for no particular reason. And then Jack and Angelica escape through a convenient trap door. And then they happen to wash up right where zombie pirate is waiting to put a blow dart in Jack’s neck. And then I checked my watch and saw there was still 100 minutes of movie left. And then I cried a little.
There are some occasional good jokes in On Stranger Tides and Geoffrey Rush continues to have a grand time playing Barbossa. But everything else fails miserably. The movie is a soulless, hollow mess that assumes that if it just throws a bunch of interesting ideas at you (Blackbeard! Zombies! Mermaids! More Jack Sparrow!) it will all add up to a great film. Instead, the result an absolute disaster that fails to understand how the individual parts of a film need to function together in order to provide a working whole. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides may try to walk and talk like Pirates film, but it’s a shambling imposter that even the most notorious scalawag would find reprehensible.
*And you make me sad if you feel this way.