On Familiar Tides


The fourth “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, On Stranger Tides, arrived in theaters this weekend, to generally savage reviews.  It’s slow-paced, needlessly convoluted, and filled with many scenes of characters talking about interesting things we never get to see.  There is a curiously repetitive motif of the heroes blundering into a large number of grim-faced soldiers who aim loaded guns at them, as if the writers could think of no better way to end a scene, or shut down an escape attempt that would have derailed the plot.

This movie feels far smaller and less spectacular than its predecessors.  It’s almost bizarre to see the huge army of special effects technicians marching up the screen during the end credits.  What did all those people do?  There’s nothing here to rival the army of undead pirates from the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” film, the giant Kraken from the second, or the crazy whirlpool showdown from the third.  By far, the best scene in On Stranger Tides involves its unique take on mermaids.  I’d like to see these gals in a movie of their own.  They could certainly breathe new life into Disney’s Little Mermaid franchise.

On the bright side, there are lots of funny moments with Johnny Depp’s beloved Captain Jack Sparrow, a character so iconic you can see him in 3-D while he prances through a bland 2-D movie.  He’s got a terrific love-hate chemistry going in this film… not with Penelope Cruz, who tries to have some fun with the kind of boring action-girl leading lady that all adventure movies are now required to have, but rather with Geoffrey Rush. 

Jack Sparrow and Hector Barbossa have become the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby of a new generation of “Road” movies.  Their scenes together could have been filmed in a studio parking lot, and they would still have been more fun than the $100 million summer blockbuster churning in their wake.

The big problem with On Stranger Tides, and to a somewhat lesser extent with the previous two “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels, is that it doesn’t know what to do with its weirdness.  Even the cannibal mermaids just show up, do their thing, and disappear.

Jack Sparrow was such a compelling character in the first film because of his ambiguity.  His comical antics and bizarre, drunken mannerisms hid a keen intellect.  He’s the smartest guy on any pirate ship he boards, several steps ahead of the people who dismiss him as a madman or a buffoon. 

He occasionally displayed flashes of compassion and loyalty toward the Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley characters – who were exactly the kind of clean-cut, attractive young lovers the Marx Brothers would have assisted in the Golden Age of Hollywood – but it should be noted that nothing he does to help them in Curse of the Black Pearl really compromises his grand plan.  You can believe he means it when he closes the first movie by singing “it’s a pirate’s life for me.”  Piracy involves hurting people.

By the time Captain Jack sets sail On Stranger Tides, he’s completely harmless, a comical adventurer whose Bugs Bunny super-power to avoid physical injury rivals the supernatural might of Davey Jones or Blackbeard.  He’s only involved in the quest for the Fountain of Youth because he thought it might be fun, and because he likes driving Gregory Rush’s Barbossa up the wall.  The movie has no idea what to do with him.  It certainly doesn’t tempt him with the Fountain of Youth’s immortality, force him to choose between his own desires and thwarting the evil of Blackbeard, or confront him with a moral challenge from the young missionary who Blackbeard drags along on the voyage.

The missionary in question serves no purpose other than to bring the movie to a halt during dull romance scenes with a mermaid who is inexplicably less feral than her sisters.  The other characters in the film appear completely unaware of this relationship, as if the missionary and friendly mermaid were added to the film during post-production, the way Jeremy Renner was awkwardly shoehorned into Thor.  It seems odd to drop a man of the cloth into a film full of black magic, sadistic evil, and swishy pirate adventurers, without giving him anything interesting to say about the proceedings.

The writers don’t even know what to do with the Fountain of Youth, a bit of existential symbolism that should produce profound philosophical and emotional reactions from a cast of fully-realized characters.  Instead, it serves only as a magnet to draw the heroes and villains to the tepid climax, in which an army of Spaniards serves exactly the same purpose as the cops who show up at the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

We don’t even get a decent villain.  The “Pirates” series screwed up Geoffrey Rush’s excellent villainy from the first film by bringing Barbossa back from the dead and unraveling his character arc, but at least he’s still fun when Jack Sparrow is around to get his blood pressure up.  Ian McShane, a fine actor who should make an excellent Blackbeard, spends the entire film looking nervous that Rush is talking to Bill Nighy on a cell phone off-camera, cracking jokes about how lame the new Big Bad turned out  to be. 

Blackbeard’s motivation is fear of death, which can do wonders for a villain – just ask Lord Voldemort – but he comes off as a pathetic jerk, who periodically bumps off his own henchmen just to remind us he’s mean.  He has none of the complexity or pathos Nighy brought to Davey Jones, who was cruel because he was heartless, and heartless because he was heartbroken.  Captain Barbossa is only in the picture to get revenge against Blackbeard.  He gets it by upstaging him.

On Stranger Tides feels like the three-part premiere episode of a lame “Pirates of the Caribbean” TV show on the Disney Channel.  It is to Curse of the Black Pearl what those wretched direct-to-DVD cash-ins are to Disney’s animated masterpieces.  It comes alive when it has Depp and Rush on the screen, and since it almost always has Depp on the screen, it’s bearable.  If you go to see it, try imagining what it would have been like if Depp and Rush had passed on the project.  People would have been walking out of the theater before the second reel.

The second and third “Pirates” movies dissolved into expensive incoherence when they tried to recreate The Lord of the Rings on the high seas.  This film is too small.  Maybe the inevitable fifth movie will get the scale right.