So in the last month we’ve finally caught up on our Johnny Depp swashbuckler viewing by watching the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End. Prevailing opinion of these movies, so far as I can tell, is that each could have been an hour shorter, each is a mess with too much incomprehensible plot, each consists of a couple of large-scale action set pieces surrounded by boring scenes in which characters continually doublecross each other. In fact, the one word that seems common to nearly every review of these two movies I’ve read is “mess”. Ouch. They must really be bad, right?
Well, wouldn’t you know it: I love the two sequels, I found the plots of each fairly easy to follow, and I wasn’t in the least bit confused by all the apparent switching of loyalties. Go figure. These aren’t great movies, but they’re really very good, in my view. I can’t see why so many people hated them.
I don’t understand the critiques of the films from a story point of view, at least as far as the claims that there isn’t enough story to sustain the films and that the second movie is nothing more than set-up for the third. Well, DMC is designed to lead directly into AWE, so of course it’s a large set-up: it’s literally one-half of a story, with the other half contained in AWE. The PotC movies are less like, say, the Indiana Jones or James Bond films, each of which contains a single story that has no bearing on the next. They’re more like the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings movies, in which they are intended clearly to serve as parts of a larger whole. Since DMC is the first half of a story, to say that it’s set-up for the third movie is actually praise rather than complaint: the movie does its job well.
So what of that larger whole, anyway? I genuinely didn’t have much problem with it. Some stuff isn’t handled as well as it should be, but for the most part, I was never totally confused by the machinations of the story, even when characters start betraying one another and apparently switching sides. I say “apparently” because, for all the double-crossing that goes on, the actual motivations of the characters never changes, which is nice: they’re always acting toward the same goal. Will Turner’s actions are driven first by his desire to be free to marry Elizabeth, and then by his desire to free his father from Davy Jones’s servitude. Captain Jack Sparrow’s actions are always driven by his desire to be free, and by the fact that he defines his freedom in terms of having a ship such that he can always sail wherever he wishes. Now, it may be the case that the various motivations aren’t always cleared up right away, and sometimes when they really should be, but they’re there. Basically, I found that the characters stay true to themselves throughout, which is something I appreciate.
Taking the two films separately, I can certainly see how the plots can be seen as convoluted, but really, they aren’t that complicated after all. Jack’s actions at the beginning of DMC are explained soon enough: he became Captain through making a bargain with Davy Jones, who raised the Black Pearl from the ocean floor for Jack to command, with the proviso that after thirteen years of being Captain, Jack would owe Davy Jones one hundred years of servitude aboard the Flying Dutchman, a bargain Jack is clearly eager to circumvent; this he plans to do by capturing the Dead Man’s Chest, which contains the very heart of Davy Jones. Leverage. Captain Jack Sparrow is always all about leverage.
Meanwhile, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann are to be married, but they are arrested for piracy instead by Lord Cutler Beckett, the new Big Cheese in the Caribbean. Will is offered freedom in exchange for retrieving Jack’s compass, which we later learn points in the direction of whatever one wants most; meanwhile, Elizabeth escapes and goes after Will, not understanding why he’s left without telling her where he was going.
What’s so confusing about this? Nothing that I can see, really, but the film does derail itself a bit with a lengthy set-piece that involves an escape from a tribe of cannibals. Maybe that bothers some viewers, but I didn’t have much difficulty with this either, as the whole sequence is nicely in keeping with the gonzo action sequences of the first film. (I particularly love the double-take both sets of pirate prisoners do when they realize that there’s really no reason for both groups to survive and escape to the Pearl.)
I don’t need to go into the plot details beyond that, but I note that it’s not all that hard to follow, and with one admittedly large exception, just about everything that happens actually gets explained at some point. Why do Jack Sparrow, Will Turner, and James Norrington all want the Dead Man’s Chest? Who is Tia Dalma, and why does she have the presumed-dead Captain Barbossa ready at hand? Why is she already apparently planning a voyage to World’s End, to save Jack Sparrow? Why is Lord Beckett trying to get Jack’s compass? Why is Davy Jones always playing emotionally-laden music on the organ in his quarters? What is the significance of his locket? All of this is explained, and within the dense and happily gonzo mythology the PotC writers have created, it all fits together pretty nicely. With the exception of a couple of action sequences, just about everything that happens in these movies actually leads on to the next thing. Fine by me. Sometimes the movies take their sweet time in explaining why one thing leads to the next thing, but that’s not the same thing as not explaining it at all.
I also loved how the afore-mentioned gonzo mythology of the film draws from all manner of sea lore, with great sea monsters, buried treasures, curses, a ghost ship called the Flying Dutchman, Davy Jones’s locker being a real place belonging to a very real Davy Jones, and so on. I loved the design of the creatures, from the skeletal cursed crew of the Black Pearl in the first movie to the men of the Dutchman, who are gradually becoming one with the sea and are thus taking on the appearance of all the creatures of the ocean. I loved how many of the minor moments of the first movie came into play in the later films: that one guy’s wooden eye, the way that Will gets Jack out of a prison cell, and so on. The visuals of these films are magnificent, with every ship seeming to move through real water with very real weight, and Gore Verbinski’s direction of the action sequences is extremely well-handled. In the final “Maelstrom” sequence of AWE, all hell is breaking loose, and yet Verbinski keeps everything clear to the point where the sequence is very easily followed. I never found any of the action sequences hard to follow, and it’s these kinds of sequences that are the hardest to get right.
So, what else? Most commentators I’ve read have mentioned that Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley are barely adequate in the films, but I generally had little problem with them, so there’s that. As for the other actors, I loved all but one. We’ll get to that in a minute, but first the good: if they make more of these movies, focusing on Captain Jack Sparrow, I could watch Johnny Depp playing him forever. I nearly cheered at the end of DMC when Captain Barbossa was revealed to be very much alive; one great thing about AWE is the way Barbossa becomes one of our heroes, as opposed to one of our villains, and yet he remains the same character. He hasn’t had a change of heart; it’s the allegiances of everyone around him that have changed. That was great, and Geoffrey Rush could play Barbossa for life, as far as I’m concerned, as well.
The films also have a lot of fine dialogue, with lots of exchanges that gave me pleasure. This, between Jack Sparrow and Barbossa, when they are standing beside the body of the dead kraken, really stood out in my ear:
BARBOSSA: Still thinkin’ of running, Jack? Think you can outrun the world? You know the problem with being the last of anything, by and by there be none left at all.
JACK SPARROW: Sometimes things come back mate. We’re livin’ proof, you and me.
BARBOSSA: Aye, but that’s a gamble of long odds, ain’t it? There’s never a guarantee of comin’ back. But passin’ on, that’s dead certain.
JACK SPARROW: Summoning the brethren court then, is it?
BARBOSSA: It’s our only hope, lad.
JACK SPARROW: That’s a sad commentary in and of itself.
BARBOSSA: The world used to be a bigger place.
JACK SPARROW: World’s still the same. There’s just less in it.
“There’s just less in it.” What a great sentiment, and what a perfect line for Captain Jack Sparrow, a man who would rather live free in a world where he can die in the grasp of a vicious “beastie” like Davy Jones’s kraken than any other. Jack is mourning the monster who killed him. I loved that.
Another great bit of casting is Bill Nighy as Davy Jones. His face is obscured by the visual effects of the tentacles they give him, but he is still able to emote strongly with his eyes, and it’s clear that the facial expressions of his tentacled mug are models on the real expressions he made at the time, so much so that I found him totally believable as a character. His performance here is along the lines of Andy Serkis as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films: even though we see almost nothing of the actual man, he gives a full-on performance through and through, as the man fearsome enough to make Captain Jack Sparrow afraid. And as long as I’m on the subject of Davy Jones, he’s really a great character, a man who has become somewhat twisted and refused to carry on his duties as Captain of the Dutchman in his bitterness over his doomed love for Calypso. The scene between him and her in the hold of the Pearl is a really good scene: he demands to know why she wasn’t there for him when she’d said she would be, and she replies, “It is my nature.” Isn’t that the truth? The beautiful sea has been betraying sailors ever since men first put boats into water. There’s quite a lot of insight in these films that slides right by, almost unnoticed.
So who, then, is the weak link in the cast whom I mention above? Sadly, it’s a big one, and it’s probably the biggest reason I think that the PotC sequels miss the mark of being potentially great adventure movies. It’s the guy who plays the main villain of the two films, Lord Cutler Beckett. I can’t remember the name of the actor, and that’s the problem: he’s as white-bread a villain as you’ll find, basically using two facial expressions and a British accent to establish his villainy. This is a person who aspires to ruling over all the seas of the world, and he is brazen enough to take command over Davy Jones himself, and he’s played by one of the blandest actors I’ve ever seen. He’s supposed to be the virtual equal of Captain Jack Sparrow, having been the man who branded the Captain a pirate, and yet, the actor is blown off the screen by Johnny Depp in their one big scene together. Heck, he’s even dominated on the screen by Orlando Bloom. For this part, an actor was needed who was at least equal to Johnny Depp, and this simply didn’t happen. A great adventure movie needs a great villain. This one could have had a great villain, but it didn’t. (Aside from Davy Jones.)
The failure of Lord Beckett isn’t just the actor’s fault, though; the script leaves him too blank. We learn that Beckett and Jack Sparrow have a history, but we learn nothing at all of what that history is. Jack points out that his compass won’t help Beckett because what Beckett most wants is Sparrow dead. This is an interesting little twist, but the obvious question — why does Beckett want Sparrow dead – is never answered. Beckett is more cypher than character, and it hurts the film.
Other problems with AWE are smaller, but real. The freeing of Calypso from her human bonds is a good scene – Captain Barbossa’s interpretation of what it means to “speak to a lover” is hysterical – but then there’s a very odd bit where Calypso suddenly becomes a fifty-foot giant before exploding into a million crabs. This was just silly.
Also faulty is the nature of the final battle. While it’s certainly true that we only really need to see a clash between the Black Pearl and the Flying Dutchman, since those are the two ships we’re actually invested in, this needed a bit more set-up, since the film has to this point been setting up a massive battle between the pirate fleet and the English. Even worse is that there was an obvious way to do this: by resorting to the Pirate Code of the Brethren. (“I call on the right of Single Combat by ship: one vessel from each fleet. The Pearl versus your flagship.” Which Beckett could then use to seize the upper hand by sending not his flagship, but the invincible Dutchman.) Truth is, as much as I loved watching these two films, they definitely could have used another run-through in the script-writing phase. A lot of necessary exposition in these movies comes at very odd times: it’s from the dead Governor Swann (whose demise really should have been shown onscreen, come to that) that we first hear the fateful words “The Dutchman must have a Captain”, and the explanation for Tia Dalma’s resurrection of Captain Barbossa goes by in a flash, even though it makes perfect and utter sense (he’s one of the Pirate Lords, and without him, she can never be freed from her human bonds as Calypso).
So the second and third PotC films are big, loud, exuberant films that feature many conflicting loyalties and actions on the part of their characters that are sometimes a bit hard to follow. But that’s not the same as saying that these films are a “mess”.
(I’ll say something in a later post about Hans Zimmer’s music for these films. Zimmer’s a troublesome figure in film music.)