The success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is a puzzler and no mistake. The second film in the series—the overlong, muddled, unexciting Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2002)—is the fourth highest grossing motion picture of all time, one of only seven titles to have taken more than a billion dollars at the box office. Even the series’ third film, the bloated, borderline-nonsensical Pirates of the Caribbean: at World’s End (2007) is the ninth-highest grossing of all time, only a few paltry tens of millions away from joining the exclusive billion-earner club. The very first Pirates of the Caribbean film (2003), for all its ersatz, based-on-a-theme-park-ride cheesiness, had a certain joy to it; some innocent action-adventure, swordfights and malarkey, the odd PG-level moment of watered down horror, and above all (of course) Johnny Depp’s turn as Captain Jack Sparrow. But watching the fourth and certainly not the last in this steeply diminishing-returns endeavour, I’m starting to wonder if Depp’s Sparrow isn’t actually the problem rather than the heart of the series’ appeal. There’s something painful about watching him wheel out his creaking Keef impression yet again; all that gurning and hamming, all the supposedly comic business with the startled-eyes and jerky head, the reeling about and the delirium-tremens-y hand gestures, like a weird revenant from a second-rate silent comedy. I suppose it’s partly the knowledge that Depp is actually one of the most technically gifted actors of his generation; capable (despite rather than because of his good looks) of immense nuance and range and subtlety, whilst also projecting genuine film star charisma—a rare combination. That this enormously talented performer has gained worldwide celebrity from, and will always be remembered primarily for, this pantomime nonsense strikes me, I suppose, as sad. Watching Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides does nothing at all to alleviate the sadness. Even on its own terms—those terms being defined largely in terms of charm, with side orders of sex-appeal and escapist adventure—this fourth iteration of the character is woeful.
One major problem is precisely that it places Jack centre stage. He’s there in the opening sequence, masquerading randomly as a high court judge; he’s there in the last, strolling along a sunset beach with a compadre. And he’s there in pretty much every scene in between. Here he is being interviewed by King George II (a ghastly, ghastly piece of actorish mummery, this, from the usually reliable Richard Griffiths); and here he is again, fleeing the king’s guard in a set-piece chase through London that was surely very expensive to stage but was entirely unengaging to watch nevertheless. There’s a pointless little sub-plot about a stranger who is impersonating Sparrow and recruiting sailors for a new voyage; but as soon as this someone’s identity is revealed—love-interest Angelica, (played feistily by Penelope Cruz with sterling supporting work by her own décolletage)—the subplot is forgotten. In fact Angelica has been hiring sailors for the pirate Blackbeard; Ian McShane, who brings a degree of brooding majesty and his blasted, once-handsome mug to the part. Why she pretended to be Sparrow is never explained. Then there’s some chaff about how she conned Blackbeard into thinking that she’s his long-lost daughter; but later it turns out she is his long-lost daughter after all, so that was another unnecessary complication. At any rate Blackbeard sets sail to find the fabled Fountain of Youth; following the Spanish navy, who are on the same quest; and in turn being followed by a Royal Navy frigate under the command of Geoffrey Rush’s hammier-than-parma-ham
Depp is press-ganged and has to work Blackbeard’s ship as a common sailor. Indeed, he is so thoroughly ignored that he is compelled to stage a mutiny just to get the ’beard’s attention. Only after the mutiny is put down do we discover that Blackbeard’s quest depends upon the knowledge that he, Sparrow, happens to possess, which makes his earlier treatment seem rather arbitrary. But then arbitrary is this movie’s watchword. Stuff happens primarily to show off some special effects, or to give the camera another reason to zoom-in-on Depp’s face, or just to shoehorn all the characters into position for a set-piece. Stuff never happens for reasons for organic, logical development of story or character. Of course we never doubt (we’re not idiots) that these various questers will all converge on the mystic Fountain, with all the randomly assigned paraphernalia they need to make it work; magic silver goblets, mermaid’s tears, sacrificial victims. This gives all the to-ing and fro-ing that intervenes between the opening and the final scenes the flavour of pointless faffing about. If the dialogue were written with more snap; or the set-pieces filmed with more verve and inventiveness, or if, indeed, there were anything on screen to entertain us other than Johnny Depp phizog, this might not matter. In the event it matters a lot.
Still, Disney, having paid Depp $55.5 million to reprise the rôle, clearly wanted their money’s worth; and his kohl-eyes and cheeky leer are slap-bang in the middle of the cinematic shop window pretty much all the way through. To repeat myself: this is a mistake, I think. In the first movie Sparrow worked precisely because he was a supporting figure. Howsoever insipid Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley were, they at least helped prop up a movie in which, with only a slight effort at suspension of emotional disbelief, it was possible to invest. Like Heath Ledger’s incomparable Joker, Depp was able to make Sparrow into something iconically memorable because the main focus was elsewhere. Once the spotlight is directed on him and him alone, not only the meagreness but the incoherence of the character becomes unignorable. Any Dad, after a glass and a half of red wine, can wrap a napkin round his head, do the drunken Rolling Stone wobble and gasp out a passable Jack Sparrow impression: the perfect reproducibility of the thing is part of its genius.
I took my family to Disneyland Paris last year, and one of the highlights of the trip was coming across a minimum-wage French teenager in the Park's employ, dressed as Jack Sparrow and signing autographs. My 9-year-old daughter was very excited to meet this fellow, even though the individual in question, beneath the make-up and pirate garb, looked no more like Johnny Depp than I do myself (I might add that, to my wife’s chagrin, I look nothing at all like Johnny Depp). That’s the point, though: the 9-year-old’s excitement, not the performer or even the character. Jack Sparrow has the three-dimensionality of Ronald McDonald, and the same brand recognition. Treating him as a rounded character misses his point. Missing the point, though, is what this film excels at; so backstory is slathered all over Depp’s portrayal. We discover, for instance, that Sparrow seduced, abandoned and broke the heart of Penelope Cruz’s Angelica in a convent in Spain, leaving her despite the fact that he had himself fallen in love with her.
But the more the film concentrates on Sparrow, the more incoherent the characterisation becomes. Half the time Sparrow is bumbling and incompetent, physically cowardly, entirely untrustworthy, fond of sucking up to authority and betraying his friends. But the other half he is a hearty, wisecracking all-action-hero, backchatting the king of England before fighting off dozens of armed soldiers and exiting Douglas-Fairbanks-jr-style on a swinging chandelier and a smashed window. He can’t be both the expert swordsman, capable of holding a dozen zombies at bay (the film does have zombies, although almost nothing in made of the fact, and long before the end they’re all treated like regular crew) and the mewling pusillanimous ‘why has the rum gone?’ clown desperate to save his own skin. Which is to say: he can’t be both and make sense as a character. It would surely have been a better play to jettison the action hero; but then the filmmakers would have been faced with the dilemma of filling the entire film with a slim Falstaff, and that’s not very Hollywood. So Depp is forced to play the role each way against itself, and the result is just absurd. And not in a good way.
The end-titles tell us that the film was ‘suggested’ by
Here’s an interesting fact: the same year that Powers published On Stranger Tides, 1987 in fact, he collaborated with James P Blaylock on a limited edition volume published by Garland press. This collector’s edition was a bound single page, entitled A Short Poem. The text of the poem, in its entirety, is: ‘ho, ho, ho.’
‘Ho, ho, ho,’ indeed.
The film does have a couple of memorable moments. It’s reassuring, I think, that a budget of over $200 million can generate at least a couple of these. For instance, Blackbeard has a magic sword, with which he can magically animate the ropes of his ship, turning them into slithering snakes to grab people. The sword can also unfurl the sails and direct the rudder, which makes you wonder why Blackbeard needs a crew at all. That said, though, the filmmakers instincts are as often wrong as right: the serpentine ropes are good; the fact that Blackbeard’s eighteenth-century ship is mounted with two forward facing massive flamethrowers is just silly.
Then there are the mermaids. For reasons that are unexplained, presumably because they are inexplicable, the fountain of youth only works when mixed with a single mermaid’s tear. Mermaids congregate at a place Whitecap Bay, wither Blackbeard repairs to capture one. And there they encounter schools of these creatures: all of them skinny young supermodels, with CGI fishtales and their long hair artfully draped over their nipples. The whole sequence of this nighttime encounter—beautiful mermaid maids singing sweetly before suddenly popping out the vampirish fangs and going all Jaws on the sailors’ asses—was rather well done. But then, unable to leave well alone, the film has to make more of the creatures; and as it does do it dissipates their dark glamour.
So: Blackbeard’s crew capture a mermaid called Serena (played by the young Franco-Spanish actor Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) and transport her inland in a glass coffin filled with water; although it later transpires that out of water her tail metamorphoses into legs, which makes the glass coffin a little redundant. Anyway, Blackbeard’s daughter (in another unconvincing half-buried memory of Powers’s novel) is terribly concerned for the health of her evil father’s immortal soul. Accordingly she has insisted that a handsome young Christian missionary be brought along on the voyage. This character, ‘Philip Swift’, occupies the Orlando Bloom younger eye-candy position in the ensemble, and is played as much with his shirt off as on by English actor Sam Claflin (whose splendid surname makes me wonder if he was Christened by an East Anglian vicar whose tongue unfortunately cleaved to his palate at the crucial moment). Swift falls in love with the mermaid, and she with him, thereby revealing herself to be disappointingly and indeed simperingly un-feral. When the missionary is wounded in the final battle Serena drags him away under the sea. It would have more dramatic bite if she did this to drown him, as mermaids (according to the movie’s own logic) invariably do. But no; it’s clear that they’re swimming away to have anthropiscine coitus and live happily ever after.
There are various other randomly accreted bits of movie.
It turns out that the Spanish king has come to destroy the Fountain of Youth as a blasphemous place, since ‘only God can grant eternal life’. So he snatches the goblets from Jack’s hands and stamps them to pieces—something he had previously omitted to do despite recovering them from the teeter-totter ship days before, and having had ample opportunity. His men pull down the pillars of the temple and wreck the fountain. In all the confusion, Barbarossa stabs Blackbeard with a poisoned sword; Angelica, rushing to her father’s side, clumsily cuts her own hand on the same blade, thereby both dooming herself and showing all her previous superb co-ordination and sword-control to have been pure fluke,
Jack Sparrow retrieves the crushed goblets, which turn out to be not so badly damaged that they can’t contain water; catches the last dribbles of the Fountain of Youth which turns out to be not so destroyed as to have no more juice. He adds the mermaid’s tears and goes over to the dying pirate and his dying daughter. Now, the entirely arbitrary conceit of this ritual is that two must drink the water at the same time from the magic goblets, such that the one who drinks the mermaid’s tears will be gifted all the remaining life from the one who drinks from the other cup. This troubled me more than a little: since both parties were only moments away from death, what good would the exchange be? Anyway Sparrow gives them a choice; Angelica offers to sacrifice herself to save her Dad, Blackbeard greedily agrees and slurps the goblet with the mermaid’s tears. Only Jack has switched the goblets, see! Because he knew Blackbeard wouldn’t do the decent thing, see! And the result is a massive audience: meh. In a final act of characteristic plot-randomness, Sparrow then maroons Angelica on a desert island. ‘I love you!’ she tells him. ‘So do I,’ he replies. ‘Always have, always will.’ Then he rows away. I was left thinking: is that ambiguity between ‘I love you too’ and ‘like you I love me’ deliberate? Or just one more confusing non-event in a sequence of big-budget non events? Is it supposed to be touching, or deflating and funny? Does the film even know?
Who can say?
In sum: this movie is less swashbuckling, more swillbarfing. And I haven’t even got to the music. The official website gushes that ‘Hans Zimmer is one of the film industry’s most respected and sought-after composers with a career that encompasses more than 100 film and television scores.” But a little digging reveals that Eric Whitacre actually scored the movie, reusing Zimmer’s themes from Gladiator, which gives the soundtrack a distinctly second-hand feel to it. (It’s not the first time Zimmer’s been involved in this sort of thing: his superb soundtrack for The Thin Red Line was reused for the risible Pearl Harbor). But it all contributes to the sense of something rather worn-out and derivative.
Does this bring us any closer to answering why this film series has been so globally successful? Clearly something about these fillums has touched a collective nerve; the question is—what. A few years ago, I blogged about the (it seemed to me) strange feature that more than half of the world’s all-time top grossing films peddle a particular, backward-looking version of Englishness: Harry Potter’s English public school world; Lord of the Rings’ various bourgeois nineteenth-century and heroic medieval and Anglo Saxon Englishnesses; and—of course—the Pirates films' simulacrum of eighteenth-century English naval adventures. But saying that the success if a function of a canny packaging of ‘Englishness’ only shuffles the question one notch along: why should the world be so interested in ‘Englishness’? One perhaps surprising implication is that ‘Englishness’ now figures, semiologically, as both as a stiff-upper-lip adventure-heroism and as the louche decadence of sixties rockstardom, and that combining the two hits the sweet spot for millions of fans. Hard to believe, but no harder than the credibility of this particular film.