Why am I even reviewing Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End? I’ve really been in the minority when it comes to this series. My opinion was that the original film, Curse of the Black Pearl, was mediocre at best. The first sequel, Dead Man’s Chest, was worse than that. Both were box office blockbusters and, more significantly, have garnered a level of extreme adoration among many moviegoers. At World’s End is easily the worst in the series, yet I suspect that it will largely satisfy those with more affection for these films than I have. Perhaps I am writing this review in the hope that some other member of the anti-Pirates minority will read it and say, tell it like it is, brother!. If such a person is out there, this one’s for you.
I had problems right off the bat. The plot is geared toward die-hard fans who have seen the other installments multiple times. Because I didn’t particularly care for the first or second films, my memory of what happened in them was pretty bad. Therefore, I got lost in this one’s plot almost immediately. It starts off with Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) traveling to the end of the world to save Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), who is imprisoned in Davy Jones’ locker (more of a mental trap than a physical one).
They also end up in Singapore, where they confront the Chinese pirate known as Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat). He’s killed by the East India Co. and series baddie Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander). Then there’s some nonsense about locating all nine of the “pieces of eight” – one of which Sparrow is hiding. Eventually, all the Pirate Lords convene to challenge Beckett and the squid-faced Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). Other subplots involve mystical Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris), who was once the lover of Davy Jones and may have some kind of magical spirit in her waiting to get out, as well as Will’s attempt to save imprisoned father Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgard).
None of the characters in the film trust each other. They all engage in deal-making, deal-breaking, alliances, betrayals, double-crosses, and triple-crosses. Even if you know the first two movies inside and out, you might have trouble keeping track of who’s doing what to whom. Director Gore Verbinski has proven himself to be a very controlled storyteller in films like The Ring and The Weather Man. It’s kind of amazing, then, that At World’s End possesses a storyline that is a complete mess. Personally, I found the whole experience of trying to follow the overstuffed plot to be an exercise in frustration.
So let’s move on.
A problem that even fans might recognize is that At World’s End is unbelievably talky. There is only sporadic action in the first two hours. Verbinski and his screenwriters cram most of it into the last 45 minutes. (That’s right – this thing is almost three hours long!) Whereas Pearl and Chest didn’t work for me, they at least had regularly-scheduled action/adventure scenes to keep me from becoming too bored. This time around, the characters rarely seem to shut up and engage in any swashbuckling. It’s not difficult to become impatient because you don’t know if or when someone will actually do something.
Regardless of my overall opinion of it, Curse of the Black Pearl had an unassuming charm. Yes, the formula was full, as it had frantic action, tender romance, wacky comedy, and elaborate special effects. However, those things were mixed deliberately; they came along in appropriately timed intervals to juice the story at strategically selected moments. The two Pirates sequels engage in the philosophy that it’s good to overdose the audience on whatever they responded to originally. If Dead Man’s Chest bombarded you with the effects, comedy, romance, and action, At World’s End absolutely pummels you with them. There’s no lightness of touch in this movie. There are no quiet scenes, no subtle moments. Everything is jack-hammered at you in the broadest manner possible.
For example, take the character of Jack Sparrow. Now, I think Johnny Depp is one of the greatest, most inventive actors in screen history. His interpretation of Sparrow in the original was downright subversive. You were caught off-guard by the pirate’s boozy, androgynous manner. It’s no fault of Depp’s, but by the third go-round, the character has lost any appeal he once had. We’ve seen this gimmick before. The things about him that were originally so fascinating have become familiar and routine. So what does the screenplay do? It gives us full-tilt Sparrow. A number of scenes appear to have been designed to allow Depp the opportunity to walk right up to the edge of insanity and heave Sparrow far across it. Instead of finding a new angle, the picture cynically just exaggerates the character as much as possible, to the point where there’s no joy in it anymore.
That joylessness extends to everything in At World’s End. It’s so full of its own preordained blockbuster status that there’s no room to have much fun. Even the clever casting of Rolling Stone Keith Richards as a suspiciously Sparrow-like pirate loses its impact because of all the advance hype. (That should have been a surprise.) It is debatable whether a movie can be “blockbustered” to death, but I advance this one as Exhibit A. Almost every frame of it feels manufactured to fit a preconceived – and inaccurate - notion of what a bigger, “better” sequel should be.
There are two really good scenes in the picture: a sequence in which the characters try to tip over a pirate ship, and a moment where Will proposes to Elizabeth while they engage in a massive group swordfight. Those two clever sequences are indicative (I think) of what audience members responded to in the first place. A few more of them in a shorter, structured story would have capped this series off in a much more satisfying way.
Regrettably, that didn’t happen. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End is loud, long, confusing, annoying, bloated, and not a whole lot of fun. It’s a flat ending to a series that never reached its full potential. But don’t take it from me. When it comes to these movies, what do I know?
( 1/2 out of four)
Note: If you are a fan, make sure you sit all the way through the end credits for a bonus scene that ties up a loose end.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action/adventure violence and some frightening images. The running time is 2 hours and 48 minutes.
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