The very concept of a film trilogy engenders certain expectations. When a studio stretches a tale over six hours or more, we hope for a certain fluidity from one chapter to the next, for plotting, action and character arcs that are consistent both within each film and across the entire span. Few series ever truly fulfill those desires, but for us in the audience, they're hard to shake.
So in addition to swashbuckling madness, we expect constant evolution and lucid character growth from the Pirates of the Caribbean films, even though this trilogy was not conceived as such. Four years down the road, it's easy to forget that the second and third installments are little more than the offspring of a torrid Monday evening Jerry Bruckheimer spent in a Four Seasons suite with the massive first weekend receipts from Curse of the Black Pearl.
Dead Man's Chest, released a scant year ago, felt like a stopgap episode. In light of this third chapter, that's even more the case. At World's End forgets most of what happened in the last movie. All you really need to know is that the heart of Davy Jones (the pirate grim reaper, more or less) is in a box rather than his body, and that with said box in the possession of a Dutch East India company bigwig, Jones is under corporate command. Oh, and Jack Sparrow is supposedly down in Davy Jones' locker.
This time, director Gore Verbinski and writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio jump in feet first. Rapid fire, they set up one new story element after another: Jack Sparrow, Barbossa, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann must visit the Pirate Lords and their council; the Black Pearl has to reach the underworld; there’s a new mythological explanation for successful piracy; and that factors into the real method behind Barbossa's return. They're good ideas, but anyone who's been paying attention is likely to wonder why it was all absent from the last movie.
The answer, of course, is classic: the film got underway without a finished script, which becomes more and more evident as it plays out. The hastily built story is intermittently entertaining, but it leaves you with little to chew on.
There’s a lot of detritus thrown at the screen to make the structure seem more complicated than it actually is. Most of it is necessary to the overblown story the creative crew has constructed, but some ideas have a lot more oomph than others. For example: Sao Feng’s story, featuring Chow Yun Fat, builds one character to a good climax, but is dreary otherwise.
Setting up a couple of major new plot lines is a lot for one little movie to do, especially when there are associations and betrayals left over from the last one. So this is not a little movie; at almost 170 minutes it still feels jam-packed. Even so, there's hardly time for the indulgent violence and slapstick of Dead Man's Chest, and in fact those hungry for non-stop pirate action will be disappointed. The most energetic movements here come not from sword arms but flapping gums.
Not that there's too much talk, necessarily. Piracy is about battle, sure, but it's also inclusive of intrigue, deception, back-stabbing and so forth. At World's End is built one switchback after another, to the point where you'll probably stop paying attention and enjoy the spectacle, secure in the knowledge that the good guys are (mostly) going to win.
That passive approach would pay off more impressively if the cast did more than coast under their makeup and costumes. The acting demands are light enough that Keith Richards can waltz on set and be himself for a scene, and look as if he's easily holding his own.
Johnny Depp has regained some of the verve he lost in Dead Man's Chest, but Jack Sparrow is still not as potent as he was the first time out. Everyone else has an inspired moment or two (except for Chow Yun Fat, who is truly wasted) but among the massive cast, only Kiera Knightley stands out as one who's really pushing herself.
the hoopla surrounding Johnny Depp’s performance as Jack Sparrow, it's fun to
realize that Kiera Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann is actually the primary
character in this final* chapter. She takes charge of the film, figuratively
and literally, and quickly became the hook I needed to drag me through the labyrinthine
But wait a second. What exactly is she fighting for? The right to be a pirate? In a rabble-rousing speech, she equates piracy and freedom; the two are very much not the same.
I’m slack-jawed thinking about the fact that the studio which required press to provide the identities of any guests at AWE screenings (to prevent piracy, one assumes) is going to rake in a billion bucks on the back of a story that champions a bunch of people who, as we’ve seen across the series, are rapists, murderers, thieves and generally dishonest scumbags.
The film opens with a load of pirates being unjustly executed. In the scene, a young boy galvanizes the lot of prisoners, who begin to sing a pirate anthem. The song is a bridge to the next scene, where we realize it’s sort of a pirate ID badge. But in the first context, it’s also a protest song. It’s railing against unjust application of law – great. But in the end we’re rooting for the destruction of an ideal – the suppression of piracy by some form of law – that is very much in the public interest.
So not only is At World’s End overly complicated and often emotionally hollow, the few moments that do have any meaning are contradictory and very poorly conceived. When I say that the good guys win, what exactly does that mean? The notion of ‘good’ here has been perverted, with only the barest comment about the legitimacy of law. If I believed the core purpose of the series was truly that nefarious, I’d almost be impressed. But I don’t; like so much of the film around it, that core idea is probably incidental and without meaning. And that is truly horrifying.
5 out of 10
*Not likely, but I’m being hopeful.