Towards the end of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Captain Barbossa cackles something to the effect of ‘I know the real secret to immortality, me mateys!’ (or something similarly salty dog). Could the secret be ‘Get involved in a seemingly endless series of Disney blockbusters’? Because as POTC: AWE comes to its credits, it becomes abundantly clear that the end has not arrived; the final fifteen minutes set up a sequel so completely that I could probably make an educated guess at its title, and I found this to be utterly frustrating. Why couldn’t it all just wrap up? Surely leaving some characters among the living would be enough set-up for a part 4, should one become necessary – why send me out of the theater deprived of any kind of closure?
That’s the apex of POTC: AWE’s vortex of frustration. It begins with the nagging feeling that the entirety of Dead Man’s Chest was an exercise in wheel spinning, and sure enough most of the major plot points in At World’s End have nothing to do with the previous movie and in fact have to be set up in large amounts of exposition here. Dead Man’s Chest felt unfocused and hectic when I watched it last summer; with the knowledge that two of its two and a half hours were pointless, the movie retroactively becomes even more annoying. It’s sheer sloppy work from director Gore Verbinski and screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio; with five and half hours of screentime between the two movies, nothing in the two film story feels like it should have taken more than two hours.
The movie needs to introduce major new concepts for the sheer fact that it makes no sense at all that Barbossa would help get Jack Sparrow back from Davey Jones’ locker. Sure, it was a pretty cool way to end the movie, but it just contains no logic. The reasoning offered is that a Pirate Convention has been called (PiCon 1756) and he and Jack Sparrow are both ‘Pirate Lords,’ of which there are nine, and each holds an important mystical object (that object and its importance are also completely stuffed in at the last minute. I won’t spoil it here, but it involves a secret identity, and had it been established in the last film, it could have set up a fun topic for fans to obsess about in the past year; instead it’s established, briefly and unconvingly teased and then wrapped up all in short order). It’s all mumbo jumbo – Barbossa has been raised from the dead to go to a MEETING?!?! You would think he could at least just teleconference in – but it actually offers the movie a fairly clean throughline, which Dead Man’s Chest sorely needed. The plot is all about Go Here, Get This, Bring It Here, which offers Rossio and Elliot a skeleton upon which to hang the endless double and triple crosses that pad this movie out to a bladder punishing length. Happily, all of this is easier to follow than the last film, which I honestly couldn’t recap to you in any realistic way because there were so many reversals the whole thing felt like going in circles.
Huge chunks of At World’s End remind me of nothing so much as the Jabba the Hutt scenes in Return of the Jedi. The rescue of Jack Sparrow is like the rescue of Han Solo, complete with underworld disguises and a moment where goofy sidekicks toss swords into the heroes’ hands at just the right moment. At the end of the movie the climactic fight takes place on the rim of a maelstrom, which really reminded me of the Sarlaac pit. A baddie even finds his final fate within it (the maelstrom thankfully does not burp). Unlike the Jabba the Hutt scenes from Return of the Jedi – unlike anything from the relatively briskly paced Return of the Jedi – At World’s End indulges itself to the point of being coma-inducing. The final battle, which I swear to you lasts 45 minutes, ends up going on so long that by the time the ‘important’ events occur at the end I couldn’t find it within myself to care anymore. I had been swash, buckled and CGIed into apathy.
That apathy tended to extend to the characters. Orlando Bloom remains a gaping maw of charisma, a leading man who you wish would lead himself right off the screen. Keira Knightley is plainly exhausted by now and brings no fun to her role. Geoffrey Rush’s dead/undead/not dead anymore character is best in small doses; sadly he is here in very large doses, turning Barbossa from a mysterious, dangerous figure into a bore. And he’s distressingly straight forward and honest, by the way. Finally there’s Johnny Depp, recipient of an Oscar nomination for his first turn in this role. He remains delightful throughout, but the charm has worn off Jack Sparrow by now. It’s the same problem the whole film has – we were very pleasantly surprised by the first movie, both in Sparrow and in the general quality of the film. That surprise is gone, and the movie – and the character – have to engage us on their own strengths. Turns out they don’t have as many. Sparrow in particular is a very one-note character, although this film does turn him into a piratical analogue of Batman – super thinker and strategist, as well as nearly superhuman acrobat and fighter. His duel with Davey Jones atop a ship’s mast amid the maelstrom (you’ve seen it in every trailer and commercial) is cool until it drags on so long that you’re forced to realize there’s no way a man could do any of the stuff Depp is doing – at least not unless they were actually standing on a greenscreen stage in Los Angeles.
But the character who gets most of the shaft is none other than Davey Jones. A true stand out in Dead Man’s Chest, Davey Jones has been neutered in this film, and while the plot demands it – his heart has fallen into the hands of Lord Evil Brit – the turn of events remains depressing. Davey Jones is reduced to bulldog and lovelorn sot, stomping around delivering threats that he doesn’t seem capable of carrying out. George Lucas had the good sense to unhook Darth Vader from his superiors after the original Star Wars – while the guy answered to the Emperor, it made him a better villain to be running around doing his own thing. This film has done the opposite, and it doesn’t have a bigger baddie to offer in Jones’ place to make up for the loss.
Unless the bloodthirsty Gore Verbinski is that baddie. The prologue of the film is a long scene of pirates, pirate friends and pirate associates being hung by Lord Evil Brit (he’s suspended all civil rights in the English colonies. It’s like he passed some kind of… Patriot Act!). Finally a child is led to the gallows – he’s too short for the noose so they have him stand on a barrel. He leads the assembled dead-to-be in a pirate song that magically convenes PiCon 1756 (see: jumbo, mumbo) just before he gets his neck stretched. I don’t know if there has ever been a Disney movie that OPENED with a kid being hung, and Verbinski doesn’t let up – people get slaughtered at an alarming clip, and they take it hard. One cannonball blast leaves British naval officials lying screaming in their own blood. Bullets and swords enter bodies left and right, and Orlando Bloom uses corpses, which are fed upon by gulls, as a signal at sea. This is, without a doubt in my mind, an R-rated film wearing a PG-13 shell.
All of this is compounded by the film’s lousy political subtext. Besides the opening scene Patriot Act reference, Knightley delivers a speech that misuses the concepts of freedom in such a way as to rival that of the slave-owning Spartans in 300. Standing before an assemblage of pirate ships about to do battle with the Royal Navy, she tells the brigands and scoundrels to show the Brits what free men look like or some such nonsense… free to do what? Murder, rape and steal? The film has made no bones about these particular proclivities of pirates (she herself had Chow Yun-Fat* forcing himself on her an hour earlier), so is that what they’re fighting for? The ability to be thieves and killers? After that speech realigned my thinking – aided by a scene where Knightley just about spits at poor Jack Davenport, who I liked so much in Ultraviolet (not the shitty movie), something along the lines of ‘You chose what side you’re on!’ The side of not raping and pillaging? How dare you, Davenport! – I found I was horrified by the carnage visited upon British sailors who were just trying to stop vicious criminals. I’m okay with rooting for the bad guys when they’re presented as good guys in crime and mob films, as long as no one is pretending that the crimes they’re committing are part of some grand philosophy. Once Knightley brings ‘freedom’ into the mix the whole movie turned to ash for me. Hell, she’s really in it for revenge – why not use that as a rallying cry? You can shoot a Chinese woman point blank in the face in a Disney summer blockbuster, but you can’t fight the final battle for anything but freedom.
I don’t think this would have mattered if the final battle’s running time didn’t rival the entirety of Shrek the Third. The movie gives us so much overwhelming spectacle that our minds can’t help but wander, as they’re not being engaged in any meaningful way.
There are parts of At World’s End I genuinely liked. There are more adventure elements than sheer action elements in this film, and while Gore Verbinski is chanelling Terry Gilliam to the point that he should be collecting residuals (and Terry Jones as well – huge segments of the film felt like Erik the Viking to me), he creates nice compositions and crams his frame with interesting detail. And I found the Pirate Lords to be an intriguing touch, if too lightly applied. At World’s End never feels like it’s breaking new ground visually, except for the Pirate Lords, and I would have liked to see them have more to do. Keith Richards is in this scene, but not as a Pirate Lord. I’m not even sure he’s conscious, to tell you the truth. He definitely looks like he belongs in Davey Jones’ crew of undersea monsters, though.
At World’s End and Dead Man’s Chest are examples of movies completely out of control. There’s less sound and fury in this third installment, which is nice, but also backwards – shouldn’t the second film be setting up the third as the all-out action epic? In the end these films are bloated, and while they may function as much as a ride as their inspiration, even theme park rides have to come to an end. You don’t want to get on a roller coaster for an hour and a half, and there are really only so many drops and flips you want in the course of one ride. Movies – at least big dumb summer blockbuster movies – are the same, and if you make the punters spend too long on the ride, you’ll send them out with bellyaches.
*Chow Yun-Fat is so wasted in this film that it feels like Verbinski was on a bender when he hired him, was shocked to see the actor show up on set one day and made up stuff for him to do.