Extended Thoughts on ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End’
Directed by Gore Verbinski
Written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio
Starring Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Geoffrey Rush, Bill Nighy
When I think of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, somehow my mind first jumps to Paul Thomas Anderson. (Bear with me as I give you a fairly decent approximation of how my brain works.) Anderson contributed a list of sorts to a book written by the good folks at The AV Club called Inventory. The book, inspired by the AV Club’s weekly feature of the same name, is full of pop-culture lists that are both hyper-specific and hyper-clever. Most of the lists were written by staff members, but they got some comedians, musicians, and filmmakers to include their own. Anderson’s was—and I’m paraphrasing the title—something about the movies that he would always watch, no matter what, if he found them on TV while channel-surfing. There were only two movies on the list: The Shining and The Birdcage, admittedly very different yet entertaining films.
If I were making a list like that—this is the second part of the digression, but I promise, I’m getting to my point—The Fugitive would be high atop it. The 1990s-era scourge of old TV shows being redone as movies was mostly a failure with only a few exceptions. The Fugitive, a smart, clever, wily thriller that ended up getting nominated for Best Picture, is one of the rare films in that tiny genre that proves there’s some value to rehashing something old. One of its many joys is Tommy Lee Jones, in his Oscar-winning role as the dogged U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard, who memorably doesn’t care if the title character, Dr. Richard Kimble, is innocent. All he cares about is that there’s a guy running from justice who needs to be caught. In his first scene (hell, it’s his first line), Jones strides around the aftermath of a massive train crash that aided in Kimble’s escape from a prison transport. To his cohorts, he says dryly, “My, my, my. What a mess.”
There is no better way to sum up Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End than with those six words, delivered as flatly. So many big-budget blockbusters can be painted with a broad brush as being truly mindless, movies you’re meant to watch and enjoy only if you leave your brain at the door. The Pirates of the Caribbean films, or at least the first three of the franchise, pride themselves on being smarter, more clever, when in reality, they’re simply overstuffed, bloated monstrosities. Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy, and the rest of the cast are more enjoyable to watch than the human rag dolls in the Transformers franchise, for example, but that doesn’t mean these movies are nearly as deserving of an epic status. Somehow, Gore Verbinski, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, and Jerry Bruckheimer, the director, writers, and producer, respectively, of the original trilogy fell under a spell of critical praise for The Curse of the Black Pearl, presuming that all audiences wanted from future movies featuring the many wacky exploits of Captain Jack Sparrow was excess.
I’ve already discussed the over-mythologizing on display in the latter two Verbinski-helmed Pirates movies. What struck me this time, revisiting At World’s End after a few years, was exactly how serious this movie takes itself. It’s been funny, for example, to see people go back to Return to Oz, the sole live-action movie Walter Murch directed, in advance of Oz the Great and Powerful, Disney’s newer visit to the land of Oz. Most of the people who’ve gone back to the 1985 family film were shocked at how creepy and dark it was. Hell, Dorothy Gale nearly gets electroshock therapy in the first half-hour! And not in some kiddie-ized way; she actually is thiiis close to getting shocked. Certainly, that’s a very grim image to consider when you think about how ingrained the character of Dorothy Gale is to modern popular culture. When we discussed that on the show, a question that crops up now and again was posed to me: is Return to Oz a Disney movie in spirit, leaving aside the studio affiliation? The more I consider it, the more I wonder if we need to expand our definition of that Disney spirit, because there’s no way on Earth Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End qualifies.
Here is a movie that opens on a group of people, including a child, being hung for piracy-related crimes. We, of course, are meant to side with these rebels, or at least be against the establishment led by Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander, an actor I like a lot, but my enthusiasm for his performance only goes so far). But how can we really side with anyone in this film? You may wish to root for Jack or Will or Elizabeth, but their double-, triple-, and quadruple-crosses get exhausting after a while. At the end, I was only rooting for the end to come so I could be released from this mire. For whatever reason, the first time I saw this, I didn’t feel like I was being physically dragged along with the movie, like the boat that gets pushed through Davy Jones’ Locker by rock-shaped crabs. This time, however, I could barely get through the film, constantly looking to see how many of the 169 minutes in the film had elapsed, constantly being disappointed.
And let soak that fact in if you forgot about it. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End is 169 minutes, and has no business being that long. This film belongs to the ever-expanding series of mainstream box-office hits that are too long for their own good, again operating under that treacherous “more is more” mentality. Or perhaps it’s best to just compare people like Verbinski and Bruckheimer to John Hammond from Jurassic Park, using the phrase “We spared no expense” as if it’s a shield against any criticism. I can’t say At World’s End is a visual failure—though it’s a darker-hued film than even its immediate predecessor—especially when we’re given artful shots like a pirate ship floating at night in still waters, reflected with the stars and moon shining on its sails. It’s almost a parody of beauty, a facsimile of something that could be truly striking.
All the money is on the screen, but none of it was put into effort surrounding the script. Mike and our guest Corey Atad may be fans of the sequels’ bombast, but it wore me out somewhere in the middle of Dead Man’s Chest. I’m not saying I’m against a sequel trying to be even slightly different from its predecessor—and At World’s End shares a lot of similarities with The Curse of the Black Pearl—but these movies stopped being fun at some point, which is just disappointing, instead of wondrous, to behold. When I first saw the back-to-back sequels in 2006 and 2007, I saw their failure to meet the heights of The Curse of the Black Pearl as expected, if something of a let down. We had been so surprised by the original, not just by Johnny Depp’s performance, but by the general sense of playfulness, that it would be difficult for the filmmakers to achieve further surprise. Now that expectations had been placed upon these movies where none existed for the first film, it would buckle and collapse slowly. This time, I think the problem is just that Verbinski and company forgot how to have fun. Pirates can be taken seriously. Captain Jack Sparrow should not be.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End is the kind of failure you can’t look away from, a trainwreck of strangely overblown proportions that’s messier because it’s not flat-out awful. There are enough positive elements in this movie that I often come close to liking it in the same way Mike and Corey do, though maybe not as much. The images, some of the action, some of the humor: they all crop up here enough that I’m tempted to give it a pass. But I can’t. The spirit of the series should’ve been what’s present in the first film: spirited adventure. There’s a tease of such derring-do at the end of At World’s End—not the very end, where Will and Elizabeth reunite after 10 years, which is as dull as the rest of their love story, and as uninvolving—when it looks like Jack and Barbossa (I like Geoffrey Rush, by the way, in the role, even if it’s too light here) are going to race each other to get to the Fountain of Youth. Simply the thought of the pirates leaving behind a drippy love story for some good, old-fashioned action makes me smile. Their supposed quest, though, speaks to the inherent problem in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise: it’s run by people who don’t know how to leave well enough alone.
What everyone wanted after 2003 was more of Captain Jack Sparrow and friends, and it’s exactly what we shouldn’t have gotten. The filmmakers captured lightning in a bottle once, and decided that they wanted to achieve a cinematic version of the Fountain of Youth, making it so the characters lived forever by having more and more adventures. What people like Gore Verbinski do not appreciate or realize is that Captain Jack Sparrow does not need to have an endless series of exploits to live forever in the minds of audiences worldwide. In fact, by striving to bring Captain Jack back to the multiplexes every couple of years, all they do is turn him into something that may live forever, but without admiration or love. Captain Jack Sparrow was, at first glance, an immediately iconic movie hero. By the end of At World’s End, he and the series are a shell of what they were after the first film. What a shame.