Okay, look—I’m not saying Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is the worst movie I’ve ever seen: it isn’t. I’m not saying it’s the worst movie I’ve seen all year: it isn’t. (Sorry, Hop.) I’m not even saying it’s the worst movie in the Pirates franchise: I haven’t seen the third one, but I am reliably informed that this one is slightly better than that.
What I am saying is this: don’t see it. For the love of God, don’t see it.
I’m serious. You think I’m kidding, but I’m not. If you have any affection for film as an art form, don’t see it. If you think you or your children or your grandchildren deserve to have decent, diverting entertainment, don’t see it. If you, as a consumer of popular culture, have an ounce of self-respect, don’t see it. Take your $11, and the two-and-a-half hours of your life, and go buy a book, or feed a homeless person, or—if you must—buy Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl on DVD. Just don’t give your money to these people for this film. Please. They don’t deserve it, and you’re only encouraging them.
Because they won’t stop: I promise you, they will not stop.
Look, I wanted to be pleasantly surprised. I’m not a snob, I like a good pirate movie, and I genuinely enjoyed the first movie in this franchise. Though it went on far too long—at least a third of a movie too long—Curse of the Black Pearl had some real charm and humor to it, and some authentically thrilling action sequences. (The scene where Keira Knightley discovers the undead crew, and is tossed around the Black Pearl, was breathtaking.) And, like I said, I wisely skipped the third movie—I think I skipped most of the second movie too, if we’re being honest—so, unlike many people, I wasn’t burned out on the franchise going into On Stranger Tides. I was actually receptive to more swashbuckling and silliness. (Besides, the day I can’t get at least mildly excited about Penelope Cruz in a pirate’s blouse is the day I give up on going to movies altogether.)
On the other hand, I admit that I went in expecting to have fodder for a good old-fashioned, profanity-laced rant. I was hoping for that. I haven’t ranted in a while and my bile was over-flowing. I needed an outlet. I needed a cathartic purge. I needed to spew my backed-up venom on something, and On Stranger Tides looked like a good bet.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that offensive. But it is terrible. It’s a slow, repetitive, decidedly un-thrilling muddle of a movie that delivered not a single moment of pleasure, and which I had almost completely forgotten before my ass even left the seat. No one in it (least of all Cruz and star Johnny Depp) looks like they are having any fun at all making it, and I can’t believe anyone in the audience could possibly have any fun watching it. It’s not exciting, it’s not funny, it’s not even silly: in fact, it doesn’t feel like it bears any tonal relationship to the first movie at all. (I haven’t read Tim Powers’ novel On Stranger Tides—which “suggested” the story of this movie—but I wonder if the unnatural splicing together of its unrelated plot with Disney’s franchise characters partially accounts for the truly awkward tone of this film. Jack Sparrow and the other cartoonish, recurring characters seem as though they’ve been dropped into a slightly less joyous universe, where they don’t quite fit.)
The story (as far as I remember) concerns a quest for the legendary Fountain of Youth, which legend says can provide eternal life. Of course, since one MacGuffin is not enough to fuel this kind of movie, it’s not that simple: eternal life apparently requires a complicated ritual that requires two silver chalices off Ponce de Leon’s lost ship, and–just for good measure—the tear from a mermaid. Chalices, mermaid, fountain: these are our goals, and three different expeditions are searching for these things. There is a delegation of Spaniards (unimportant, except as convenient blocking figures); there is a British delegation led by Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush); and there is a crew led by Blackbeard (Ian McShane), his daughter Angelica (Cruz), and a reluctant Captain Sparrow (Depp), kidnapped and brought along for reasons that are never entirely clear. (Sparrow and Angelica had a past relationship, although you would never know it from their absolute lack of chemistry, or the total absence of pleasure either seems to take in the other’s company.)
A minor sub-plot concerns a missionary (who has somehow ended up as Blackbeard’s prisoner), who falls in love with Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), the mermaid Blackbeard captures for her tears. I don’t know if this storyline is a hold-over from Powers’ novel, but it certainly felt like a different story, and one potentially far more interesting than anything related to the Disney franchise. Unfortunately, it is never given room to breathe: every time I’d start to get interested in this story, Depp or Rush would suddenly reappear and jar the film back into franchise formula.
Yes, Depp and Cruz are very good actors, and can be magical screen presences with the right material. But here they have nothing to work with: Depp in particular is just going through the motions. (I certainly don’t miss Orlando Bloom, but trying to make Depp’s twitchy supporting character Jack Sparrow a generic action hero does not make him more interesting.) Ian McShane is a powerhouse, and he certainly made me miss Al Swearengen here, but he is stuck with a cartoon villain role that allows for not the slightest trace of the kind of nuance McShane can deliver.
So forget character work—it’s not even on the table. But On Stranger Tides is a dull adventure movie, as well, and the people in it seem every bit as bored as the audience. This is a film that has swarming mermaids, magic fountains, zombies, and a ship where the ropes come alive, yet everyone treats these things like they are not only commonplace but barely worth noticing. There is a fatal absence of wonder here, a crippling failure of fun. I don’t even know how you put all these elements together and still fail to find the fun, but director Rob Marshall manages to drain any joy from this interminable movie.
I don’t quite understand why more people don’t realize that Marshall is a terrible director in general, but let’s leave that aside. He is, certainly, a terrible director of action sequences. This is a common complaint I have about big-budget movies of this kind—hello, Thor—but I’ll repeat it again: NOT EVERY DIRECTOR HAS A GIFT FOR ACTION.
A good chase sequence, for example, requires a narrative sequence of events: it requires the director to be able to establish a visual throughline from one event to another, and to give the audience some sense of where the chaser and the chasee are in relation to one another. (There were some fun Rube Goldberg-esque cause-and-effect sequences in the first movie, for example, that were genuinely exciting and original.) Typical of this movie, however, is a long chase sequence near the beginning, where Marshall totally fails to follow where anybody is, or what direction they are heading, or how close they are to one another, or where they are ultimately trying to get to. Absent these basic storytelling elements—which someone like Spielberg, for example, understands intuitively—we’re left with rapidly cut chaos, which is every bit as dull as watching popcorn pop: there’s a lot of motion, but no story; you’re just waiting for it to be over. (I have the same complaint about Marshall’s dance sequences in Chicago, but it’s not worth harping on.)
The same problem—writ larger—dogs the entire plot of the movie. Three factions are questing across the globe for the various necessary elements of the magical ritual, but Marshall never really bothers to give us a sense of geography, or distance, or the passage of time. I never knew where any particular faction was, or who was leading the chase, or who was losing it, and so there was no suspense of any kind. (By way of contrast, think of the sense of scale—of globe-hopping high-pursuit—that the Indiana Jones movies have.) In On Stranger Tides, the various groups just seem to just turn up magically in the same place whenever the plot calls for it, giving the impression that the entire story must take place in a lagoon about the size of the one on Gilligan’s Island.
Listen, I’m repeating myself but I’m eager that you understand me: don’t see this movie. I know what you’re thinking: if you go in with low expectations, you’ll at least get some laughs, some good stunt sequences, and a bit of fun pirate silliness. I understand: that’s what I thought, too. But you won’t. They’re not there. And the producers of this movie are counting on you thinking that; they want you to think that maybe it has some brief moments that recapture even a little of the first movie’s magic. That’s a tragically low expectation to have in the first place, but On Stranger Tides can’t even manage that much, and they’re counting on getting your money before you figure that out.
At the moment, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is—as its website proudly proclaims—”The #1 Movie in the World!” And it’s a terrible, joyless film. And that’s wrong. And it won’t stop until we all stop falling for it.