by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The movie we went to last night was Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth and most recent in Walt Disney Pictures’ Pirates of the Caribbean series, of which Charles and I had seen the first, The Curse of the Black Pearl, on commercial TV while we’d skipped numbers two and three, Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, altogether. At World’s End had had such a convoluted plot at least two critics said it should have been called At Wit’s End, and my impression of the first Pirates film was that it “achieve[d] an exquisite level of narrative incoherence” but was redeemed by “the personability of the romantic leads and the sheer over-the-top campiness of [Johnny] Depp’s performance” in the lead role of pirate captain Jack Sparrow.
Just how a cheesy theme-park ride from the original Disneyland has become the basis for four of the most commercially successful films ever made is a mystery to me, but I was looking forward to On Stranger Tides for the sheer entertainment value, especially since we were going to see it in IMAX 3-D (the tickets for which were $18 apiece, by the way — Charles joked that he and I have gone to see stage plays in “real 3-D” for less than that!). The movie was fun but not as much fun as it could have been, and was one of those modern-day films that was just too overwhelming — not only from the 3-D projection but the sheer volume at which the sound was played, which made Hans Zimmer’s bombastic orchestral score (obviously patterned after Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s work on Errol Flynn’s pirate vehicles Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, though hardly at Korngold’s level of quality or inspiration) come off almost as heavy metal — especially since it was deployed virtually nonstop throughout the film and quickly became overbearing.
The film was “suggested” by a 1987 pirate fantasy novel by Tim Powers called On Stranger Tides, which judging from the Wikipedia page on it probably would have made a much better movie if Disney or someone else had filmed it as a stand-alone work instead of trying to shoehorn the characters of Jack Sparrow and British privateer Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) into it and remodel Powers’ basic plot to fit the already established premises of the Pirates of the Caribbean series. This was the first series entry to dispense with the characters played by Keira Knightley (who in the first film really did seem to be channeling Olivia de Havilland’s character in Captain Blood) and Orlando Bloom, and the female lead in this one is Penélope Cruz, back in the lucrative but artistically unsatisfying salt mines of American blockbusters after her incandescent performance in Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver (which had me shaking my head and saying to myself, “Wow, in an art movie and in her native language she can actually act!”). She either is or is posing as the daughter of Blackbeard (Ian McShane in a marvelously campy performance that’s one of the film’s highlights), and the two are searching for the Fountain of Youth to forestall the prediction that Blackbeard will be killed by a one-legged man (Barbossa is one-legged).
To make the Fountain work they need a mermaid’s tear and two magic chalices that were among the main artifacts of the treasure of Ponce de Leon — whose ship Sparrow and Blackbeard discover and fight over the chalices while it’s perched on a precipice (an obvious ripoff of the precariously balanced cabin in Chaplin’s classic The Gold Rush); you take the water from the fountain and pour it into the chalices, put the mermaid’s tear in one of them, then two people drink from the chalices and the one who drinks the one with the mermaid’s tear in it gets all the life energy of the other — which means one of the participants gets revivified and the other ends up dead. Needless to say, the plot is merely the pretext for a series of action scenes, staged with all the dazzling imagery modern computerized filmmaking lends itself to, but which quickly become mind-numbing after a while. There are a couple of scenes done with an imagination that only shows up the rest of the film, notably the scene in which the principals actually encounter the mermaids — who in this version are Siren-like predators with fang-like teeth, ready to lure smitten sailors to the depths and drown them.
The imagery here is generally terrifying — especially the final shots in the sequence, in which the mermaids seize on the principals’ ship and literally devour it like locusts attacking a wheatfield — and the mermaids themselves are utterly convincing CGI, though the mermaid they finally capture, Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), is able to shed her fins and grow ordinary human-style legs when she has to walk across land. She also falls in love with Philip (Sam Claflin), a religious freak aboard Blackbeard’s ship, and their scenes together provide the only real notes of emotion and genuine pathos in this film. The rest of the film is the sort of modern-day blockbuster a Los Angeles Times critic (whose name I have tragically forgotten) said about a decade or so ago didn’t entertain the audience so much as bludgeon it into submission — and the 3-D effects were mostly good but sometimes created that weird View-Master effect in which the principals in the foreground assume the form and dimensionality of cardboard cut-outs posed in front of a diorama behind them.
What’s more, one downside of 3-D is that even presented here — in state-of-the-art form with polarized rather than colored glasses — 3-D lowers the intensity and vibrancy of the colors, and given how much of this film is set in dingy places (a heritage of its theme-park ride origins, I suspect) the already muted color schemes become almost oppressively unwatchable at times due to the “dimming” effect of 3-D. As for Johnny Depp, who blew hot and cold on the project — various items on the imdb.com “Trivia” page for the film describe him as signing to do it before he read the script, and blowing cold on the project once Disney fired Dick Cook, who’d greenlighted the first three Pirates movies, because he wasn’t sure the new studio management would be as sympathetic to the series as Cook had been. He needn’t have worried — Pirates of the Caribbean is enough of a cash cow for the Disney company that they weren’t going to skimp on the new installment — but at the same time Depp seemed bored with the role throughout. The committee-written (Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert) script didn’t help by making Jack Sparrow a prisoner of either Barbossa, Blackbeard or both (or, in one sequence, a group of Spanish colonists) through most of the story, giving him no chance to command a pirate ship on screen and little opportunity to do the campy bits which made his performance in the first series film so appealing.
On Stranger Tides is an acceptable commercial blockbuster that could have been a genuinely good movie had it been done with more care and sensitivity — but the attention to dramatic details and the codes of honor at stake in 1940’s pirate movies like The Sea Hawk and Captain Kidd eluded the makers of this one and reminded us that just because a new movie uses state-of-the-art digital effects and is filmed in 3-D does not mean it’s going to be as good as Avatar. And it’s revealing that in a Los Angeles Times interview about the film, director Rob Marshall — whose most famous previous credit is the Academy Award-winning musical Chicago — actually described the action scenes as “numbers,” suggesting that he really viewed this as a musical, arbitrarily plotted merely to provide opportunities for action sequences instead of songs.