Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Think of the Pirates franchise as one of those Kraft crackers ‘n’ cheese packages. Everything starts out fine; you got your crackers, you got plenty of viscous cheese paste, and you got that little useless plastic stick to use as an ersatz trowel for combining the two into one flavor sensation.
You clutch the first cracker in your left hand, the plastic stick with your right, you balance the tiny pot of iridescent, cheese-flavored cholesterol on your thigh, and you begin your journey to FlavorLand.*
(*NOTE: As I type this out, I imagine this scene taking place on an Amtrak train, headed from Chicago to LA, in 1972. Bits of cheese stick to a man’s handlebar mustache as he brushes stray cracker crumbs off his blue, white, and red tartan sport coat. His hair is receding, but his soft, light brown curls still pool thickly against the back of his neck. He is wearing white loafers.)
You spread the cheese, perhaps a little too thickly, over the first cracker with your inadequate utensil. You raise the cracker to your trembling lips. You feel the cheese press against the roof of your mouth as you take a bite, and your senses alight with an explosion of zest and salt, the unctuous texture of the spread set in sharp relief against the crisp of the cracker.
You are as happy as you’re ever likely to be made by a package of processed cheese food.
But you’re greedy, and you don’t fully embrace the holistic rapture of the experience. You have entered Cheese Fugue. You have only one word on your mind, and that word is more.
You grip the second cracker, and to your chagrin you realize it’s been broken in transit. No matter! You are no boy, who sits and cries over failed perfection. You are Man. You are a molder of worlds, a Zeus from whose mind springs, fully formed and in the blink of an eye, the genius of a million million years of Darwinistic Natural Selection. You will take cracker and cheese and make it more.
You will make it a sandwich.
Again, you grip plastic and balance cheese. Again, you spread a thick mortar upon your building blocks of bypass and angina. Again, you raise the wafer of communion of the church of Kraft Inc. Again, your mouth experiences a state of delirious rapture.
But it is lessened now, the still crashing wave of Cheese Orgasm that had enveloped you mere moments before has dulled your senses and left you contemplating everything that preceded that moment as The Before Time, when your life was empty of zest. Now, even the brief seconds of cheeselessness between crackers two and three seems like an eternity. Time has slowed. The people around you speak, but their mouths move in a comical pantomime of real speech, and their voices are low and staccato, like a cassette being played on a Walkman with one battery.
You go for the third cracker, and it is pristine. It has survived transit, perhaps hundreds or even thousands of miles from you, to be placed before you as the ur-cracker, the cracker from whence all crackers are formed. You take hold your utensil, your own red plastic Excalibur. But you’ve been profligate with your cheese. Your stores are depleted. You scrape what you can, but there is precious little to spare, and only by using your pinkie as a squeegee can you capture enough precious orange paste to cover even a third of the cracker. You hungrily gobble, but it is a grotesque blasphemy of your former experience. You are left empty, a shell of the man you once were.
And it is there, at that last moment, that you realize there is still a cracker left. It mocks you and your lack of foresight. You eat the cracker, still finding a shadow of the experience you had, but even that shadow serves only as a reminder of what has been lost.
And that’s pretty much what Pirates 4 is.
I really loved the first Pirates movie. It was exactly what I wanted in a summer popcorn movie at the time, and while I maintain it would have been a better movie if they had foregone the badly-animated zombies in favor of a less ham-fisted macabre, the swashbuckling of the story and the “newness” of the Jack Sparrow character made it worthwhile. I enjoyed the second movie as a “more is more” exercise, but it seemed like it was from an entirely different series. By the time the third one rolled around, I was done.
Here’s the thing though. While I didn’t like the sequels as much as the original, what they lacked in cohesiveness and story they made up for with visuals and scope and scale. They were BIG MOVIES, all caps, with bold print. While I couldn’t, in good conscience, recommend either of them, they were movies that made you feel like you got your money’s worth from a theater ticket.
Pirates 4 is a thin shadow of that. It tries to be a spectacle, but none of the setpieces live up to the precedence set by the previous flicks. The story is at once too complicated, and too thin. There are a lot of needless moving parts, but it all just boils down to a pretty rote treasure hunt.
The cast is cut down, too. Where the supporting cast of the original trilogy was vast, largely well-acted, and often stole the show, the supporting cast here is milquetoast and tiny. The two bumbling pirates and two bumbling British soldiers from the original are replaced with a single bland pirate sidekick. Jack Sparrow’s first mate has only a brief appearance. Orlando Bloom’s character, while wooden enough, is replaced by a Christian missionary whose name is never clear, and whose acting ability makes Bloom look like Deniro. Penelope Cruz does an admirable recreation of Keira Knightley’s character, which is to say she’s unlikeable and annoying at worst, and not in the scene at best. Worst of all, the main antagonist, Black Beard the Pirate, scourge of the Seven Seas, the only pirate all other pirates fear (I’m quoting here, by the way) comes off as a tired old man with the beginnings of dementia.
That said, there are still moments. Geoffrey Rush is still a spectacular ham, chewing the scenery in every shot he’s in. Several of the big action setpieces work, until you realize they’re almost shot-for-shot stolen from the previous sequels, only on a much smaller scale. And up to a point, Depp as Captain Jack still works.
People are in love with the character of Jack Sparrow, not least the people who make the Pirates movies. But the thing is, the Sparrow character only works as a sort of puffed-up sidekick. Bloom and Knightly were no kinds of great in the originals, but they were only there to serve as the frame for the story that Depp sashayed around in. Here, he’s given center stage, and it falls flat. You know everything will work out for him, because he’s Captain Jack Sparrow, and as such there’s no drama to any one of the plights that befall him.
It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly 10 years since the first Pirates movie. It’s a series that’s made a lot of money, and deserves to be set out to pasture while it still has some dignity. Because the next step is eating the packaging, and no one wants that.