Friday, May 20, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides: A Review

"We are The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything.
We just stay at home and lie around.
And if you ask us to do anything,
We'll just tell you,
'We don't do anything!'"

The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything:
A VeggieTales Movie (2008)

If you have had your fingers on the pulse of Hollywood originality in the past ten years, you'd remember the summer of 2003 when Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl premiered, seemingly to herald the beginning of the end of filmmaking. It was a movie premised upon a Disney theme park ride. To the doomsayers of creative endeavours, it appeared that the idea pirates of Tinseltown were finally running out of source material to plunder. However, basing a film on nebulous brand name proved to far less of a stupid idea than was prognosticated - it's basically a free license to tell any story tangentially related to it. That's what The Curse of the Black Pearl did, and it showed us awesome Aztec-cursed undead pirates. It also introduced to us Captain Jack Sparrow, who is now as much of an icon of piracy in fiction as Robert Stevenson's Long John Silver.

This year, we see the release of the fourth film of the Pirates of the Carribean franchise, the 3D third sequel to a film based on a Disneyland attraction - with a screenplay "suggested by" a fantasy novel by Tim Powers. This, when considered in totality, is more than a little depressing in concept I must admit, but I was hoping that it might bring back the magic of the first Pirates movie which the middle two films (in my opinion) lost.

Pirates of the Carribean - On Stranger Tides
The theatrical poster.

The pirates of series is the very epitome of Pirates Who Don't Do Anything. Three films and we don't see them engage in their chosen occupation at all. They don't pillage and plunder coastal cities, rob merchant ships, or download songs illegally off BitTorrent. Instead, they restored ancient archaeological treasures, battled sea monsters, tangled with an oceanic boogeyman and an angry sea goddess, and declared war on the East India Trading Company to save the world (of piracy!). In On Stranger Tides, they kept their commitment to a strictly un-piratical lifestyle and embarked on a quest for the fabled Fountain of Youth.

I had been anticipating the latest Pirates film more than I should because this time, they are going to initiate Blackbeard into the series. Factor in the casting of Ian McShane as the notorious buccaneer, it's hard not to get at least a bit excited.

Ian McShane as Blackbeard
Ian McShane as Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard.

Ian McShane's Blackbeard is deliciously villainous. The first time he strode out of his cabin with the tips of his magnificent braided beard lit and smoking, he was actually terrifying, if only in a PG-13 way. It was a cool reference to the real Edward Teach who would tie lit fuses under his hat to to frighten his enemy (I knew that because I went through a pirate phase when I was a kid). And the awesome theme Hans Zimmer composed for the fearsome freebooter showed equally as much presence - it's my favourite part of the soundtrack. The rest of the film's score is far less endearing though. It's hard not to get annoyed when it blares insistently in my face screaming "EPIC!" and "AWESOME!" when what's shown on screen was anything but.

I also question the wisdom of portraying Blackbeard as a pirate voodoo wizard who is capable of raising zombies, stitching voodoo dolls and owning a sorcerous ship - all of which seem to undermine the aura of intimidation he borrowed from the real historical Blackbeard. There's also a prophecy involving him which I shall not reveal, but it has to be the most straightforward, non-cryptic, un-Delphic prophecy I've ever come across in fiction. There's no twists or clever hidden interpretations associated with it, and since the laws of storytelling dictate that prophecies always come true, it really robbed the film of its sense of suspense.

On Stranger Tides also introduced Penélope Cruz as Angelica, Blackbeard's daughter and Jack Sparrow's old Spanish flame. She was very much a fictional character and not a person at all, and it's due in part to how schizophrenically written her role was. I won't divulge her motivations, not for fear of spoiling anything, but because they are sensationally stupid and it would be a waste of my time to try and analyse her mindset. If you didn't already divine this, she was clearly intended to be Jack Sparrow's love interest and pretty much every line of dialogue exchanged between the both of them was either a flirty remark, a petulant lover's snipe or a reference to past romance - all entirely forgivable if they were actually funny.

Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) with Angelica (Penélope Cruz)
Pictured: Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow with Penélope Cruz as Angelica. Not pictured: chemistry.

I didn't know this could happen but I think I am tired of Johnny Depp's schtick. It seems to me that nothing he does in character is as funny or shocking as they used to be. There are time when I'm unsure of whether he's playing Jack Sparrow or a parody of Jack Sparrow. If truth be told, I would have liked On Stranger Tides more had it chosen to focus fully on Hector Barbossa's plot thread.

Geoffrey Rush as Hector Barbossa
Geoffrey Rush as Captain Hector Barbossa, who is now FABULOUS!

After some offscreen shenanigans between this movie and the last, he managed to lose a leg and a ship, and then found employment in service of the British monarchy - except this time, he's not hired as a speech therapist but as a privateer in His Majesty's navy. I could tell that Geoffrey Rush was having a grand old time talking like a pirate and making himself a giant ham and scenery sandwich.

On Stranger Tides also featured the most chilling portrayal of mermaids I remember in recent times. Instead of the benevolent if racist fish-people that Disney's The Little Mermaid popularised, they were portrayed as shark-like bloodthirsty man-eaters who use their supermodel good looks and ethereal singing voices to seduce seaman and lure them to their doom. It was awesome when a school of them swarmed a victim piranha-style and tore him to little bite-sized pieces.

The first mermaid we meet in the film is Tamara. Australian model Gemma Ward played her (at least the top half of her) in what was quite possibly the most memorable scene in the film for me - but that's probably because I totally fell in love with her after seeing it. I don't know if it's her flawless skin, her mechanical locution or because her eyes were set ever-so-slightly too far apart, but there's something otherworldly about her that embodies the uncanny semi-human-ness of the piscine monsters. She reminded me strongly of Dren from the film Splice. The film's central mermaid character was played by another actress, which was disappointing to me because I really wanted to see more of Gemma and her golden tresses and cute Lolita face. Sigh.

Gemma Ward Snipping Lashes
Gemma Ward, in a photograph of her snipping her lashes off for some reason.

The running time of this film exceeds the two hour mark by quite a bit. There are a lot of useless story elements which should have been decisively trimmed like the C-plot romance between a preachy Jesus-lovin' Bible thumper and Syrena, the captured mermaid damsel-in-distress - which also annoyed me because it pretty much destroyed the cool, cold, beastly image of mermaids I liked so much established by Tamara and her predatory sisters. There's also a lot Christian theological wankery which perfused the picture, to my bafflement. It's as if the filmmakers were trying to make up for all the paganistic mysticism the previous films featured.

I saw On Stranger Tides in 3D, which is an experience I do not recommend. Even though it is "real" 3D, the effects are mediocre and unimpressive. Some of the locations shown in this film are jaw-droppingly gorgeous and should really be appreciated in their full bright glory; not through the dirty screen door effect of the glasses you would have to wear should you elect to see it in 3D.

As summer blockbusters go, the latest installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean series is unimaginative and boring. While there are many moments which I enjoyed (and some a lot), there are far more parts which simply rehash everything that's old and familiar from the previous films - and familiarity, I be told, breeds contempt. I'm sure children would love this movie, but that because children are stupid and would enjoy watching pretty much anything except Schindler's List. I predict that Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides will probably make a killing at the box office anyway because most people, as we all know, are children.

Oh, and one more thing: Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

P.S. Highlight within brackets for a spoilery comment about the climax: [Typical Catholics. They destroy anything which contradicts their crazy worldview. It's like a running theme for them; heretical writings, Giordano Bruno, stone penises on priceless works of art, and now, the Fountain of Youth. Why? Because "only God can grant eternal life!" Haha.]

Was on mundane tides,
k0k s3n w4i


nicoletta said...

I read bits of this post, skipped much of it out of deathly terror of spoilers, made it to the comments. I don't expect it to be mindblowing because, well, it's the fourth in the series, but I feel I shall go anyhow, watch it and have fun, like the child I am. After all, I've enjoyed stupider films.

Anonymous said...

I actually fell asleep during the last one so my expectations can't possibly get any lower.

Liz said...

I just got back from watching it ! I actually think it wasn't that bad. I still, somehow, found Jack Sparrow--I mean, CAPTAIN Jack Sparrow--amusing. Not really impressed with Penelope Cruz though, except for her awesome *ahem* cleavage that was clearly visible in certain scenes :P I didn't watch in 3D, and am glad I didn't then xD

Overall, if I didn't analyze too much, I enjoyed it :)

Does that make me a kid then???? :D

k0k s3n w4i said...

nicoletta: i usually have fun even watching the most childish movies. heck, i even enjoy bad films sometimes. the problem with this latest pirates of the caribbean film is that it's really not much fun.

lovealynna: how do people fall asleep at the movies? i can never manage to do that :/

Liz: my review isn't all that negative. in fact, if i have to score it, i'd give it a 4 or 5 out of 10. and that remark about most adults being childish is actually a lot less severe than it sounds. anyway, i personally only analyse a film after i have seen it, and my analysis is heavily influenced by how the film made me feel when i was watching it. my experience with this just happens to be lukewarm.

Liz said...

Don't worry. I did not take offense at the "kid" comment. In some ways, I am still a kid, and sometimes, am mistaken for one too =.=

Nah. Everybody experiences a movie differently. It's rare to find movies where EVERYBODY EVERYWHERE loves.

Oh, except cartoons of course !!!! :D