When the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film was released earlier this summer it was met with a unanimous howl of critical derision. Further proof that Johnny Depp is a license to print money was confirmed when it made a billion dollars worldwide. So should we weep for the species or does it deserve a critical re-appraisal? Well although its not quite as bad as you have heard, it does suffer from very lazy screenwriting and huge lapses in logic and character motivation.
The story picks up some time after the events of the third film with Jack Sparrow (Depp) in London trying to free his imprisoned first mate Gibbs. Things do not go well and a pointless action scene later Sparrow finds himself at the mercy of the king who has forged an alliance with the now maimed and peg legged Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) to search for the fountain of youth. Sparrow was questing for the fountain himself before Gibbs was captured so has an interest but manages to escape. On the streets he finds out that someone has been impersonating him and putting together a crew of motley pirates. Sparrow finds that this is his old flame Angelica (Penelope Cruz) who is trying to save the damned soul of her father Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach, a pirate with strange voodoo powers. Sparrow finds his lot thrown in with Blackbeard in the search for the fountain of youth which is also being looked for by the Spanish Armada as well as Barbossa and his crew. All must pass through the treacherous white caps which are plagued by beautiful but deadly mermaids. Sparrow faces conflicted feelings over his ‘stirrings’ for Angelica and his desire to obtain the fountain of youth.
The main problem with On Stranger Tides is that (and I never thought I would say this) I miss Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. By putting Jack Sparrow front and centre as the main character you have a narrative that is very conflicted and incoherent. Sparrow is a buffoon, a buffoon who is likeable for sure but a fool nonetheless who will do anything to save his own skin. In previous instalments Sparrow was there to push the plot forward and to complicate matters with his desire to save only himself. He was not above putting another character's life in danger if it benefited him in some way. Suddenly thrust into the hero role his selfishness remains and as an audience you never feel like he is going to do the right thing and at some points it feels like he will do something very wrong to save himself. It’s very confusing and as Sparrow is in every scene gradually you start to care less and less. The writers attempt to plug the hole with a very ham fisted romance sub plot between Sam Claflin’s religious crew member and Astrid Berges-Frisbey’s captured mermaid, but it’s woefully underwritten. Attractive as the two of them may be they never really sell that this is some kind of epic romance that the makers seem to be pushing and they seem to be pandering to a certain section of the audience who like pale sparkly vampires. When it reaches its conclusion you are actually pleased with the outcome which I won’t spoil, but it never feels like a love affair with a back story and history the way that Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann’s story felt. Hopefully it’s the last we will see of these two in a Pirates movie.
The script is also very contrived and by the numbers. This is what annoys me about summer blockbusters, the tendency to pad out the running time and the budget with unnecessary actions scenes. In this there are three action scenes in the first half hour. None of them serve the plot at all and you could have saved time and money had they been excised completely and you wouldn’t have missed anything. The action scenes are impressively choreographed and shot by director Rob Marshall but whilst they are going on you keep asking yourself 'why'? There is a scene when the crew are surrounded by mermaids whom characters have built up as being deadly and they react like illogical boneheads where common sense would have said that they should have been making for their cutlasses. Again it seems to be a case of stupid character motivation just so we can get an admittedly impressive effects heavy scene of the mermaids swarming on the crew. Rob Marshall seems to not have a grasp of effects in service of a story and its surprising to me how much I missed original series director Gore Verbinski. Verbinski seems to have a masterful hand when it came to these epic scenes of carnage and monsters and they served a purpose too, he managed to make important events happen within the action scenes he was crafting. There is nothing as impressive as the previous three films here and I was of the understanding that as sequels went on they were supposed to get bigger and better.
Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush are both fine as the characters they have created and will be remembered for. A series built solely around these two is not necessarily a bad idea and I hope that the producers learn this and we can have a film with more of a focus next time out. The new characters we are introduced to are also a huge problem in this film. Apart from the previously mentioned youngsters in love right out of the Twilight playbook we get Penelope Cruz’s Angelica character. Fair enough she seems like the sort of fiery slattern Sparrow would go for but Cruz is completely unconvincing as a buxom and dangerous pirate and looks like a strong wind would blow her overboard. Ian Mcshane as Blackbeard, her father, fares little better. The character is built up into this most dangerous man on the seas character and then does very little. He has some sort of telekinetic power and is a fan of voodoo but this is never really explained or developed. The relationship he has with Angelica is also a bit confusing, it’s suggested that they are not related at all and Angelica is on some sort of religious crusade to save his soul anyway but it’s never fully explained despite being potentially fascinating. Again it’s down to the poor writing and both performers deserve better.
Pirates of the Caribbean – On Stranger Tides has nothing that made us like the first three outside of two familiar characters. That’s not enough in these days of great summer entertainment like Super 8 and Inception. It’s a plodding, underwritten and badly conceived mess. Hopefully the fifth instalment (which is inevitable considering the buckets of cash this made) will address some of the shortcomings of this one and turn out well.
Extras: Bloopers of the Caribbean, Lego Pirates of the Caribbean shorts, discover Blu-ray 3D with Timon and Pumbaa (??!) Audio Commentary (Blu-ray only).
On Stranger Tides is out now on DVD and Blu-ray