Your Humble Blogger enjoyed his semi-annual movie theater trip recently, and by enjoyed, I mean had a good time despite the terribleness of the movie. That movie was Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth in the unerringly lucrative series based on a theme park ride. I should probably remind Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu’s policy toward spoilers, which is that I get to talk about whatever I want, so if you don’t want to know details of the plot (as well as details of characterization, set decoration, or punch lines) stop reading now. On the other hand, I don’t know that knowing the plot points would have much affect on a viewer of this particular film. Your call, isn’t it?
I went in to the theater with low expectations: I thought PotC: At World’s End was bad, and that PotC: Dead Man’s Chest wasn’t entirely wonderful. PotC: Curse of the Black Pearl was entirely wonderful, of course, and there are some good things about the series that do not consist entirely of reminders of the wonderfulness of that movie—or of the theme park ride, which is also wonderful. Actually, some of the wonderfulness of PotC:CotBP were simply reminders of the wonderfulness of that movie, although there were certainly also bits where it was the way they incorporated the original material that caused me such glee, not simply the inclusion of it without imagination. For instance, in PotC:OST, they included the evil monkey to no purpose whatsoever (unless it was gratuitous 3D, it now occurs to me, as I saw it in good old-fashioned flat-O-vision) other than reminding you that there was an evil monkey in the other movies. There was no punch line, no plot point, just a monkey grimacing at the camera.
That lack of imagination, though, is typical of sequel degredation generally, and frankly I liked the first one and the series enough to make a degraded fourth movie entertaining despite that. No, this movie had a different problem, one that I also associate with sequels in an ongoing series, and that problem is an overstuffed plot.
Near the beginning of this movie, to take an example, Captain Jack Sparrow has a swordfight with his double, or at any rate with somebody pretending to be Captain Jack Sparrow. It’s a great idea, and while it is very poorly filmed (and to be a great scene, the great idea would have to be very will filmed indeed, because (1) we have established that the lighting in the room is dim so that the imposter will not be exposed, and (B) the concept unfortunately brings to our consciousness the idea that we can’t tell Johnny Depp in that costume from some other person in that costume, such as for instance a stunt double—but I am digressing from my point, and I did have one) it is the sort of thing that could work well in this kind of movie. It turns out that the person impersonating Captain Jack Sparrow is a woman, which is a nice bit—and that she was Captain Jack Sparrow’s lover, which is predictable, really—and also that she is Blackbeard’s daughter, which isn’t so much predictable but is tiresome. And she’s one of the best of the new characters, frankly.
The main maguffin is the Fountain of Youth, which is a pretty good maguffin (even if it is, in the event, poorly filmed and imagined). Blackbeard is after it. Jack has been after it since the end of the last movie. The King of Spain is after it. George the Fourth is after it. Barbossa is after it. Some of those people are working together, or appear to be working together, or are forced into temporary alliances. Well, no, actually the King of Spain’s Crew pretty much comes ex machina, having no noticeable characters or hindrances. So. Fountain of Youth.
Only in addition to that, Blackbeard has the Black Pearl, and both Barbossa and Captain Jack Sparrow are after that, so there’s another plot point. And Barbossa is seeking revenge for his lost leg, so there’s another. And then there is a romantic subplot between a missionary and a mermaid. Did I mention the mermaids? There are mermaids. Also zombies. And Ponce de Leon’s lost treasure, which they don’t even really bother making a plot point. And there is an ongoing theme about salvation and sin; two characters are independently trying to save Blackbeard’s soul, in the traditional sense of repentance and whatnot. Also, mermaids.
There’s just way too much plot here. And not only does that make the movie too long (a hundred minutes should be plenty for an action flick) but each separate bit of the plot gets mushy through not having enough time to carry it out. For instance, why is Blackbeard’s daughter impersonating Captain Jack Sparrow? Because no pirate would sign up for a woman captain (yes, they would, but fine) and he was the only one she felt she could get away with impersonating. Not that she has seen him for years and years, mind you, and he is also under sentence of death, so it’s quite a risky choice, sure, but as I say, fine. Only—why is she recruiting at all? Why not Blackbeard himself? Oh, no pirate would willingly sail for Blackbeard. They fear him too much. But are willing to mutiny, and then the whole even-pirates-fear-and-shun Blackbeard bit is dropped completely. And honestly, what pirate would at this point sail for Captain Jack Sparrow? And why doesn’t Blackbeard have a full crew? Why do they need to spend (evidently) weeks in London—in London—recruiting?
The real low point, though, is the romance between the missionary and the mermaid. The missionary man is dull, and while he might be good-looking if we could see him properly, it’s difficult to tell in the dim light. Certainly he lacks charisma. The mermaid is, one supposes, prettyish, although there is something unpleasantly pre-pubescent about her under the circumstances, and anyway she is not a startling beauty (not in a film that has Penelope Cruz, and in a series that had Keira Knightly, Zoe Saldana and Naomie Harris, anyway). She finds him different than the other humans on the boat (duller, I suppose) and he is drawn to her, um, not really sure, her vulnerability? Anyway, every time the movie turns its attention to them, the forward momentum utterly stops, and I would have looked at my watch, if I had a watch. Do we care what happens to them? I certainly didn’t, but also the movie clearly didn’t, as it simply cut back to a (thankfully) brief capping scene in which she drags him underwater, either to use some mermaid magic to cure him from his otherwise mortal wound, or, one hopes, to devour his corpse along with her sisters. We don’t find out, and we don’t care.
This is not the fault of the actors in question, by the way—it’s conceivable that some young star could have shone through the murk, but it’s just as likely that any potential stardom was never given a chance. And while it clearly is the director’s fault in many ways, mostly I blame the script. We have plenty to follow in this story. There are two navies and a pirate ship converging on the Fountain of Youth in addition to Barbossa and Captain Jack Sparrow, and there are crosses and double-crosses still to be wearied through, and for crying out loud we don’t need a supporting character romance as well.
What I would suggest would be this: first, take out all the stuff about George IV, and start from the point of view of Penelope Cruz, an incredibly hot woman who is pretending to be Captain Jack Sparrow to recruit crew for her father, Blackbeard. Put in a scene between them, making clear that nobody will work for him—possibly put in a quick and comic scene where Penelope Cruz attempts to impersonate each of the Pirate Lords in turn, and falls disastrously short. Then, once she is successful in that particular drag, the worst possible thing happens: Captain Jack Sparrow himself arrives. They duel. He nearly vanquishes her before Blackbeard arrives and knocks him out; he awakes on boardthe Queen Anne’s Revenge. Why have they kept him alive? Who is chasing them through the sea? What does Blackbeard have in the double-locked cupboard?
I figure Captain Jack Sparrow to dive overboard and be picked up (possibly inadvertently) by Barbossa; I like the idea that he is after the Black Pearl, miniaturized and locked in that cupboard. I would jettison the Fountain of Youth as a plot point at all, unless you make it a true maguffin in that everybody is talking about getting there but is no closer to it at the end of the movie than they were at the beginning. I would have ship-to-ship combat in which that cupboard is endangered, I would have hand-to-hand (or, ideally, hand-to-hand-to-hand between the three Captains) in which the Pearl in a bottle is endangered, I would have Blackbeard’s daughter at least plausibly question her allegiance to him and consider (or, again, plausibly pretend to consider) joining one or another of the other Captains, and most of all, I would have Blackbeard’s madness not focused on something silly and obvious like the Fountain of Youth but something totally crazy. Why does he keep the miniaturized ships? Is he, perhaps, recreating the Spanish Main of his lost youth in an abandoned lock somewhere, complete with treasure beyond the dreams of avarice, made so small it can be carried in a pocket but potentially embiggened and cashed in?
But all of that doesn’t matter, really. A writer could come up with a better idea—could come up with a hundred better ideas. The trick is not to include all hundred of them in the movie.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,