The Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise has never featured characters who change or undergo truly enlightening epiphanies in moments of emotional crisis. Instead, the films present them with challenges that force them to be more true to who they are at the core. In the first film, we were presented with a pair of milquetoasts: Will and Elizabeth. They may have been dull by the swishy standards of a certain rum-soaked captain, but the film earnestly believed in their romance. They didn’t really change over the course of the film; they just recognized the truth of who they were, both in each other’s eyes, and in their own. Similarly, Captain Jack Sparrow — the trickster and breakout character — never really changed. He was posited at the beginning as a good man who happened to be a pirate, and by the end of the film, this hypothesis was only confirmed. And despite the nautical miles of plot convolutions vomited up from the deep in the two immediate sequels, all the major characters ended up being essentially who they were at the beginning. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides introduces the concept of redemption to this pocket universe of fantastical high seas adventure. Though it toys with the idea, ultimately, the film remains true to the Calvinist principles laid out at its inception: the characters are who they are, only more so, and their “arcs” (if you want to be kind about terminology) are echoed by the direction of the franchise itself.
When we talk about direction, there are several layers of meaning. Besides the basic aim of the franchise itself (to make money and entertain the audience while doing so, in that order), there is the multitude of creative decisions that are made during the production. Virtually nobody was excited by the prospect of Rob Marshall taking the helm from Gore Verbinski, but then, nobody thought that the franchise could be any worse. I don’t think anyone would seriously debate the claim that the last two films were an overwrought muddle with flashes of brilliance strewn amidst the wreckage. The thing that made all the difference between ruinous trash and marginally successful diversions was Verbinski. Johnny Depp’s performance aside, Verbinski has always had a knack for energetic, inventive set pieces that blend the thrill of physical action with the loopy logistics of a Saturday morning cartoon. The waterwheel fight and the attack of the Kracken in Dead Man’s Chest were brilliantly executed; nothing in At World’s End quite measured up to that, though it’s a credit to Verbinski that the cacophonous climax in the whirlpool was at all cogent. It’s tempting to say that a certain stunt choreographer or the editor made all the difference, but the making of a fourth film without Verbinski is a crucial lesson in the difference a great director can make even to a blockbuster production.
Most Jerry Bruckheimer pictures are of a piece: big, flashy crowd-pleasers with little intellectual or thematic ambition, though most often without a distinctive creative stamp that says he had a direct hand in it. Mostly, he puts together lavish, unchallenging films. Okay-fine. Is he really to blame if a film is particularly bad? I don’t think so. He’s an investor and organizer. If he issues edicts to dumb a film down or something to that effect, shame on him, but my impression has never been that he is involved in the nitty-gritty details of the filmmaking.
One of the first things I noticed about On Stranger Tides is that the sequences involving action (and by that I include anything involving a great deal of blocking, which extends even to scenes without swordplay or guns) were a bit stilted. Graceless, even. Putting ingenuity of fight choreography aside, the chase through the streets of London was very forceful, punctuating everything with a burst of music or a reaction shot of Depp to make sure we registered Jack Sparrow’s apparent surprise at his own cleverness. Do we lay the blame for this at the feet of the film’s editors? All three of them are new to the franchise. Wyatt Smith’s filmography isn’t very distinguished, having a lot of music vids and docs to his credit, and having worked with Marshall on the universally-derided Nine. But the other two editors, David Brenner and Michael Kahn, have done excellent work with directors like Oliver Stone and Steven Spielberg. Surely people with that pedigree couldn’t have so much trouble finding the rhythm of a conventional adventure film?
Perhaps we could also blame director of photography Darius Wolski for the unforgivable murk that fills several key scenes with inky darkness. The first time that Jack Sparrow fights his impostor (who turns out to be Penelope Cruz, recruiting sailors for a trip to find the Fountain of Youth), it’s nearly impossible to see just what is going on in half the shots. Later scenes, like the all-out battle at the Fountain, entire swaths of men are lost in a muddy, grayish haze of fog, splashing water, and steel. Most of it is poorly edited, but few of the shots have any sort of crispness in color or composition. But Wolski was also the d.p. for the first three films in the series, as well as a number of other very darkly-lit films like Dark City, and The Crow, all of which had very expressive, arresting lighting and some dazzling compositions. It seems highly unlikely that a cinematographer with his achievements could be so sloppy.
I could go on and take various department managers to task, but it would be churlish to lambaste John Myhre for his production design when so much of it wasn’t even shot very well. (Besides, it’s quite good.) The simple fact of the matter is that Rob Marshall is not Gore Verbinski, and Verbinski is a better filmmaker. It is not coincidence that most of the less-than-sterling films on the resumes of the crew are done by directors who have less-than-sterling reputations. As much as the producers and the crew members matter, the way their collaborations are woven together usually falls under the purview of the director. Verbinski is a filmmaker who, it seems, is more directly involved in the creative processes of the departments under his command, whereas Marshall leans heavily on the expertise of his crew. This only makes sense: Marshall did not get his start in film; he was a theater director and choreographer. Verbinski cut his teeth on commercials and music vids. Though Marshall has worked to develop his skills as a director, there’s a certain feel for texture that some filmmakers seem to have that others do not.
With a production as big as a Pirates of the Caribbean film, having a strong sense of the cinematic is an absolute must. Marshall is competent, and there are still moments of real verve and beauty in his films, but Bruckheimer, in his capacity as executive producer, is as much of a casting director as Lucy Bevan: he casts directors. Marshall did a fine job on Chicago and a serviceable job on Memoirs of a Geisha. His work here, too, is serviceable, but he was miscast. The casting of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow was inspired; the casting of Orlando Bloom as Will Turner was adequate but uninspired.
Gore Verbinski is Johnny Depp and Rob Marshall is Orlando Bloom.
Even if the film is, to put it bluntly, hackwork, it is still surprisingly diverting. Moments of grace irresistibly break through the clockwork machinery that keeps the franchise afloat, most notably in the nighttime sequence in the mermaid cove. Circling a lonely rowboat like predatory goldfish, the control Marshall maintains over the tone and pacing of the scene — from the initial moments of ethereal beauty to the savagery of the attack — is remarkably out of step with most of the film. There’s a fluidity in the camerawork and the attention to the spatial relationships of the characters in this scene that is curiously absent from most of the other action sequences. It’s tight, menacing, and it uses the prevailing darkness to great effect. There is also grace in the delicate CG work in the dewdrop that floats upward from Sparrow’s fingertips, and the way it flows irresistibly upward, defying the natural law of gravity to form a portal on a cave’s ceiling to the Fountain chamber. Even Depp, called upon to oversell Sparrow’s tics and mannerisms by virtue of the gracelessness of the film around him, manages to create a compelling performance with graceful, calculated brief revelations of an interior emotional life rarely glimpsed in the first three films. Then, of course, there’s the ultimate evidence of irresistible grace in the appearance of Sparrow’s father. Ask yourself: could Keith Richards even be physically capable of tottering around if he weren’t still necessary to some divine plan?
Look at the character arc of Captain Barbossa for the quintessential example of the franchise’s concept of predestination. As introduced in the first film, we are given to understand Barbossa as an ambitious, ruthless Pirate of the Seven Seas, a larger-than-life antagonist… but in reality, he was Sparrow’s first mate, a captain only by mutiny, not by ingenuity or hard work. And all the ghoulish powers at his disposal in that film are only the result of a curse that he is trying to break. Killed in that film’s rousing climax and brought back at the end of the second, he spends the rest of the series at the beck and call of others with more power than he has. In Barbossa’s decline, and his mutual acceptance with Sparrow that they are to be each other’s eternal adversaries, he hasn’t changed: he’s just accepted what he is. With relish, Geoffrey Rush almost eclipsed Depp in Curse of the Black Pearl by playing Barbossa as a snarling, impish warthog. Now, as a cowed servant of the crown, we see Barbossa as what he has really been all along: at best, a foil for Sparrow, and at worst, a demented, wounded pit bull. His formerly swarthy makeup has been augmented to emphasize Barbossa’s deterioration — he’s paler, his hair is wispier, his leg is missing. He’s gone Ahab, and Captain William “Blackbeard” Teach is his white whale. The man we thought was a villain is really only an obsessed second fiddle to the real monster.
That’s where the actual story of On Stranger Tides comes in. Blackbeard is attempting to stave off his prophesied demise by taking a sip from the Fountain of Youth. His daughter, Angelica, is determined to aid him in his quest, and she seems to think that they need ol’ Jackie boy to get there. Angelica is not nearly as interested in ensuring that her pop lives longer so much as letting him live long enough to renounce his evil ways. He’s a monster. He knows it. Jack Sparrow knows it. Everyone in the film knows it except for Angelica. She sees it, but doesn’t want to acknowledge it. Even as he mocks her faith in him throughout, she tries to save him. Along the way, that innocence at her core reawakens just a teensy-weensy bit of Jack’s decency. It’s easy to see her as a symbol of grace in the film (get it? Angel-ica?), and the cups of Ponce de Leon from which Blackbeard must sup are precisely the sort of chalices from which most churchgoers receive the means of grace every week. Whatever tension there is in the triangle between Jack, Angelica, and Blackbeard has to do with viewer expectations. Angelica is set on saving her father, and Jack is set on saving Angelica. We could read the dynamic as Angelica saving Jack’s soul via her struggle to save her father’s soul, but we all know that’s not the case. Jack Sparrow never needed saving. Not really.
Trickster that he is, at the final moment, instead of allowing Angelica to sacrifice herself in her father’s place, he allows Blackbeard to choose his own destruction. Since he knows Blackbeard’s true nature, he knows how to manipulate the feared pirate into killing himself. Isn’t this a working illustration of double predestination? Jack Sparrow isn’t even really a god — the logos of the franchise is the Divine Order that’s being upheld. Audiences need a proper villain; they need Jack Sparrow to defeat someone, and they need to have someone to be saved. Blackbeard as a character never even had a chance; he was as much elected to damnation (and really, does Ian McShane play any other kind of character anymore?) as Angelica was elected to salvation (if for no other reason than she’s mega-hawt).
I was rather pleased, actually, that there was no question about Captain Jack’s character. After the sequels went out of their way to paint him as a slimy antihero, it was rather nice to see him returned to the light (figuratively if not literally, the film’s cinematography being what it is). And it is fun to see McShane growl his way through a bit part, so even his inevitable death had some satisfaction to it. The love story between a preacher and a mermaid doesn’t quite have the same conviction to it that the love story of Will and Elizabeth did, but it’s a sweet anodyne to the more masochistic history of Jack and Angelica.
In the end, though, the film’s theology has its roots in commercialism rather than conviction. This is the point in a franchise where the filmmakers should be staking out a philosophical claim — nailing their colors to the mast, so to speak — if they’re going to do it at all. Having capped off a makeshift trilogy, the arrival of a fourth film could have been the emergence of something more profound than just another summer programmer. The moment Jerry Bruckheimer cast Rob Marshall, though, that path was closed forever. Now it is simply following a predestined path, and whether it leads to heaven or hell is easy enough to see from the crow’s nest of the advertising campaign: ballyhooing a 3-D upconvert is the surest sign of artistic turpitude. (I chose to see the 2-D version, thank you.)
None of this is to say that the film doesn’t have its pleasures. There is no total absence of grace — even Judi Dench collected a cameo paycheck for this one, presumably because she has nothing to do until the third Riddick movie starts shooting this year. (Speaking of cameo paychecks…) I did enjoy myself to a certain extent, and there is evidence that the franchise does yet have some potential. After all, On Stranger Tides has a more coherent and relatable narrative than the previous two sequels.
When the movie opens, Jack Sparrow is a captain without a ship. Happy coincidence! — the franchise is currently a ship without a captain, drafting heavily in well-charted waters. As we’ve seen since the very start of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, a ship can be crewed by ghosts, in this case, the ghosts of older, better films, whose collective spirit is still kicking, but whose bodies (the formal aspects) require the guidance and resurrection of a firm, benevolent creator… not a hack. ☕