I don’t know what the point of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is. I mean, I get that it’s to make a bunch of money for Disney, to add to Johnny Depp’s increasingly heavy wallet and to get the stench of Prince of Persia and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice off Jerry Bruckheimer, but I couldn’t figure out what the point of it was as a movie.
There certainly isn’t a compelling story. It seems to be a completely standalone tale that doesn’t build on the previous films or give us intriguing new worlds to explore. The new characters aren’t particularly interesting, or all that different from the old characters from the first three films. And there are absolutely zero performances of any substantial value. Even Depp seems to be at a loss as to why the fuck he’s making this movie.
I’m tempted to say that Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is a terrible movie and end the review right there; why should I expend any energy reviewing this film when no energy was expended in the making of it? Pirates 4 is the epitome of lazy filmmaking, a movie without a single clever moment, without the least bit of inspiration. It’s a paint by numbers film, charmless and witless.
The film’s biggest mistake (besides existing) is making Jack Sparrow the main character. While Johnny Depp’s drunken pirate has always been the center of the films, the true stakes and momentum of the story always came from others. Sparrow isn’t the hero of the movies; he’s more like the Marx Brothers, flitting around a spine created by Zeppo or another generic leading man. Sparrow was a lovable scamp as likely to hinder as to help our heroes, the flavor of the films and not the boring, wholesome meat. That was Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, and a Pirates film starring just those two would be as bad as the one starring just Johnny Depp.
Instead of changing Sparrow in any way to make him more of a protaganist, the script (once again by dismal, soulless studio hacks Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio) just keeps Sparrow as is, meaning he just sort of gets caught up in the story and bounces along with it. When we last saw him, he was heading to find the Fountain of Youth, but at the beginning of this film he’s lost all interest. When the British, the Spanish and Blackbeard the pirate begin a completely momentum-free race to find it Sparrow ends up shanghaied along because people think he knows something about the location of the miracle waters.
But he doesn’t, and he never has any real stake in the story. Jack doesn’t really care about finding the Fountain, and there are no characters hunting for the Fountain for whom we can root. Barbossa, Geoffrey Rush’s undead pirate baddie, has become a privateer and is sailing for the King of England. Ian McShane is Blackbeard, who has mystical control over his boat and who is trying to get to the Fountain because a convenient prophecy tells him he’s about to be murdered. The Spanish barely even show up in the movie, so you definitely can’t root for them. And so we’re traveling across the ocean to find the Fountain and the movie never gives us a single reason why we should give a shit about the proceedings.
This is especially exacerbated by the fact that the movie appears to be assuming that I’m in any way invested in the Barbossa character; Rush’s performance was cute in the first film, but by the third he had worn thin and in this movie he’s downright irritating. I’m sure there will be some out there who think that he’s fun in this movie, or that he adds some zest, but they’re crazy. Not only is his whole schtick tired, he doesn’t even have anything very interesting to do - unless you count drinking rum out of his own wooden leg (he lost his leg between the two films. I fully expect a prequel, whether it be in a comic, a video game or a new trilogy).
The seems to want us to care about Penelope Cruz’s character, Angelica. She’s an ex-love of Jack Sparrow, and she begins the movie in Jack Sparrow drag for reasons that I never fully understood (I get that she was recruiting men as Sparrow, I just don’t understand why she was recruiting men as Sparrow*). She and Sparrow have a poorly choreographed, desperately uninteresting fight scene and then they kiss; there’s almost sparks between Depp and Cruz but nothing ever catches. Angelica is meant to be intriguing or mysterious or something, but she just comes across as fairly boring.
And the movie may possibly also want us to care about this missionary character; I can’t come to a conclusion about that because if the film really wanted us to care about him it would have given him a name, or a role in the plot. He’s part of Blackbeard’s crew for reasons that are explained but make no sense; near as I can tell he’s in the film solely to take off his shirt in one scene. The actor is handsome but blank, and the character is blanker. When his last scene rolled around I almost yelled at the screen - why had this guy been given so much attention to just do nothing and have no importance? Insane.
But that missionary guy feels indicative of the movie as a whole - bland and pointless. Rob Marshall has come aboard to direct, and he’s decided to be as invisible as possible. Many of the film’s scenes are close-ups shot on sets, while others are close-ups shot in generic jungle settings. The cast spends approximately half the movie traipsing through jungles; they spend so much time walking around it feels like an episode of Lost.
The rest of the time they spend in crushing exposition. Every now and again that exposition leads into a lifeless action set piece; many of those end with Jack Sparrow falling off a very high thing. I was surprised at how many times this happened, but I was more surprised that there was actually a ten minute detour and argument between the characters about having Sparrow fall off a very high thing late in the film. It was one of the most baffling meanders I’ve ever seen a film take, but it did perfectly combine crushing exposition with Sparrow falling off a high thing. As such, I believe this sequence is the epitome of the film.
All of that exposition is in service of nothing, and we’re often told the same information multiple times. The last two Pirates movies suffered from bloat and an insane kind of ambition, but even those felt lighter on their feet than this shambling joke of a movie. Clocking in at about two hours and fifteen minutes, On Stranger Tides feels no shorter than At World’s End, and is in fact much more tedious and draggy than its predecessor. I honestly can’t figure out why the film is so long, or how Marshall made it feel so much longer than it actually is. There’s some sort of time dilation going on with this one.
The most interesting thing about On Stranger Tides is the way it just runs out of steam at the end. There’s not a well-staged action scene in the film, but the final confrontation at the Fountain of Youth seems assembled out of randomly chosen footage. The final battle comes down to a bunch of characters we don’t much care about or like fighting for their lives while Sparrow sort of farts around; having absolutely no interest in who won, the whole thing took on the feeling of watching two rival ant colonies battle it out. There’s no way to care who wins.
And as that scene sort of peters out, the movie fizzles away around it, settling into a series of boring epilogues that don’t set anything up and barely even wrap up this movie. Not everything is wrapped up, though, and the film leaves you pondering the central mystery of ‘What was the point of all that?’
I haven’t talked much about Johnny Depp, despite the fact that he’s in almost every frame of the picture. That’s simply because even Depp seems exhausted by Jack Sparrow now, and his performance has no heart. This is a payday for Depp, and you can tell he’s thinking less about what’s going around him and more about where he’s going to spend all his Pirates booty.
It seems weird that I would find myself nostalgic for At World’s End, but On Stranger Tides made me realize that even that overlong, overcooked piece of junk was made by people who were trying. Gore Verbinski’s crime was that he just didn’t know how to rein all of that in. Marshall has the other problem, which is that he doesn’t know how to let any of the good stuff loose. On Stranger Tides is joyless and boring and inert. Sitting through this film feels like a stint in Purgatory, where you’re left thinking at least Hell would be interesting.
* Note: I understand why she couldn’t recruit men for Blackbeard directly, at least according to the movie’s logic. Again, I just don’t understand why she did it as Sparrow.