Even skeptics of the franchise must admit, I think, that the Pirates of the Caribbean films have generally aimed higher and been smarter than might have been expected.
The 2003 original, subtitled The Curse of the Black Pearl, was an unexpected critical and popular hit that holds up remarkably well — improbably so for a film in an unfashionable period-swashbuckling genre with the same theme-park branding roots as The Haunted Mansion, The Country Bears and Tomorrowland.
I am still full of admiration for the first sequel, Dead Man’s Chest, with its inspired set pieces and astonishing creature design. At the time I thought it an improvement on the original, but like many middle movies it signed a lot of checks that came due in the third chapter, At World’s End, which turned out to be such an overwrought letdown that disappointment rippled backward to Dead Man’s Chest, making it retroactively unsatisfying.
In retrospect, I think only the 2003 original was an unqualified success, but each subsequent installment, even the outlier On Stranger Tides, has had promising elements and good ideas that suggest the franchise could possibly catch fire again. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t.
The best idea in Dead Men Tell No Tales, from Kon-Tiki directors Joaquin Rønning and Espen Sandberg, is that it was a terrible idea for At World’s End to end as it did, with Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner cursed to captain the undersea phantom ship The Flying Dutchman.
This fate reunited Will with his long-lost father, Bootstrap Bill Turner, but also separated him, except for one day every 10 years, from his love, Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann — along with the young son he gave her on the last night before his departure. (Typing that sentence 10 years later, I’m still in disbelief that it was allowed to happen.)
Unsurprisingly, Will and Elizabeth’s son, Henry (The Giver’s Brenton Thwaites), likes this arrangement no more than did viewers who cared about the characters, and he has dedicated his young life to trying to free his father from the curse of the Dutchman.
Henry has a plan for this: one involving the man with whom his parents’ lives were dramatically entangled for a time, Jack Sparrow. Actually, what he really needs is Jack’s magic compass, which points the way to one’s heart’s desire. Jack himself is useless, both to Henry and to this movie.
Alas for Captain Jack. A shadow of his former self, his charm and wit dissipated in a sodden display almost too perfunctory to call a performance, Johnny Depp stumbles and splutters his way through a dismal parody of the role that launched a franchise.
Bloom and especially Knightley, whom I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of, are barely cameos here, but the franchise is stuck with Depp, and there’s a definite sense of Depp being stuck with it.
I’ll give Dead Men this much: It honors the tradition of making Jack’s introduction a memorable moment, though it’s a moment when Jack is, shall we say, not at his best, and what improvement there is over the ensuing two hours is slighter than one would hope.
There’s still reason for hope. The ambitious set piece that follows Jack’s introduction is worth seeing, and there’s a topsy-turvy sequence with a guillotine that had me in stitches. But all of this is just window dressing if the characters don’t come to life. Spoiler alert: They don’t.
Henry at least has the built-in sympathy of a youth searching for the father he barely knew. To achieve this, he needs a McGuffin called the Trident of Poseidon, described in the official plot synopsis as “a powerful artifact that grants its possessor total control over the seas.”
This sounds alarmingly as if the filmmakers are going for an Under the Sea Shared Universe linking Pirates of the Caribbean with The Little Mermaid. (Sadly, Poseidon himself could not appear due to contractual obligations with Warner Bros.)
Naturally, Henry isn’t the only one after the trident. There’s also a girl, Carina Smyth (The Maze Runner’s Kaya Scodelario), whom the filmmakers want you to understand is not just an Elizabeth Swann Type to Henry’s Will Turner Type. This is true: She isn’t funny or appealing, and the two of them have none of the chemistry the filmmakers kinda-sorta want them to have.
Is lack of chemistry a bug or a feature, though? Carina is so modern she makes Elizabeth look conventional; she belongs to that new class of liberated Hollywood heroines for whom a male love interest is not only superfluous but potentially a slight to her autonomy.
Even in this franchise’s ever-more-cartoony 18th century, Carina is such a glaring anachronism that the narrow-minded men of her day can only conclude that she must be a witch, what else?
You might think in a world with actual, undisguised witches, including Paterson’s Golshifteh Farahani, functionally replacing Naomie Harris’s voodoo priestess Tia Dalma — not to mention undead pirates, ghost ships, krakens, giant sea goddesses and who knows what all else — people would be a little more chill about a single woman who happens to know about astronomy and telescopes and so forth. But such are the times. Our times, I mean.
Why Carina, a woman of science who doesn’t even believe in the supernatural, is after the Trident of Poseidon is part of a back story that I’m pretty sure makes less sense the more I think about it, so I’ll cut my losses now.
Then there’s the new heavy, who may have the opposite problem. Skyfall’s Javier Bardem plays Capt. Armando Salazar, not an undead pirate, but an undead pirate hunter who had the misfortune to die in the wrong place. Now he and his crew sail the seas as gruesomely shattered un-corpses, with various body parts missing but the rest of them carrying on as if they were all still there.
The effects work here is imaginative as well as striking; I like how Salazar’s long black hair drifts lazily about his head as if he were underwater, even though he isn’t. As a character, though, there’s nothing to him but malevolence and a hissing Spanish accent.
Salazar ought to have the same interest in the trident that Henry has — apparently it can break all nautical curses — but at this point Salazar is a plain-dealing villain, and that’s all there is to him. That and revenge, which he longs to exact on the man responsible for his cursed condition, which, again, he doesn’t seem interested in trying to break. Come again?
I dunno, maybe if I watched it again, Dead Men would make more sense, but here’s the thing: I didn’t get Curse of the Black Pearl all in one go either, but I knew I wanted to watch it again. A popcorn-franchise sequel that can’t do that in one go has failed.
And what about the series’ sporadic religious themes? These have never been profound films, but there’s always been a flicker of interest in spiritual questions, from Davy Jones’ anti-Pascalian wager that life is cruel and the afterlife unlikely to be better to the comic-relief pirates debating the salutary value of trying to read the Bible if you’re illiterate.
Here there’s nothing but a couple of clerical chumps. One is pointlessly knocked down by Carina when he comes to hear her confession before her hanging as a witch. The other is present to witness an absurd forced wedding, because in movies like this you can always get clergymen like that.
No wonder Sam Claflin’s righteous missionary from On Stranger Tides has been unceremoniously dropped from the franchise. In the world of this film, he’d be more of an anomaly than Carina.
Caveat Spectator: Intense action violence and menace; moderately scary and gross fantasy imagery; some suggestive dialogue and innuendo, including implied adultery. Teens and up.