Movie Review - Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
By Matthew Huntley
May 31, 2017

I don't care how many drugs you take, you won't fit in that ship.

In as little as two weeks, Hollywood has given us installments from two franchises that probably should have ended years ago. Last week, it was the dreadful Alien: Covenant; this week it's the so-so Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. As with many aging franchises, these two have been stretched thin and there seems to be a general lack of effort on the part of the filmmakers to breathe new life into them. Instead of devising an original story first and then shaping the brand around it, their approach is to shape the story around the brand and hope the brand will sell it.

Unfortunately, this method isn't working and I'm willing to bet Disney executives green-lit Dead Men Tell Not Tales even before a script was ready. Perhaps they assumed a worthy narrative would magically fall into place just because they had their star, their budget, and a prime release date. And even though the finished product isn't outright bad - and indeed it has some virtues worth mentioning - it lacks the spark and vigor that made its predecessors, particularly the original, stand out as something special.

The evidence is in the lackluster story itself, which revolves, yet again, around the misadventures of the eccentric pirate, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), and the various individuals pursuing him, either for help or to exact revenge. It's been a while since I've seen the other “Pirates” movies, but is this not the running theme throughout all of them, more or less? By entry number five, it's gotten stale.

One of the characters seeking Jack's assistance is the plucky yet impetuous Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), who you may recall had a curse placed on him at the end of At World's End, confining him to a sort of sea hell. Henry believes Jack's magical compass can tell him where to find the Trident of Poseidon, which controls all aspects of the sea and can therefore lift his father's curse. Amidst trying to find Jack, Henry becomes smitten with Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), an astrologist and horologist who's accused by the British Navy of witchcraft just because she's into science (and probably because she's a woman with a brain).

She's certain the diary left to her by her father contains clues and a map to the Trident. In exchange for helping her escape public execution, Carina strikes a deal with young Turner to guide him to the Trident's location. They eventually join Sparrow and Sparrow's ever-diminishing crew aboard the dilapidated Dying Gull, in search of what most believe to be a myth. Sparrow's primary focus, of course, remains self-indulgence, specifically in the form of drinking rum.

Chasing after them is the vengeful Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), a Spaniard and pirate-hater who craves retribution from Sparrow after he led Salazar and his crew into the Devil's Triangle, which cursed them to a life as incorporeal ghosts. After breaking out of the Triangle, Salazar and his crew invade the ship of Sparrow's old pal, Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), demanding he and his crew either help them or meet an untimely end.

Just like the other “Pirates” films, lots of “stuff” happens in Dead Men Tell No Tales, and while the production is impressive and there some thrilling stunts and special effects sequences - two that come to mind include Jack (and the camera) rotating around in a guillotine and the ocean splitting apart - the underlying plot that brings the various characters and story lines together lacks the energy, wit and, most of all, novelty, required to really engage us beyond just sitting and staring at the screen. By now (and probably as early as four sequels ago), we know what to expect from this series and the bottom line is we've charted this territory too many times before for it to have any real impact as entertainment. The filmmakers seem too willing to just re-use old character and narrative devices instead of taking the time to come up with something inspired.

What's more is the actors appear as if they share my sentiments. Depp and Rush look tired and come across as if they've both just sighed and said to each other, “Here we go again,” before dusting off their pirates costumes and going through the same motions as the first four pictures. Who could blame them, though, given the screenplay doesn't give their characters enough new things to do so they can try out different techniques.

On the other hand, Bardem, as Salazar, is a welcome bright spot, and not just because he's a terrific actor and inherently fun to watch, but because he adds a fresh character to the “Pirates” universe. Perhaps if the script had abandoned Sparrow and Barbossa altogether and made the entire story about Salazar it would have been onto something, but it's likely the filmmakers got caught up in the idea that if a “Pirates” movie doesn't have this, that and the other, with the first “this” being Depp, then it's not a “Pirates” movie. But why not make a “Pirates” movie about a different pirate, or at least different kind of plot? The film seems afraid to take any risks.

The good news is that Dead Men Tell No Tales is at least always watchable, and despite the story being flat and predictable, I found myself admiring the technical workmanship that went into the production (for instance, the execution and choreography of Sparrow and his crew stealing an entire bank in St. Martin is convincing and lively). However, my gut tells me most viewers will find the movie more ho-hum than exciting. The filmmakers have simply given us more of the same. With that being said, Dead Men Tell No Tales does cap the saga in such a way that it lets us believe the studio may be done with it, at least for a while. We hope so, anyway, because it's better the franchise end on the average note that it does now instead of a sour one later.