Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
By Shane Jenkins
May 29, 2007
The latest installment of Gore Verbinski and Jerry Bruckheimer's incredibly popular Pirates of the Caribbean series, At World's End, gets off to a grim, spooky start.
The British Royal Navy has rounded up nearly all of the world's pirates, and is hanging them eight at a time. Even pirate children are not exempt, and one prepubescent boy sings a melancholy pirate ode as he waits his turn. He is joined by the hundreds of others in this dirge, a chair is fetched for him to stand on so his neck can reach the noose, and there's the title card. Nobody saves him. Nobody's crying over him. This is a Disney movie, and they just hanged an urchin! It feels like something that would have been in the exciting first installment of the series. Not being a fan of last summer's Dead Man's Chest, I sat up in my seat a little. Maybe At World's End would make things right after that chaotic, CGI-bloated headache of a movie.
It's been nearly a decade since George Lucas unleashed the awful Star Wars prequels on us, but no one seems to have learned anything from those misfires. For example, just because you have the technology and budget to cram every last inch of screen with detail and effects, it doesn't mean it's a good idea. This film is ugly and messy, with so much going on at all times, it's hard to focus on any one thing.
Not that you'd want to focus on the story anyway; like Lucas' prequels, At World's End is almost endlessly expository. Director Gore Verbinski and his team of writers have scene after scene of characters either talking about the rules of the mythology they created, or patching up holes and inconsistencies. "Why can't the character who brought Barbossa back from the dead do the same for Captain Jack Sparrow?" you might wonder. "That's a good question," they answer, "I'm glad you asked, and here's five minutes of stuff we just made up that explains it." The filmmakers are constantly jumping through hoops to make the irrational appear to be rational, the pirate equivalent of all that midi-chlorian nonsense in The Phantom Menace. We didn't need to know how the Force operated then, and we don't need to know how magic works in this place now. Gore and company have created this fantastical realm, where you cannot trust anything that you think you know, and then they undermine it at every turn with heavy-handed over-explanation.
And the shame of it is that some of their fantastical realm is so clever and promising. There's a great scene where we see the souls of the dead, all in individual rowboats, silently sailing through the ocean. And another one that has a character walking slowly on the deck of his ship as it blows up, somehow unharmed by the exploding shards and splinters of wood flying everywhere. It's a knockout visual, and we're glad they went through the trouble and expense of showing us something new.
All too often, though, it's just more of the same things we saw in the other movies. There's sword-fighting aplenty, though nothing to match the three-way duel on the wheel in the last installment. The characters double and triple-cross each other, like in the other entries, but it doesn't really feel like anything is at stake, even though the movie is strenuously trying to convince us that everything is at stake.
Part of this, I think, is Johnny Depp's fault. I've read numerous interviews in which he claims to love the character of Captain Jack, and would make 20 sequels, just so he could keep playing him. So it's a surprise that Depp merely seems to be going through the motions. That spark and ingenuity in his portrayal of the captain, so fresh and funny in the first Pirates, is almost completely missing in these sequels. There's still the eye-rolling, drunken stumbling, and slurring of speech, but the magic is gone. You know how when kids are doing something cute and funny, and then realize you're watching them so they start "performing," and it's not cute or funny anymore? It's kind of like that.
So there's a bit of a charisma void at the center of the movie. Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom haven't gotten any more interesting over the course of the films. The usually-reliable Bill Nighy is so buried under his Davy Jones calamari face, he's not much help. Geoffrey Rush tries his hardest and hams it up as the resurrected Barbossa, but this out of control ship needs an anchor, and even he can't hold it together. The anchor was obviously meant to be Depp, but (and this pains me to say, being a fan of the actor) he dropped the ball. He and most of the others seem to be lost amidst the set design and effects, and Verbinski, perhaps caught up in dealing with all the technical aspects of the film, has lost his touch with the actors, something which had been his strong suit in the past, in even the quirkiest of his movies.
With a two hour and 45 minute running time, At World's End is long, and feels even longer. And there are plenty of elements that could have been trimmed back or cut out altogether. The trip to Shanghai doesn't add much to the story, other than to offer a new setting for action figure playsets. The Calypso subplot is confusing and mostly unnecessary. And while I enjoyed the version of limbo Depp finds himself in when we first meet up with him, the scene just goes on and on.
Like Peter Jackson's King Kong, At World's End confuses excess with excitement, hoping that you are so dizzy from the sheer amount of money being spent on-screen, you don't notice that you're not having very much fun.