Jack Sparrow – sorry, Captain Jack Sparrow – is back. Pirates of the Caribbean returns this month for the franchise’s fifth film in 15 years, with the malleable moniker Salazar’s Revenge or Dead Men Tell No Tales. That’s an impressive lifespan for a movie inspired (for the most part) by a theme park ride, but quality has not been able to keep up with quantity; imagination gave way to stagnation, and the water-slide tsunami eventually became a tempest in a teacup-ride. What went wrong with the sequels, what took the wind out of the series’ sails, and can five be the magic number and return the franchise to fame and fortune? To find those answers, there will be spoilers from films one to four; be warned: here there be monsters.
- The Curse of the Black Pearl
Hi-jinks on the high seas, battles of sword and cannon, and the cursed Aztec gold of Cortés – The Curse of the Black Pearl has it all. Where many a modern franchise falls flat on the world-building, Pirates of the Caribbean gets it right on the first try – as we go through the sequels the rigging stays broadly the same, even as the trimmings change slightly to account for expansion. Here we have extravagant costume design, lavish yet lived-in sets, a raft of characters (albeit ones who fit into the broad archetypes of the genre) and an actual beginning-to-end story.
Currently standing proud at #249 on IMDb’s Top 250 movies list, Black Pearl balances the family-friendly elements of star-crossed lovers, the fantastical supernatural, and good old-fashioned close-ranged cannon fire into the sides of many an enemy ship. Crucially, it’s a barrel of laughs; whether it’s the recurring corset humour, the near-constant witty repartee, Orlando Bloom’s Jack Sparrow impression, or the fact that a good slice of the action is slapstick, this skull and crossbones has tongue firmly pressed through cheek.
The mainstay of the film(s) is, of course, Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. Depp is master and commander of this rollicking, swashbuckling adventure, Sparrow being instantly recognised as an inspired performance and a character he often finds difficult to escape. The character’s introduction – riding triumphantly into port on a dingy dinghy – is a superb sight gag and the perfect encapsulation of our captain.
Our main foe, putting to one side the (brilliantly acted) pomp and naivety of Her Majesty’s Navy as represented by Jack Davenport and Jonathan Pryce, is a horde of undead sailors led by the effervescent Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa. These Harryhausen-inspired skeletons are an unstoppable force, both for the story and cinematically – the fever-dream fly through the ship of the damned after Barbossa’s revelation, the slow underwater march into battle, and that final fight in the cave, parrying in and out of the moonlight leading to full and partial transformations, are all standout moments of CG creativity.
With set-pieces, heroics and humour, Black Pearl is a gem of a movie. The real curse of the Black Pearl is that the film turned out to be too darn good for the sequels to stand a chance.
Theme Park Ride: Ghost Train
- Dead Man’s Chest
We’re back in the West Indies for a deeper dive into the familiar world. Dead Man’s Chest makes a promising start, with a highly stylised visual introduction of high tea caught in a tropical rain shower and the introduction of utter bastard Tom Hollander. But as the plot gets bogged down in the magical mythology of pirate lore, so too does the script in the loquacious labyrinthine lingo of Jack Sparrow (sorry, Captain Jack Sparrow). What started as hooks – skeleton crew and eccentric lead – have fast become sinkers.
First to Davy Jones and his monstrous crew. Not content with them being undead again – that would be boring – these sailors have been spliced with sea creatures for… some reason. Probably. It’s never actually mentioned that his first mate is a walking, talking hammerhead shark who uses another shark’s saw-like snout as a sword. We’re just asked to accept it. And that’s fine, but you’ve got Bill Nighy in your movie, why stick him under an octopus? His trademark constant movements do lend themselves to added tentacles, though, and the creature design is justifiably award-winning (this film has a BAFTA and an Oscar), but the escalation is unnecessary.
And Jack, well… That once-loveable rogue shtick is wearing a little thin already. Reintroduced as the god-like leader of a tribe of island cannibals, seasoning himself with a paprika deodorant, the rum has clearly gone well and truly to his head. His moments of true piracy – and perhaps the Mexican sword-off – still show glimmers of potential in the character, but he’s somehow become a stereotype after one outing, and a morally inconsistent one at that. Staunchly against slavery, no eye is batted when he decides to round up one hundred drunks and ne’er-do-wells to hand over to Davy Jones.
One thing that remains consistently excellent – the music. Rolling as a wave and coaster, the Pirates of the Caribbean themes are fantastic. Note that the composer was Klaus Badlet in the original, despite being known as a famous Hans Zimmer track; Zimmer was heavily involved throughout of course, hence the similarity to the equally epic Gladiator battle music. In Dead Man’s Chest, Zimmer takes the reins and leads the exuberant orchestra down more ghostly paths, including a haunting refrain from Davy Jones’ massive organ, and lightly acrobatic motifs to accompany giant swinging balls. Steady now. This music will only get better in the third film, when it steps up to majestic levels.
Yet, for a film centred on a love story and with a literal beating heart in a box at its centre, there just isn’t enough compassion. Set pieces run cold, exchanges feel forced, and even the kraken is lackin’. While still humorous, even the jokes are flat – who’d have thought that Johnny Depp at the centre of a fruit kebab would only muster a minor titter? Actually, don’t answer that. On top of this, the major action sequence – rolling down a hill mid-chase and fight – is used twice as the film turns over in the same routine.
Over two hours into the film and it becomes clear that the meandering path is genuinely going nowhere, and Dead Man’s Chest is going to offer zero resolution to any of the story, except for Captain Jack Sparrow going the way of Boba Fett and jumping into the mouth of a tentacled and toothed beast – last we’ll see of him then? Well that mystery lasts all of 10 minutes before there’s a pre-credits broadside in the resurrection of a definitely dead Captain Barbossa. Luckily you only had to wait a year to find out what happened next.
Theme park ride: Zorbing
- At World’s End
Turns out the answer to that might take a little longer than expected. Pirates of the Caribbean films are not short, but World’s End should have been called Long John Silver Screen – at a ludicrous two hours fifty, this is the lengthiest of them all and as bloated as a beached whale.
If Dead Man’s Chest took the series down a darker current, World’s End goes full-on grim. Not many family films would try to open with mass public executions, including hanging children, set to a rousing yet creepy sing-along, yet that’s exactly where we start off. Thankfully this doesn’t linger, as we are soon whisked from the West Indies to the East Orient and a cliché-laden Singapore. This is part of a global expansion within the Pirates world, later sailing through the frozen icebergs of the Arctic and through featureless starry skies for example, to establish a worldwide pirate war against the East India Company and – good to see him back – the villainous Tom Hollander. He will be under-utilised yet again.
A recurring line from the franchise sees Captain Jack Sparrow referred to as “the worst pirate I’ve ever heard of”. As an audience, we’re supposed to react in a pantomime “oh no he isn’t”, but it is clear that he is certainly not the best pirate out there. That honour goes to Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann, an infinitely better pirate. This has been the case since Black Pearl, and finally three films in we get a modicum of women’s equality as she is made captain of her own ship, then fleet, then becomes Pirate King. While still reduced to the damsel most of the trilogy, she is at least rarely in distress and instead becomes master of her own fate.
The supernatural subcurrent gets its largest entry here too, taking us on a quest to reclaim Jack Sparrow – sorry, Captain Jack Sparrow – from Davy Jones’ Locker. Thankfully this limbo-land (in which they surely missed a trick by not making reference to that other Caribbean limbo?) is a surrealist dreamscape, filled with multiple Johnny Depps (more than one is oddly watchable) and closeups of his nose. The way in (off the edge of a flat Earth waterfall) and out (capsizing the Black Pearl) are among the most creative and fun sequences in the films.
Then there’s the weird stuff. A bizarre cameo from Keith Richards as Sparrow’s pirate dad and keeper of the Pirate Code at a meeting of the global pirate leaders, and a truly disconcerting “releasing” scene between Keira Knightley and Yun-Fat Chow (another under-used character) make for some of the strangest scenes, which could really have been avoided in order to trim the sails of this cumbersome movie.
The climax makes up for it though, and saves the trilogy. Fleets come out of the mist, the flagships engage across a lightning-struck whirlpool in hurricane-strength winds – the perfect setting for the culminating battle. Cannons and cutlasses clash, as the masts lock over the vortex – it’s all genuinely thrilling. And there’s real shock when Davy Jones actually kills Will Turner, and the crew coming to claim his heart (to replace Davy Jones as captain) is quite unsettling. Then the epic takedown of Tom Hollander’s Navy vessel – responsible for this fine gif – takes the entire explosives budget in one final barrage of cannons.
But that’s the end of Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom’s story. Can the franchise survive without them?
Theme park ride: Swinging galleons
- On Stranger Tides
This is it. The Pirates of the Caribbean have well and truly walked the plank. The series has ebbed since the opening high-water mark, but On Stranger Tides is truly the lowest of them all.
Everyone’s congregated in Greenwich, London, seemingly only to have an entirely pointless meeting with the King and a cameo from Dame Judi Dench. The only notable occurrence in this introductory section is seeing Captain Jack Sparrow actually planning his acrobatic escape, which perhaps counts as character development, and a subsequent horse-drawn-carriage roof chase sequence.
In continuing the casting coups of big-name bad guys, here we are joined by Ian McShane and Penélope Cruz. Both are, however, awful characters – Cruz is reduced to little more than a seductress, while McShane just has to growl and look cold and aloof. Reference is made to McShane’s Captain Blackbeard being a “resurrector of the dead in his spare time”. This is a talent which would have come in useful at many, many points in the film, and yet is never used. There’s exposition to say that Blackbeard’s lieutenants are zombies – original for this franchise – but apart from one man surviving a sword to the heart, unremarked upon, this is never explored either.
This is all evidence that Stranger Tides isn’t even trying. Callback after callback to the previous films, from duels in the rafters to Keith Richards’ encore, fill the cracks in creativity with bioluminescence. Everyone (Spanish, British, Pirate) is racing to the Fountain of Youth, but the stakes aren’t there and it’s hard to care. The race itself is also disjointed, with little overlap or indication of any real competition – you know the pirates are going to get there first because that’s the film we’re in.
Parts of all Pirates of the Caribbean films feel akin to the Assassin’s Creed video game series – so much so that the fourth Assassin’s Creed, titled Black Flag, is arguably a better Pirates of the Caribbean film than any of the sequels – and in Stranger Tides the comparison jumps the shark with Johnny Depp’s stunt double performing a trademark swan dive off a tall tower. All you need is a hay bale to break his fall and the crossover is complete. Spoiler alert: the hay bale is genuinely introduced in Salazar’s Revenge.
There is some novelty to the film – more traditional magic is introduced with Blackbeard’s enchanted sword and ship, mermaids are imagined as vampires and captured through grenade-fishing, and a ruined ship caught high on a cliff gives way to an Italian Job homage balancing-act – but it’s all handled with such dire dullness that you cannot wait for it to end. It turns out that Knightley and Bloom leaving took the hearts and souls of the franchise with them.
Theme park ride: Queue for the loos
- Salazar’s Revenge / Dead Men Tell No Tales
Now, with the franchise reaching adolescent age, there’s a new instalment. Old faces will reappear, and there’s an ambition and expectation that the fun will return. Is Salazar’s Revenge a return to form, or yet another damp squib?
Despite some fun along the way – most notably a Fast and Furious-on-horseback bank robbery – Salazar’s Revenge is a dulled reflection of Black Pearl. The curse of the first film strikes again, this time with the entire production so intent on recapturing lightning that Knightley and Bloom each make guest appearances, and our new leads (Kaya Scodelario and Brenton Thwaites) are carbon copies of them to a fault. Nobody told Johnny Depp, however; his performance is so off-key from his well-trodden Captain Jack Sparrow routine that it is entirely possible he was replaced by an impersonator.
Javier Bardem’s villain is a continuation of the type we’ve seen before, from the franchise and from him (shades of Skyfall), but for all their similarities – these undead run on water rather than walk beneath it – they at least have a reasonable backstory and a kickass ship to boot. Their retinue of much-publicised zombie-sharks are disappointing, and seem conceived solely to make a Jaws reference, and that just about sums up Salazar’s Revenge – over-hyped, under-whelming, over-familiar.
Unless the inevitable (piracy, it seems, pays) sixth instalment ends with Anthony Hopkins fixing a loose screw in Captain Jack’s robotic head – yes, all those films were set in an ocean-based Westworld theme park – it’s clearly time for Pirates of the Caribbean to lower the flag once and for all.
Theme park ride: Hall of Mirrors
One Room With A View’s official review for Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge can be found here.