Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales drowns in a sea of nostalgia
There are certain structural threads that feel ever-too familiar in this new movie that makes it feel almost like a remake of the first.
This narrative exhaustion reached its nadir with the fourth movie in the franchise, On Stranger Tides, which was a standalone movie.
Dead Men Tell No Tales resumes the original story from At World’s End, but it isn’t that much of a departure from the franchise’s history of exhaustion that has plagued it since the first 'revolutionary' movie.
There are certain structural threads that feel ever-too familiar in this new movie that makes it feel almost like a remake of the first rather than an advancement of the story. There isn’t much to see here we haven’t seen before.
Perpetually-drunk renegade pirate Captain Jack Sparrow bumbling from one situation to the other at the behest of the screenwriter. Check.
A nefarious undead supervillain who is hell-bent on seeking vengeance against Sparrow for a past incident. Check.
Jack Sparrow working as a partner with a pair of young, attractive adventurers (who eventually fall in love), as well as a crew that doesn’t particularly trust his leadership. Check.
A mythical plot device with ambiguous magical powers that drives the motivation of all the characters. Check.
A bumbling British Royal Navy chasing their own tails and getting in the way of everyone else. Check.
If you don’t pinch yourself hard enough, it feels like Groundhog day.
The movie opens with a prologue, introducing a young Henry Turner, son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, declaring his intentions to release his father from the curse of The Flying Dutchman that he has been tied to.
This sets the tone for the theme of identity over the course of the movie as it progresses.
The movie’s first real thrill opens with an audacious bank heist that rips off Fast Five for its brazenness, and Home Alone 2 for wackiness.
In the middle of the chaos, a young woman, Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) is on a quest to find the Trident of Poseidon, an artifact that grants its possessor immense control over the seas and can break every sea curse there is.
The trident is what makes Carina’s path cross with Henry’s and ultimately with a reluctant Sparrow whose ship they need to sail to the trident.
Dead Men has all the narrative structure for another epic sea adventure, but it’s an exhausting exercise to keep up with its silly plot swings and ridiculous convenience.
Unlike in the earlier movies, Jack’s shtick is totally spent now and is not reliable enough to distract you anymore.
Make no mistake, the frequently-vilified Johnny Depp still makes a mean Jack Sparrow here with what you could call a blameless performance, but the audience has seen it one too many times it's only marginally fun.
Sparrow is still funny with his randy quips and impulsiveness, but despite his best attempts, Depp falls short of replicating the magic of his earlier performances. The heart is gone and all you have is a caricature.
The movie’s villain this time around is Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem), an undead pirate hunter who was the first of Sparrow’s long list of enemies in his pirate career.
With Salazar’s character, the audience is given a little peak into the origin of Sparrow, and it’s one of the most compelling narrative decisions of the movie.
It turns out that Salazar’s vicious pirate hunting was what led to Sparrow becoming the captain of the Black Pearl before the events of the first movie in the franchise.
The tie in is great and it is refreshing to see a young and alert Sparrow before his drinking started.
Even with the masterful application of cutting-edge special effects, Salazar is not particularly menacing because, again, you have seen him around before; not the character, no, but the narrative function he serves.
Salazar is a hybrid of the plot functions scrapped together from Barbossa, Davey Jones and Blackbeard; villains from the original trilogy.
His backstory has a lot of narrative potential to explore but the restriction the familiarity of his characterization places on him makes it hard for him to leave any lasting impression, on the story or on the audience.
Dead Men’s saving grace is that it looks gorgeous. The camera’s expansive takes of the towns and of the sweeping waves of the sea is a cinematic dream.
The action, in all of its chaos and incoherence, is staged well enough to pass for entertainment, and the pacing is incredibly well-managed as the movie jumps from one crisis to another trying to distract you from the story's lack of substance.
Geoffrey Rush reprises his role as the one-legged Captain Hector Barbossa, an extremely wealthy pirate with a fleet of ships, who also decides to join the rush for the trident after a freed Salazar starts to deplete his fleet.
Barbossa’s involvement is not a waste, and his story arc in the movie has a bit more bite to it.
The same thing cannot be said for minor characters like David Wenham’s Scarfield, an officer of the British Royal Navy who contributes nothing significant to the narrative, and Golshifteh Farahani’s Shansa, a witch whose character’s most memorable feature is shapeshifting her motivations to do anything the plot demands.
Henry and Carina are well-developed characters, but they kind of remind you too much of a certain Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann in the trilogy.
Carina is a formidable astronomer who is branded a witch chiefly because she is a woman who knows things men think she shouldn’t, and is hunted for it.
Her character is built in the mould of a feminist who resists the very particular box the patriarchal society wants to place her into and is central to the plot in a way that much wouldn't really happen without her around.
She is all of these things that the trilogy made Elizabeth Swann and if you’ve seen it before, there’s not much room to be impressed by it. Despite this, Scodelario puts in a decent enough performance to distinguish herself, but that’s the best she can do with what the script burdened her with.
The only thing to say about Henry Turner is that his apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.
The movie made this Will and Elizabeth recreation so obvious that Carina and Henry end up together as a couple without really bothering too much about creating a real connection between them that would make this a sensible decision.
Like their relationship, everything in the movie down to the climax is a case of déjà vu, with fairly lukewarm results.
Dead Men Tell No Tales was pitched as the final movie of the franchise and if it indeed is (a post-credits scene suggests otherwise), it isn’t a half-bad conclusion to the franchise.
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