The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise continues its frustrating plunge into the abyss with this fourth entry, On Stranger Tides. Was the terrific 2003 franchise starter a mere fluke, lightning a bottle? On the evidence of the shoddy sequels that have steered the choppy waters in its wake, it would very much appear so.
Forget cinema based on a fairground ride; this is cinema as fairground ride, manufactured by a bunch of money men who watch the dosh roll in as we sit agog on a tiresome, mechanical journey that cynically clatters towards a forgettable conclusion. And all this, despite the fact that Tim Powers’ novel is credited as an inspiration.
Even Johnny Depp’s formerly delightful Jack Sparrow now only provides intermittent chuckles, the actor (and all the other performers) having been swallowed up by the corporate whirlpool.
Don’t be fooled by the hype proclaiming that this is leaner and meaner than the bloated Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End. Shorter it is (by a good 20 odd minutes), but on a narrative basis, it’s as convoluted, contradictory and irritating as before, so much so that the viewer spends more time unpicking the various character relationships than enjoying the swashbuckling.
Not that there are many buckles to be swashed. The exploits that send Depp’s mascara-tinted Sparrow off to the high seas this time (ostensibly a search for the Fountain of Youth) are so headache-inducing that the action scenes barely register. Along the way he must also contend with an old flame, Angelica (Penelope Cruz), daughter of the notorious Blackbeard (Ian McShane), both of whom are also looking for the Fountain, and Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa who is now a privateer in the British Navy.
Put a question mark besides any of those plot points though because Rob Marshall’s (replacing Gore Verbinski) film can never settle on any kind of internal logic. One minute Angelica says she’s Blackbeard’s daughter; the next she says she isn’t. She appears to share an amorous past with Sparrow; only to betray and reverse-betray him every other scene. Along the way we chalk up the cameos (Keith Richards who presumably had to shoot off to check his meds; Judi Dench, utterly pointless) and the lazy Hans Zimmer score that treads no new ground musically, other than an eerily beautiful theme for the mermaids at the centre of the plot.
McShane’s potentially fearsome villain, meanwhile, has the wind knocked out of him due to his need to explain every other MacGuffin (a silver chalice here; a mermaid there; a tear somewhere else); and Rush (magnificent in The King’s Speech) cackles his way through proceedings in a way that suggests not even he knows whether Barbossa is a hero, villain or anti-hero. Brits Sam Claflin and Kevin McNally wait from the wings eagerly, but sadly are given little to do, other than a promising but ultimately tentative human-mermaid relationship.
We look in vain to Depp, but the mincing, preening Sparrow is neither as fresh nor as subversive as he once was. Instead he’s transformed into the trendy poster boy for a billion dollar franchise that ran aground long ago. Some would argue that’s the very antithesis of what the character initially represented.
Put simply, plasticised, polymerised blockbuster cinema doesn’t get worse, and it’s extraordinary to think that a budget in excess of $200 million has gone absolutely nowhere. A piece of grot lacking any semblance of heart, passion or sincerity that will soon have you reaching for Curse of the Black Pearl off the DVD shelf.