Friday, May 20, 2011

From the Archive: "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" Film Review

Film Rating: D–

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here. 

Continue reading after the jump to access my original review of "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides."

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
“Pirates of the Caribbean:
On Stranger Tides”
Originally published May 20th, 2011

The Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy is an important part of my development as a film lover.  To this day, the original film, Curse of the Black Pearl, remains one of my all-time favorite movies; in my mind, it’s the kind of flawless, imaginative fun that most films could never hope to top.  Indeed, the sequels Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End didn’t come close to matching the original.  Nevertheless, they are an important and memorable part of my moviegoing adolescence, and I have mostly fond memories of them.  They are overambitious to a fault, certainly, but these faults are relatively easy to look past.  Gore Verbinski is a spectacular director and there is no moment in the trilogy that fails to be entertaining or thrilling on some level.  The sequels, in particular, showcase some of the most fantastic set-pieces ever committed to film. 

There hasn’t been a new Pirates film since before I entered High School, and now we get a fourth film, On Stranger Tides, on the eve of my graduation.  I imagine that my level of excitement for the film was similar to what lifelong Star Wars fans felt in the months leading up to The Phantom Menace.  And just like The Phantom Menace, On Stranger Tides, spits in the faces of fans by delivering a tremendously disappointing experience, one that barely resembles the franchise it is ostensibly connected to.  

There’s so much wrong with On Stranger Tides that it’s difficult to even decide where to begin.  How did they take a franchise as fun as Pirates and wring out every last bit of life?  How did they turn a concept as imaginative as the Fountain of Youth and make it so needlessly convoluted?  How did they rip all the bite and personality out of Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa?  How did they allow a version of Blackbeard played by the great Ian McShane to be so incredibly boring?  How did they make zombies and mermaids lame?  How did they spend $150 million on the production and come out with a final product that looks laughably cheap and half-assed? 

But most importantly of all…how did they take all the fun out of Captain Jack Sparrow?

It breaks my heart to write those words.  Jack Sparrow is one of the most beloved cinematic characters of all time, and for people like me who have grown up with the lovable scalawag, merely saying the name triggers a warm wave of nostalgia.  The character is unique, nuanced, fascinating, and hilarious, and words cannot express how well Johnny Depp has repeatedly brought the character to life.  Captain Jack is a household name for good reason, and the greatest sin On Stranger Tides commits is in robbing Sparrow of the things that make him memorable.

Johnny Depp’s performance isn’t notably different or weaker than before, but given the truly terrible material he has to work with, it is inevitably uninspired.  None of Jack’s jokes are funny, none of his one-liners connect, and nothing he does seems clever or charming.  Depp tries his best, and earns some goodwill smiles, but there’s nothing he can do to salvage what the writing and directing have done to the character in this installment.  In prior films, Jack was fascinating because he was always calculating; even when he seemed to be lost or bumbling, he was planning, and that constant sense of unpredictable motivation made him irresistible.  Here, Jack has no motivation, except, perhaps, to stay out of trouble, and that robs the character of so, so much. 

Even more egregious, the writers have apparently forgotten that Jack is, in fact, a pirate.  A scalawag.  A scoundrel.  His motivations are calculated and fascinating, but they always come from a place of selfishness.  As a pirate, he looks out for himself and his treasures first; the original film showed he could help others, but only because it was also convenient for him, and one of the things I love about Dead Man’s Chest is how unafraid the film was of showing the true depths of Jack’s egocentrism.  Here, Jack acts not like a pirate, but more like a generally straight-laced – and incredibly boring – hero.  With Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann out of the picture, Jack occupies the space of protagonist now, and while that’s probably an inherently bad idea to start with – Jack is more interesting as a commentator of the action rather than an active force behind the story – the writers apparently believed that Jack’s morals had to have a tune up to make him protagonist-worthy.  If he breaks the law, he does it half-heartedly and with good reason; he barely ever fights, and in one particularly unbelievable scene, he even lectures another character on why killing innocents is bad.  That’s not Jack Sparrow.  Not in the slightest.  Nothing of the character we love remains in this incarnation, despite Depp’s best efforts.  The closing scenes after the climax see Jack acting more like his old self, and they are the best part of the movie, but it’s too little too late.  As far as On Stranger Tides is concerned, Captain Jack is dead, and this frail imposter is his replacement.

With the number one reason to see a Pirates movie utterly destroyed, it’s hard to imagine the film could sink much lower.  It can.  Oh God it can.  The story is an absolute mess from start to finish, misguided in every way imaginable.  Few characters have any recognizable or compelling motivations, and the ones that do seem to switch or alter motivations every five minutes without any rhyme or reason.  While prior Pirates films were driven by action – not just set-pieces, but proactivity on the part of the characters – Tides is concerned only with exposition.  There are very few set-pieces in the film, and the majority of the running time is spent watching characters explain various plot elements to each other.  In the first act, they spend all their time talking about what happened in between this film and the last one, events that would probably be really cool to see; merely hearing about them is criminally boring.  In the second act, characters talk about the convoluted series of steps it takes to find the Fountain of Youth and activate its powers, among other various plot contortions.  Again, nothing is actually happening – the characters are merely talking about stuff that has or could happen.  They continue to talk incessantly in the third act, only now they’ve all run out of things to discuss, and the film just spins around in circles until the credits roll. 

This inane and idiotic approach to storytelling gives the film an incredibly limited narrative scope, a scope that is somehow drastically lessened by Rob Marshall’s terribly incompetent direction.  Remember how the past Pirates films took place on exotic locations like islands, beaches, the open sea, the edge of the world, inside the depths of pirate ships, or in imaginative sets like Tortuga?  Yeah, none of that is present in On Stranger Tides.  I understand that the film was primarily shot in Hawaii, but thanks to Marshall’s direction and choice of locales, the entire movie looks as though it could have been shot on soundstages and backlots, save for a very few scenes. 

The first act takes place on the streets of London – excuse me, one street looped over and over, I think – and inside drab buildings.  None of it looks convincing or interesting.  The second act is all set on the deck of pirate ships.  Not the inside of the pirate ships – that would be cool – but on the deck.  We don’t even see much of the ocean, and what water we do see looks like a tank in a studio.  It’s boring.  The third act has some trampling through the Jungle that does, admittedly, look good at times, but the overlong climax is set inside – I shit you not – a redress of the Isla de Muerte set from the first film, where the pirates returned their treasure and performed the blood ritual.  It’s supposed to be the Fountain of Youth, but it’s clearly the Muerte set.  It’s the exact same size, has the identical circular design, and the object of interest – the Fountain, in this case – is put in the middle, just as the Aztec Gold Chest was placed in the middle in the first film.  The only difference is that this set has some grass and vegetation, but there’s no mistaking it – this is the Isla de Muerte set, and it defines the word cheapskate.

Hell, the climax even plays out similar to the climax of the first film, except without any life or pulse.  The same can be said of all the action set-pieces in the film.  Marshall is not a talented director to begin with, but he’s in over his head staging action scenes, and none of these sequences manage to be exciting, thrilling, or involving on any level, nor are they ever worked organically into the story.  Most surprising of all, Hans Zimmer’s score is laughably bad this time around.  Actually, the music itself is good, because it’s the exact same, beloved music from the other movies.  Not updated, rearranged, or expanded, mind you, but the exact same musical cues and themes, without any new bits to accompany them.  Given the number of assistants Zimmer usually works with, I doubt he even worked on this movie.  Instead, someone took old cues and threw them over the footage – and whoever performed this task did a terrible job.  These are classic, awe-inspiring themes we’re talking about, music that always got the blood pumping in prior films.  Here, it does nothing – produces no emotions, enhances no thrills, and builds no tension.  It’s just there, and if anything, it’s often distracting. 

Every aspect of the production seems phoned in, if not outright bad.  The locations look cheap, the action is rotten, and the music is entirely recycled.  All of this goes back to the director.  Rob Marshall somehow took $150 million dollars and churned out something so incredibly devoid of life that it could pass for a direct-to-video movie.  Admittedly, this is a smaller budget than the rest of the series had, but plenty of directors have done infinitely more on a hell of a lot less.  From a production and narrative standpoint, On Stanger Tides doesn’t even come close to resembling the other films in the franchise.  It feels like a movie plucked from an entirely different series and slapped with the Pirates label.

That extends to all of the characters.  Johnny Depp may be in this movie, but as already discussed, he’s not really playing Jack Sparrow.  Captain Barbossa has undergone such a massive, ridiculous character overhaul that the impeccably talented Geoffrey Rush no longer has any idea how to act in the role, and he isn’t getting any directorial help from Marshall.  The rest of the characters are new, but equally disappointing.  Ian McShane is known as a great villainous actor – his role on Deadwood is iconic – but this Blackbeard is so tame and generic that like Rush and Depp, McShane has no material to work with.  Penelope Cruz’s character, Angelica, is even more problematic.  Her motivations are inconsistent and idiotic, her history with Sparrow is tepid and unconvincing, and Cruz seems uncomfortable speaking the dialogue. 

Yet the worst characters by far are the film’s new romantic young couple.  There’s an incredibly annoying young missionary who is so bland that I’m fairly confident he’s never given a name.  He falls in love with a mermaid Blackbeard captures, and though the missionary and the mermaid share almost no dialogue, and only glance at each other occasionally, they fall madly in love.  It’s like Twilight, only worse.  Far worse.  I can’t even believe I just typed those words.  Hollywood has officially produced a romantic couple more infuriating than Bella and Edward, and it’s in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie.  How does that happen?  How? 

The film has only one redeeming aspect, and that is the 3-D cinematography.  Rob Marshall’s direction may be rancid, but cinematographer Dariusz Wolski does a fine job making each shot look at least competent, and at times interesting.  Most importantly, though, the film was shot natively in 3-D, much like the live-action portions of Avatar, and the effect is absolutely awe-inspiring.  This is as far as you can get from one of those insufferable 3-D ‘conversions’ like The Last Airbender – Pirates was shot and composed for 3-D, and it looks great.  The 3-D isn’t there to throw stuff at the viewer, but to create a convincing and enveloping sense of depth.  Indeed, every person and object in the film looks completely realistic, as though the performers are actually there in the theater, larger than life.  The effect is just incredible, and proves that, as James Cameron has asserted in the past, 3-D could be the future of cinematography.  Being mostly animated, Avatar didn’t prove this, but Pirates does – it looks like a regular movie, with the same color levels and brightness, but with a fabulous new layer of reality.  This is one of the few cases where the 3-D is worth the inflated ticket price, and if this review cannot convince you to abandon the movie altogether and you still feel compelled to give the film a try, do yourself a favor and at least see it in 3-D. 

But make no mistake – my recommendation would be to stay as far away from the film as possible.  Excellent use of 3-D aside, On Stranger Tides has no redeeming qualities; a few incredibly brief moments of enjoyment scattered here and there don’t do anything to cover up the film’s monumental and inherent faults.  If you need your Pirates fix, then by all means, revisit the original, or even the initial sequels.  This rubbish doesn’t resemble those films in any way, shape, or form.  It’s not a Pirates of the Caribbean movie.  It’s an embarrassment to all involved, a lazy piece of studio-manufactured garbage that gives a giant middle-finger to both the audience and my childhood memories. 

Captain Jack Sparrow

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