Arriving in theaters a year after its predecessor, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End isn’t so much a film to enjoy as it is one you just try to survive. The third film in the film series based on a Disneyland theme park ride — and let us never forget that — is also the longest, though oddly not quite as overwrought as last year’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. The first film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, had an occasional breeziness that helped it scurry along, not to mention the advantage of being a novelty act and a chance for Johnny Depp to channel the gifts that have made among the most talented actors of his generation into a fey, galumphing pirate prince. But the sequels were only fired into production when the first film became somewhat of a head-scratching phenomenal success, and as a result they feel divorced from the first film completely, as if director Gore Verbinski and all the various characters have reunited to act out some apocryphal and highly confusing story meant to erase whatever fond memories remain of the first film. Not that I mean to heap undue scorn on the films: Believe me, I have seen worse. But while At World’s End does boast some stunning special effects, rousing action set pieces, and a few glimpses of a genuine underlying epic, it tries to do far too much with far too little, and at a cruelly long 168 minutes, Verbinski winds up vamping for effect to kill time instead of pushing forward with an actual story. The key to enjoying the film is to surrender any hope of seeing a coherent narrative played out onscreen, and to simply let the madness wash over you. After a while, it doesn’t even feel like surrender; it just feels inevitable.
At the end of the previous film, Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) went down with his ship, the Black Pearl, when it was eaten by the giant kraken. I’d assumed this meant Jack was dead. But I also didn’t see that as an obstacle, since Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris), a vaguely otherworldly witch-ish person who was friends with Jack, was able to resurrect Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who had perished at the end of the first film. But it turns out that (a) Jack is indeed dead, and (b) he’s being held in Davy Jones’ locker, which apparently is some kind of limbo dimension, and also (c) it’s possible to rescue him by just sailing right to the edge of the world and tumbling off into the metaphysical unknown, and let’s not forget (d) Jack’s friends want to rescue him because, well, they don’t seem to have anything better to do. Jack’s friends don’t even seem to like him that much, either. Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), son of legendary pirate “Bootstrap” Bill Turner (Stellan Skarsgard), has fought with Jack on numerous occasions, and the two have repeatedly double-crossed each other. Then there’s Will’s fiancée, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), who’s involved because Will is involved, but who also doesn’t trust Jack all that much. But to wonder why they’re rescuing him would unravel the film’s entire universe. Just go with it.
Barbossa, Will, and Elizabeth enlist the help of Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat), a pirate lord based in Singapore who agrees to back their expedition on the condition (I think) that he gets to kill Jack on his own. I only hedge my summary because I’ve been out of the theater for about two hours now, and all the subplots and bargains and who gets to do what when and how are beginning to blur. At World’s End is replete with subplots upon subplots that never go anywhere, and don’t exactly die, either: They just kind of drift away, as if the film itself can’t quite summon the mental energy to hold onto them and instead just let them slowly dissipate. Suffice it to say that many things happen, and Jack is eventually rescued.
The fact that Jack would, in fact, be saved from purgatory was never in doubt, and not just because the ads for the film have Depp featured prominently and interacting with the other characters. But with only an hour down and two more to go at the time of Jack’s release, the film becomes rudderless as Verbinski and screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who also scripted the overpraised Shrek and the rightfully maligned Godzilla update, try to figure out just what to do now that Jack and Co. are back on the high seas and the “at world’s end” section of the film is pretty much finished. The good guys also pursue, and are pursued by, the evil Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), an animated villain that’s easily the most believable CGI character ever created. It’s not just that his face is covered with tentacles that constantly writhe based on his mood, or that the back of his head is actually made of this membranous sac like a real octopus that’s both enthralling and revolting. The folks at Industrial Light & Magic have attended to every detail, and the result is that in a film that’s been production designed right out of its life, the special effects are the most appealing thing.
There’s so much more, and yet it all doesn’t really matter. At World’s End is overlong and far too complex, but after a while you just overload and go with it. The good guys convene the Brethren Court of the nine pirate lords, who apparently know something is going on because people have been singing that “Yo Ho” chantey as some kind of ominous way of freaking out the British officers bent on capturing the pirates. (I’m not kidding, either; the film begins with a deeply unsettling mass hanging at which a boy of about 10 leads his fellow convicts in the tune before being dropped through the gallows. What exactly the song does is never made clear; presumably it just puts out a weird vibe that the pirate lords pick up on.) The Brethren Court decides to fight for their way of life, but the entire sequence is made even crazier by the appearance of Keith Richards as one of the pirate rulers. Richards has been cited as an obvious influence on Depp’s incarnation of Jack in the first place, and watching the character confront the real-life man who even partially inspired him is when the movie eats itself and becomes what it was meant to be all along: A happy but none too clever comment about itself as a pop culture movement. Verbinski’s films don’t wink at the audience, but club you right over the head. Repeatedly.
The script is ferociously bloated, and only feels streamlined in the climactic battle sequence in the rain-drenched finale (after which things get right back to clunky). Depp is content to goof off in his own world the entire time, and he makes the most of his scenes, turning them into something almost watchable. Bloom and Knightley share a cold, angular beauty, with Bloom sauntering around like a kid playing dress-up and Knightley still angrily biting off her words through her perennially clenched jaw and parted lips. But they do have a (very) few genuine moments together, particularly toward the end, so much so that I actually regretted how little their relationship had been used in the overloaded plot.
That’s ultimately what keeps At World’s End from being the enjoyable and even great film that’s buried under too many plots, too many characters, and too many attempts to browbeat the audience into submission. Irony and self-awareness are the coin of the realm in modern comedy, especially on TV; pretty soon every network will have its own single-camera show full of awkward pauses and sudden cuts. Yet that reflexive acknowledgment of the movie as conscious entertainment keeps At World’s End from being able to sell the melodrama it so desperately wants to pull off. How involved can a viewer really become in the love story between Will and Elizabeth when Verbinski peppers the film with allusions to its carnival-ride origins and “funny” takes on conventions of the adventure genre? The roots of a good story are here, but no one knows what to make of them. It’s a lot like a ride, actually: Mildly thrilling at the time, but forgettable by the time you get home.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.Please Let the Ride Be Over
Film | May 25, 2007 | Comments ()