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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

It’s like a long sunk ship that just sinks deeper and deeper with every attempt to revive it.

And so the blockbuster season has begun; a season that can both be the most enjoyable and most terrible season of the year. This is when we begin to count down to the last Harry Potter installment, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and (some of us, God knows I don’t) even look forward to Transformers: Dark of the Moon. If you look carefully at the list of films I just described, you will discover that this year in particular is rich in sequels; and we begin with Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

In this fourth installment, Captain Jack Sparrow is surrounded on all sides by both the Europeans who hunt him and his rival pirates, and is forced to sail towards the Fountain of Youth. This time, however, he lacks both a crew and a ship instead sailing as a part of the crew for none other than Blackbeard, the most feared pirate of the seas, played by Ian McShane. Sparrow isn’t very comfortable with the situation as it is, and it doesn’t help that aboard the ship is a previous lover of his, Angelica, played by Penelope Cruz, who actually turns out to Blackbeard’s daughter. And to make matters worse, Sparrow must race towards eternal youth against the Spanish and Captain Barbosa, played by Geoffrey Rush, who has united with the British.

It is difficult to find a reason for someone to make this film in the first place. The Pirates franchise had finished at an imperfect but concluding third installment, titled At World’s End. It is unequivocal that the first film in the franchise was great, but the luster of the premise began to wear off after its two sequels; and as you can imagine, at this point in the game it seems a little bit like beating a dead horse. The fact of the matter is that by the third installment, if not the second, the charm had worn off for the most part. This one, (and I dread making this pun,) is a fourth installment that feels like a third wheel.

Jack Sparrow has always undeniably been the character that leads the series’ ensemble based plot. This time around, the film comes along without the presence of the other leads in the film, Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner, played respectively by Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom, who provided a romance that too became a bit tedious by the previous film. Here, however, we face the consequences of having Johnny Depp lead the entire thing, which is basically having too much Johnny Depp; and that is saying something. The character of Jack Sparrow has always been one that is a pleasure to watch on screen, but when he stands alone on the spotlight, he becomes extremely predictable. In all three of the previous installments Sparrow was sort of a wild card; it was interesting to see where his true intentions where and what he would do next. Here, it is easy to see where the character is heading, and this takes away from the enjoyment.

Knightley and Bloom are replaced by Ian McShane and Penelope Cruz, who play Blackbeard and Blackbeard’s daughter Angelica respectively. Cruz, who usually gives film something fresh, does as many favors to the film as the film does to her. Perhaps it is the poorly written stereotypical character she is given, or how awfully misplaced she is in the Pirates world, but it is evident that she is a character that was completely unnecessary. Her acting isn’t anything to rave about, and her presence lacks the charm she usually bursts with.

As for McShane, he is in the same league as Cruz. Blackbeard is a character that could have and should have had as much of a massive proportion as Davy Jones, the series’ previous antagonist. True, he did have to compete with Jones’ tentacle beard and other worldly powers, but easily could have achieved this. Instead, what he is given is an unimpressive look and admittedly laugh-worthy powers. It doesn’t help that McShane’s performance is nothing short of mediocre, creating one of the most uninteresting characters the franchise has ever conjured. He isn’t frightening, he isn’t intimidating, he isn’t provoking; and this is a fatal flaw.

As for screenwriting, it is perhaps as dreadful as it has ever been in the series. Since the first installment, the plotline has never been amongst any of the other films’ strengths; this one is no exception. The other film’s had a convoluted, almost incomprehensible plotline, and this one sits at the other radical end of the scale; it lacks any sort of interest, and is awfully over explained and overwritten. The premise that Sparrow is searching for the Fountain of Youth is by itself not the most brilliant one the writers have ever come up with, and upon watching the film this becomes all the more evident.

The plot lacks any drive whatsoever. They want to go to the Fountain of Youth… so what? Whereas the previous films had a sort of life or death urgent ring to them, this one doesn’t provide the viewers with any reason to care for this journey in the first place. Instead, the film blasts the audience with an awful number of gimmicks. One of them involves how the characters must face dangerous, deceiving, man-eating mermaids who trick men into being drowned. This was one I actually bought; but unfortunately it didn’t stop there. It was when the subplot got to the point where the mermaids literally shot seaweed webs to capture their prey that I thought that this was ridiculous as it would get; how wrong I was.

As it turns out, Blackbeard can control his ship via his sword, transforming the ropes into snake like objects that attack and trap its crew, and uses the hull as a variation of a gigantic flamethrower… that works in the ocean. Let’s not forget that Blackbeard has zombies working for him; yes, zombies! And instead of using this element to set up a riveting action scene or atmosphere, the zombies are just put in here for the sake of, well, putting zombies in here.
There are many other numerous, irrelevant, time consuming subplots involving Jack’s lingering romance with Angelica, the Spanish having a heads up in the race to eternal youth, Blackbeard’s ship collecting hobby, and most inexplicable, the romance between a religious salesman and a mermaid. Perhaps this was added in to replace Elizabeth and Turner’s romance, but very quickly becomes a burden due to its cheesiness and futility.

Worst of all, there is a guarantee of yet another sequel.

This is perhaps the most predictable of the entries in the series. The plot, along with the subplots, is incredibly easy to forecast, and is developed in the most eternal, and honestly, annoying way it could have. The dialogue is also an eye roller; cheesy, formulaic, and repetitive. Gone are all the witty one liner and clever conversations; I counted only three noteworthy lines in the entire film. However, none of the lines in the film were as dreadful as the closing line, which ruined the ending of the film, which already had two or three too many closing scenes.

One of the biggest let downs in the film is how disappointing the action is. The action sequences have always been amongst the series’ strongest points, but here they fall flat. Part of the fault goes to the poor camera work, part goes to the overly yellowish cinematography, and part of it goes for how repetitive the action is. With the exception of the mermaid attack scene, seems to be derived from earlier attempts in the franchise, and there an overwhelming number of déjà vu moments throughout.

In the end, die-hard fans on the series will probably not be disappointed. As for those of us who aren’t as fanatic but still have enjoyed the others, you will most likely be let down by this flat, weightless, and unnecessary sequel that bears nothing against its predecessors; it’s like a long sunk ship that just sinks deeper and deeper with every attempt to revive it.