If You Like It

Javier Bardem in Pirates 5
“If You Like It”
A Review of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
Reel Rating, Two Reels            

            When Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl premiered in 2003, expectations were low. It was, after all, based on a theme park ride, and Johnny Depp, while popular, was not yet the superstar he would later become. Despite misgivings, it broke numerous records, at one point being the 16th highest grossing film of all time. Ever more surprising, it earned Depp his first Oscar nomination for actor in a leading role, one of the few from an adventure film to achieve that feat. After several overblown sequels, the franchise has settled comfortably into what it was always meant to be: a fun and silly romp with lovable characters but not much else. Dead Men Tell No Tales has a confusing story filled with clichés and eye rolls, but for devoted fans Jack and his motley crew – which includes myself – it will probably be satisfying enough.        
            Will Turner’s son Henry (Brenton Thwaites), who had a brief cameo in a post-credits scene in At World’s End, believes he can lifted his father’s curse with the power of Poseidon’s Trident. For some reason that’s not been made exactly clear, he needs Jack Sparrow or at least Jack’s compass to achieve this. By the necessity of storytelling, Henry also comes across Carina (Kaya Scodelario) a woman of similar age and attractiveness who is looking for the Trident as well. Their plans are hindered the undead Spanish Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) who holds an ancient grudge against Jack and the British navy who hates pirates, witches, traitors, and basically everything except well starched uniforms.
            All these points are sloppily put together in what can technically be defined as a “plot.” Fortunately, the best part of any movie like this are the characters, which are still amusing to watch. Though tampered by age and endless parodies of himself, Jack is still in full form as the boozy, swashbuckling pirate Captain. Both Henry and Carina perfectly play out their gradual chemistry as they steal looks from one another and go back and forth from hate-love-hate-love-kiss-slap. Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) undergoes the most staggering change from a villain in the first film to resurrected cameo in the second to ally in the third to now full fleshed sympathetic and sacrificial hero. There’s also a fair amount of CGI action, which is pretty cool, especially an opening scene where Jack attempts to rob a safe with unexpected consequences. Yet without a sound story, it all feels rather restrained – more a series of skits than a cohesive narrative. Dead Man illustrates that a story need not excel at every element in order to make a good experience; it just has to have people the audience loves and wants to see succeed. They could make a four hour epic called Pirates of the Caribbean: Jack Eats a Bowl of Soup, and it would still make $100 million dollars.
            The worst aspect of Dead Man is that, like many lazy movies, it gives in to the worst Hollywood clichés both contemporary and of past eras. The best example of this is Carina who proudly she declares that she “is a woman of science.” On several occasions, she is thus branded a witch, once just for demonstrating she knows how a telescope works. This is a double groan in that the pre-modern world, especially Christianity, is mocked for both its supposed opposition to science and its supposed sexism. Everyone in the film just assumes Carina is incapable of anything due to her Y chromosome abnormality – anything except look good in a corset. This is ridiculous on both accounts. Throughout its history, the Church has been a huge patron of the natural sciences, and plenty of women occupied important positions of influence. St. Catherine even ordered the Pope around. Fortunately, Henry gets the upper hand and proves that the supernatural does exist, although in this case, it is trying to kill them.
            There are several twists and turns in course of Henry and Carina’s journey, and all of them involve family to one degree or another. This is what makes the Pirates series so successful. The swordfights, ship ramming, and rum are important, but it’s the relationship between the characters the ties everyone together. The last venture, On Stranger Tides, felt off because it was divorced from these bonds and Dead Man returns and develops them in compelling ways. This is what made Shakespeare’s narratives so compelling and why Star Wars will always be superior to Star Trek. There are two beautiful reveals towards the end involving family that are so good, they are worth the price of admission alone.
            The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was an odd success that took a historical phenomenon that was quite unseemly and made it into a tween-friendly empire – Jake and the Neverland Pirates probably the most far flung example. Romanticism turns rebels into saints. This impulse, on the whole, is good as it expresses the inherit need for adventure and excitement, especially to the adolescent mind, provided it is balanced with fantasy for context. Dead Man Tell No Tales is probably the worst of the series, but it in no way dampened my desires to see the next one.