The opportunities to harpoon Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales with oceanic wordplay are limitless and as a result, worthless. Jokes, like movies in a franchise, become less potent when they’re so easy to reproduce that they have no aim. But I’m not sailing without direction when I say that dead franchises tell no tales. Dead Men Tell No Tales has no tale, no unifying drive. It’s dead and also deadening, as though a dull sound could absorb other more glorious ones. As a sequel it is worse than bad: it is a retcon on the pleasures of films we’ve already experienced, like it could somehow rob of us food we’ve already eaten. It is the longest Pirates film, despite having the shortest runtime.
Swashbucklers are old as the moving image. Errol Flynn was sliding down masts with a knife in his teeth in Captain Blood and cuffing robber barons in The Adventures of Robin Hood in the 30s. Before that, Douglas Fairbanks was skimming through bad guys with a pirate’s grin and Jack Sparrow’s penchant for parkour in The Mark of Zorro and The Thief of Baghdad. These films have been rewarded by history for their efforts in the industry and have even received a few modern tributes in the likes of The Princess Bride and, yes, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.
In other words, we should know how to do them. We should not be given a landscape of fun things – sailing ships, Captain Jack Sparrow, zombie Spaniards, dandy men and debonair women – and not be able to figure out how to make them fun. I don’t ask them to be good, any more than I would ask a six-year-old on his knees twaddling with a makeshift playset of army men and Indians and dinosaurs and pirates to make something “good.” Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg seem to have put as much effort as other directors might have put into making the movie passable summer fun into making Dead Men Tell No Tales nonchalantly unlikeable. They mine a rickety series for items and people and rename them as tropes rather than exploring new waters, as though the very genre which has founded their feast needs to be strained for gluten and sugar and wheat before they’ll reheat it for our $300 million leftovers.
No one said Pirates movies were cinematically healthy, but up till now there have been defenders of each film at least regarding tastiness. Dead Men Tell No Tales is like Davy Jones in previous films: chained to the job he was hired to do despite having no heart. The dearth of creativity is more bleakly cavernous even than in films of this same franchise, for as soon as this Pirates film starts, rather than some absurd new construction built around everyone’s favorite pirate Rockstar, the opening scene proves that this one, without flinching in the entire run-time, is a remake.
In sickening The Force Awakens fashion, Dead Men Tell No Tales is a retread and cast reunion of its original film, beginning with a young Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) looking for his cursed pirate father (Orlando Bloom) as his father searched for pirates in the opening of Curse of the Black Pearl. Then, in an English port town, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) minces words and swathes the air with drunken ring fingers while his pirate partners drag an entire bank down the road with horses and ropes, an exhausting sequence, physically implausible (there’s shrapnel in my pirate film!). This is functionally where Sparrow swooned about town in the first film, to be arrested (this happens again here) and then to rescue the apple of young Turner’s eye. Further plot summary could be a Wikipedia entry for either this or the first film – Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) obsessively contracting parleys, Jack and the young couple searching for treasure in a place that cannot be found, a cursed ship chasing them, cast favorites repeated at the writers’ leisure. Only an insistence on retaining some of the staple physical effects, sword-on-sword, a cast full of makeup and real grit, is any proof that someone is holding this series above water.
The woman this time around is a young astrologist named Carina (Kaya Scodelario) arrested for witchcraft and then thrust into adventure. But as usual, despite having the saucy competence of a classroom know-it-all (like every franchise nowadays needs a Hermione Granger), the writers have neglected to give her a personality, aggressively tailoring her to the storytelling standards of a sexy pirate Halloween costume. Impudence is her default face, as she introduces a movie about sweaty pirates pillaging stuff to the wonders of feminine ingenuity. When Elizabeth Swan did it, her character’s growth was insured by the fatal flaw of her brittle aristocracy, as she went from frilly effete to rum-swilling pirate lord. This new girl is as welcome in this world as someone who brings their own Febreze to camping trips and never stops thanking themselves for doing so. Miraculously, Scodelario, famous until now for those gummy Maze Runner films, here scores her worst role yet.
Flashbacks show how Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) was trapped by a young Jack (made youthful by some dodgy animation), whom he graced with the name Sparrow. Irredeemably, this section makes no sense with the timelines of Jack’s life already established. It also concocts new rules for the universe, as though one with Voodoo Loa and Poseidon and an actual Kraken wasn’t clashing enough. Apparently, Jack’s compass must touch the mahogany of a bar counter to free Salazar and his men, ravaged by time (there are gaps in their bodies that make them look like 3D figures pillaged by the Microsoft Paint erase tool) for reasons we are never told. A witch shows up with the compass later after it was left on the mainland despite being necessary for the plot. “How’d ye get this?” someone asks. “I have my ways,” she coos, as only writers straggling in the wake of their own ship could. I’ll get back to that.
Bardem is a blessing, if only for the way in which he says “Sparrow,” assessing every syllable like it’s the most brutishly aged rum imaginable, on which he’s choking but to which he’s bitterly addicted. But to see Da Vinci make chalk drawings would be less tragic: they would vanish with the morning rain, where Bardem as an artist of expression is immortalized onto the green screen of Disney’s wonder-less seven seas. I should not assess the other actors, and leave that as my testimony to them, but I could not leave Rush unrewarded for being the most Avast-ye, landlover-hatin’, spittle-speckling, glinty pirate of them all, far more lordly and piratey than the pirate lords. Nor could I leave Depp unpunished for how unkempt his talent is here, as though he really is a Rockstar rolled out of bed by a faithful manager and staggered onto the stage, fed lyrics into an earpiece, and treated with baggies of cocaine for his efforts. I recall stories of Marlon Brando’s insouciance on the set of Apocalypse Now, which owing to his brilliance actually permeated the film with the persona of a fat lazy god, and I have to wonder if Depp thinks he can pull it off with a swagger. In their equal dismissal of the roles they’ve been given we see the gap between these actors, for Depp’s listlessness is not thematic as it was for Brando. He’s a deadened star, slung over the film’s shoulder and carried around for the publicity.
The only scenes I can recall reek of rum, and I can only recall them if they are not part of the action. The delirious blights on physical plausibility have been mainstays of the series since Dead Man’s Chest, but here the film is shot to be so murky that I can’t even see them enough to complain. What’s more, the editors purposely realign us to new angles so that we miss feats that would be otherwise impossible to animate or believe. Jack, pulled in a boat by a rope tied to the mouth of a zombie shark, bends to lift Turner from the water at full speed, and the camera cuts to them back-down in the boat because the feat would be ludicrous, superhuman, and instead of conceiving or amending it, Dead Men Tell No Tales is more comfortable clogging its ears and avoiding the issue. The editing between scenes often lurches like the story came up with all this stuff and never checked to make sure it was sea-worthy. It gave me this kind of spatial vertigo before everyone converged together, like my mind had to travel hundreds of miles every time the editor’s snips came out.
And now, that compass. Jack’s compass, as stated with endearing mysticism in Curse of the Black Pearl, points, not north, but to whatever its holder desires most. This meant that it led the main characters to the Isle de la Muerta in the first film, the heart of Davy Jones later, and so on. And now in Dead Men Tell No Tales, it is revealed that additionally, should the holder give the compass away, they will find the thing they fear the most (despite the fact that this thing has been trading hands for films and films with no mention of this auxiliary compass-holder’s clause). I feel like I must have the compass now, for it’s become apparent that no one in the audience could possibly care about the continuity of these movies less than their creators. And what I desire most is to see the series’ most crucial flaw. The compass obliges, because it is that flaw.
No one had to explain how they could find the secret island in Curse of the Black Pearl. No one had to coordinate the spatial locations of all these weeks-long journeys over actual 18th century water in actual sailing ships. No one had to care, ever. And the compass allows them to do it, in their possession leading them to $1 billion film releases with minimum effort in screenwriting, which takes less effort than it takes to tip a bottle of rum to your lips but more than Jeff Nathanson was willing to sacrifice for Dead Men Tell No Tales. I feel like “the compass leads them to it” must be in the copy/paste clipboard of every one of these scripts, since without exception it conveniently replaces every single time a Pirates film might have had to show some sea-worthy knowledge, follow a map, or converge on places because of shared goals rather than a shared plot device. It corrodes the editing because it allows all these characters to be so spread out and yet for their conversations to be integrally connected, like the black box on every ship contains the script. It is the archeological record, in celluloid, of how little anyone cares about these poor pirates.
The film stops, sparks flying from the brakes, to nurture a catastrophically unfunny Paul McCartney cameo. In one scene, Henry holds Carina by the legs as she dangles from the gallows. She snarls, “You are far from port; that is my stern.” “Are you sure?” “Positive.” This isn’t the last time her port comes into play. Maybe he should have just let her go? If only we would be so lucky: perhaps if he had, we could have killed this thing before it jumped the zombie shark.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
|Captain Jack Sparrow||Johnny Depp|
|Captain Armando Salazar||Javier Bardem|
|Captain Hector Barbossa||Geoffrey Rush|
|Henry Turner||Brenton Thwaites|
|Carina Smyth||Kaya Scodelario|
|Joshamee Gibbs||Kevin McNally|
|Lieutenant John Scarfield||David Wenham|