Dead in the water
Good evening. I know that Hey Poor Player is a videogame website, and that even when we do film reviews they’re usually films that have some connection to what we nebulously refer to as “geek culture,” like Doctor Strange. I’m not sure whether or not the Pirates of the Caribbean movies fit that qualification, but I do know this: I believe that those with the gift of writing, and writing well, have a responsibility to use that gift for good. Having seen Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales for myself, I could not stand by if I did not make some attempt to save others from the same terrible fate. Let me be clear: do not see this film.
The first thing you need to understand is that no one will ever be in a better state of mind to enjoy this film than I was. I have a possibly unhealthy fondness for anything even remotely pirate-related, and the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies together form one of my favorite film trilogies of all time (coming in close second only to the original Star Wars movies.) I went to see it on the biggest screen my theater provided, after a long and difficult week. I wasn’t expecting anything as good as the first three films – I’m no fool – but I hoped that I could at least forget my troubles with some enjoyably over-the-top pirate action. Even just hearing the sound of Will and Elizabeth’s theme playing over the Disney castle logo gave me goosebumps. I was the most easy-to-please person in that theater, and all the film had to do to meet my expectations was be slightly interesting at any point.
The second thing you need to understand is that I walked out of the theater between two different groups of people – one in front, one behind. As I was alone, I couldn’t help but overhear their conversations. Each group of people – and I promise you this is true – was talking about a different plot hole that ruined the movie for them. You remember that scene with the spinning wheel in Prometheus? A scene so stupid, so difficult-to-believe, and so utterly pointless that it’s become the only thing anyone remembers about that movie? Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a film made entirely of those kinds of moments. The more you think about it, the more you realize that there is literally not one scene that makes the slightest bit of sense. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is like an onion of suck – peel back the outer layers of bad acting and boring action and you’ll find inner layers of inconsistent mythology, nonsensical character motivations, and even more bad acting.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales opens with Henry Turner’s discovery that his father, Will Turner, has started experiencing the negative effects of the curse of the Flying Dutchman – he’s starting to become part of the ship, his face covered in bilge and barnacles. According to the series’ mythology, this could only happen if Will was unfaithful to Elizabeth or if he neglected his duty to ferry souls to the underworld, which seems like a pretty major character shift for Will that the film should bother to explain. It does not. The inciting incident that sets in motion all of the events of the film doesn’t even get so much as a throwaway line explaining how it came to pass. In a way, I’m glad that’s how the movie opens – it’s like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is helpfully letting you know up front that it can’t be bothered with this shit, and that you shouldn’t be, either.
You see, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is the shortest film in the series by far. On the surface, that seems like a good idea – one of critics’ biggest problems with At World’s End was that it was three hours long and full of dense, complex mythology that’s basically impossible to follow on your first viewing (which, conversely, is actually why I love that film so much.) However, Dead Men Tell No Tales is still trying to tell a sweeping, epic, lore-dense Pirates of the Caribbean story without the runtime, which means that it either has to skip over explaining crucial plot points or explain them through a massive exposition dump, instead of introducing them as a natural part of the world. The result is an action/adventure movie that seems to be almost entirely comprised of people explaining things. I kept waiting for the moment when people would stop explaining things and the movie would finally get on with its story, but that moment never came.
One of the things the Pirates franchise does best is large-scale action setpieces, and you’d think that’d be the one thing that would improve with successive sequels. Sure, writing a story that can follow what was meant to be a self-contained trilogy is hard, possibly impossible, but if the Marvel movies have shown us anything, it’s that Disney knows how to do spectacle. Besides, 10 years of technological advancements should make it easy to top At World’s End. Instead – well, let me put it this way. The third Pirates of the Caribbean movie’s climactic final battle is a huge fight between three massive fleets over a raging magical whirlpool, combining large-scale ship combat with intense swordfights and lots of fun character moments. The fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie’s final battle is a handful of soldiers fighting in a cave. And the final fight in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is two regular guys fighting in an even smaller cave for less than three minutes. And that’s probably the biggest setpiece in the entire movie.
(Fair warning: the following paragraph contains spoilers, but you shouldn’t care. If you actually go to see Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, spoilers will be the least of your worries.)
And even the rushed runtime can’t explain some of the problems with this movie. It doesn’t explain why the undead Captain Salazar is told “If you possess the living, you can never come back” and less than five minutes later comes back from possessing a living man with absolutely no fanfare or explanation. It doesn’t explain how Henry Turner can be captured and clapped in irons in one scene and then free as a bird in the next. It doesn’t explain why the revelation that Kaya Scodelario’s Carina Smyth is actually Barbossa’s daughter gets all the emotional breathing room of a sealed Ziploc bag. And it doesn’t explain the post-credits scene, which implies the return of Davy Jones in a move so forced and so out-of-touch with the mythology of the franchise (and even of this film) that multiple people in the theater where I saw it exclaimed aloud: “God-dammit, no!” I could go on, but the point is this: I would have to unlearn so much of what I know about the basic tenets of storytelling to make this movie that I think it would require a full-on lobotomy.
And speaking of unlearning things, if the script for this film really was written by Terry Rossio (who also wrote the last four) why do all of the returning cast seem so out-of-character? The first scene with Barbossa has him quivering in fear at the idea of confronting a ghost pirate, despite the fact that he was a ghost pirate for the better part of a decade. Joshamee Gibbs’ defining character trait (practically his only character trait) is his steadfast loyalty to Jack, but in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales he leads not one, but TWO mutinies against his captain (because if a bad plot point is worth using once, it’s worth using twice.) And Jack himself – though I’m inclined to blame this more on Johnny Depp having a complete meltdown on set than on the writers or directors of the film – comes across like a parody of himself. Sure, the character’s always been a clown, but he used to at least be a stylish clown. Even when his boat is sinking under the pier, his head’s held high, and he manages to steal the coin purse off the officer on duty. What makes Jack Sparrow fun is that he’s the trickster, winning even when he loses, the worst pirate you’ve ever heard of – but you have heard of him. In this, he’s just the drunken comic relief, muttering double entendres as he gets captured by almost every other named character. “You’re Jack Sparrow?” Henry asks when he first sees him, and it’s hard not to agree – Depp can’t even do the voice right anymore.
As for the new characters, they’re so boring as to be instantly forgettable. There’s a scene at the end of the film where Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann finally reunite, sharing a brief hug with no dialogue, and I swear in that moment Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley manage to out-act almost the entire rest of the cast, a point that’s only emphasized when the camera pans over to Henry and Carina holding hands with all of the passion of a pair of dead fish. However, in fairness, there is one person who seems like they’re actually putting in the time to deliver a good performance, and that’s Javier Bardem as Captain Salazar. Though the character is a poorly-written hodgepodge of the series’ previous villains – he’s undead, he can’t walk on land, he hates pirates, and he has a magic ship that does whatever he commands – Bardem manages to make him charismatic, scary, and oozing with personality (as well as, y’know, ooze.) When he growls that he will stop at nothing to kill Jack Sparrow, you feel it, and the film’s best scene is a flashback he narrates to explain the depths of his hatred. He’s a far cry from Ian McShane’s tepid take on Blackbeard, worthy to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Davy Jones, Cutler Beckett, and Hector Barbossa, and it’s a shame that he couldn’t have been in a better movie.
You’ll notice that throughout this review, I exclusively used the full name of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, and I used it a lot. That is because I am trying to boost the search engine optimization score of this post. My hope is that whenever someone searches for any variation of “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” this review will be near the top. I do this not to boost the ad revenue I get from this review, but in the hope that people will read this warning and know not to see Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.
Do not see Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.
Final Verdict: 0.5/5
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, Starring Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, and Geoffrey Rush. Released May 26, 2017.