Pirates of the Caribbean for Dummies -- How One Director Can Sink a Pretty Good Movie Series
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So if you’re interested in what a director does, or doesn’t do, go see Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. It’s a great film education watching Rob Marshall, the director replacing Gore Verbinski, wreck the Pirates franchise in one go. Because so many key elements are carried over from Verbinski’s insanely successful first three films—same star Johnny Depp, same writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, same producer Jerry Bruckheimer, same cinematographer Dariusz Walski, same composer Hans Zimmer, same costume designer Penny Rose, and so on—you can more readily identify the factor that’s making this Pirates movie slow and boring and leaden and lifeless. Say a lot of things against Gore Verbinski’s Pirates movies if you like—a lot of people do, especially about the second and third ones—that they’re too loud and frenetic and confusing and cluttered and crazy and have everything thrown into them including the kitchen sink. But the point is, they’re not slow, boring, leaden, and lifeless.
It’s a marvel how Rob Marshall can’t direct action scenes, can’t convey what’s cool about wonderful locations, can’t get lively performances out of actors, can’t get any rhythm going in bantering dialogue, can’t figure out where to put the camera to give you a decent angle on anything, can’t…well, the list goes on and on. Who’s bright idea was it to hire the guy who directed Memoirs of a Geisha and Nine? Why is it certain people can fail horribly in Hollywood and go right on getting lucrative offers? Are they so much better at sucking up to producers and studio executives than the other suck-ups? Do they have exclusive access to unlimited amounts of the greatest cocaine in the world?
But we’ll save these questions for the long winter evenings. The gist of the thing is, this is a rotten movie. It isn’t 100% rotten, because there are things about the Pirates world that are beautiful on film, and it’s hard to mess them up: big ships sailing, and torches at night, and sword-fights, and interiors by lantern-light, and water in all its depth and shimmer and flow. Plus this new film has mermaids, and there are underwater CGI shots of mermaids swimming upward that are pretty sensational, and a great mermaid-attack scene when it turns out they have teeth like piranhas and a taste for sailor-flesh.
But otherwise, it’s shocking how pallid, muted, droopy, and dutiful everything has become.
Jack Sparrow is almost unrecognizable here, he’s been so regularized. He’s hardly a trickster character at all anymore, and that was his whole fascination, a welcome challenge to morons who believe that characters ought to “develop” in predictable “character arcs” that follow the logic of dreadful pop psychology and three-act screenplay structures. Here’s critic Mick LaSalle of The San Francisco Chronicle making the moron argument about Jack Sparrow:
“Captain Jack isn’t really a character. He is a condition. He can never have a strong emotion or a strong need. He can never change. Other characters must deal with him as a monolith, and if he ever were to alter or deepen, the audience would practically consider it a breach of contract.
So it’s a bit of a problem to find Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack at the center of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.’ If you want to burden your movie from the outset, give it a protagonist who can’t grow, can’t change, can’t feel and wants nothing.”
This is a series of stupid claims about what makes a good character, too many to counter here. But I’ll take on one claim that’s simply, straightforwardly untrue: the Jack Sparrow character has plenty of emotions and needs. But the thing is, emotions and needs change all the time, as most of us know to our sorrow. The first three Pirates films dealt admirably with that torturing fact of life. In the first Pirates, Jack’s fixed need was his ship the Black Pearl, but his immediate needs in recovering the Pearl shifted constantly, and he shifted ground nimbly in accordance with them while less-nimble characters looked on in shock.