Dead Men Tell No Tales finds the Pirates franchise attempting to return to its roots, but much of the luster and freshness has been lost to sea.
It feels like we’re millions of headwinds away from 2007, when the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy wrapped up in unsatisfying, mind-numbing fashion with At World’s End. Say what you will about that film, which I still consider to be the outright worst in the series, but the ambition of Gore Verbinski’s direction makes it at least a memorable disaster with some amazing action sequences. These past two films in the franchise toe the line between fast food processed blockbusters and something resembling the original trilogy. On Stranger Tides is such an afterthought that this movie consistently ignores its existence.
Dead Men Tell No Tales is clearly an attempt to harken directly back to the original film, but those days are long gone. What we’re left with is this poor man’s cover band, saddled with little of the freshness of Curse of the Black Pearl but with the stilted plotting of the sequels and the dull set pieces of On Stranger Tides. The ship on this franchise I’m afraid has sailed, as Dead Men is the nonplussing, banal end note for a once mighty box office juggernaut.
This time around our heroes are not looking for the heart of Davy Jones or the fountain of youth, but the Trident of Poseidon, which has the power to retcon all of the big twists of the series, er, I mean lift all of the curse of the seas. Captain Jack Sparrow is looking for this MacGuffin of a mystical artifact to defeat another undead enemy, the crew of the Silent Mary headed by the evil Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem, hamming it up but having a good time). There’s another bland love story with little chemistry or development, as Will Turner’s son Henry Turner (piece of white bread Brenton Thwaites) looks to free his father from the clutches of the Flying Dutchman, while astronomer Carina Smyth (piece of toasted white bread Kayla Scodelario) possesses the map to get them where they need to go. There’s something about a blood moon, Jack’s compass, and the British fleet yet again (this time led by an absolutely wasted David Wenham).
It’s not quite a terrible film, and it’s consistently more enjoyable than On Stranger Tides. Some of the comedy works better than expected, and it feels like there were at least a few more ideas here that help connect the film in a way that doesn’t feel superfluous. The movie is mostly nice to look at, whenever the CGI isn’t drowning out the cinematography and production design. I appreciate that these movies take place in both broad daylight and the dark of night instead of one or the other. There’s certainly much more of a visual flair at play here than Rob Marshall’s supremely flat direction in On Stranger Tides. There’s a 5-10 minute stretch in the middle involving undead sharks that I found a ton of fun. In the grand scheme of things, it’s actually the third best in the series.Whenever the film finds a singular focus, it works; the big problem is that it’s all over the place trying to check off all of the boxes.
There’s just way too much “been there, done that” at this point in the series. The film lacks a clear protagonist, so we never really get to follow anyone or care about anyone specifically. The filmmakers have seemed to realize that Jack as a supporting character works better, and Depp is a little more tolerable here than he has been in past years, even if the schtick has long wore thin. Dead Men Tell No Tales really just a mishmash of mythical mumbo-jumbo, series continuity errors, and forced callbacks to the previous films. It moves its plot along without a lot of coherency, leaning on derivative action sequences that don’t make a lot of sense and fail to exhilarate. When in doubt, the film falls back on slapstick comedy or its swelling score, now performed and slightly muted in impact by Geoff Zanelli as opposed to Hans Zimmer. Anytime the film approaches an interesting idea, such as a debate between science and magic headed by the astronomer character, it backs away to hit all of the beats that we’ve come to expect and almost dread.
It’s the type of movie that minimizes its own expansive universe by connecting all of its characters intimately or explaining all these stupid little details, and for that Dead Men Tell No Tales feels like they’ve been jumped by the mythological Do you really care to know how Jack Sparrow got his hat? Well in this film you find out, and you’ll be all the more apathetic for it.