Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Summer School: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End' (2007)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

I ended up splitting my recent viewing of the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, At World's End, into three separate installments, and it felt like binge-watching an entire TV season, one which has dug itself into deeper and deeper plot holes by the season finale. And yet the movie was designed to be consumed as a single, nearly three-hour experience, an exhausting endeavor that struggles to balance its genuine entertainment value with a tortuous plot and characters whose initial appeal has severely declined. Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow is elevated nearly to the status of a demigod in this movie, and yet his casual, offhanded humor is almost completely absent. The movie actually keeps him offscreen for the first half-hour, but then compensates with periodic scenes featuring multiple Jack Sparrows, as Jack hallucinates various versions of himself offering up dubious advice.

The first movie presented Jack as a scrappy crook barely getting by, but in this movie he's worth an entire quest to the afterlife (where he ended up after being devoured by the kraken at the end of Dead Man's Chest) and is one of nine "pirate lords" who make up a secret council that governs the entire pirate society (he's also the son of a sort of keeper of pirate law, played by Keith Richards in a thudding literalization of what started out as a lively joke). The end of Dead Man's Chest left plenty of dangling plotlines, but instead of resolving those in a rousing, concise finale, director Gore Verbinski and screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio add on a bunch of new plotlines, including one major new character (pirate captain Sao Feng, played by Chow Yun-Fat), downplaying some of the previous movie's biggest threats (the kraken is killed offscreen in a single line of dialogue) to make room for new ones.

The characters spend the first hour retrieving Jack from the afterlife and getting him back in place to take on Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and newly emboldened East India Company bureaucrat Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander, having fun with his officious condescension). Most of the second hour involves all of the characters making various deals and arrangements that successfully make it impossible for the audience to figure out who is allied with whom and what each faction's goal is. That leads into the nearly hourlong action climax and multiple endings -- which then set up a potential plot for another installment. (I had always remembered the fourth movie as a standalone tale, but it follows directly from Jack and Barbossa's final scenes here.)

Even as the plot grows more incomprehensible (there's a scene in the middle featuring five or six characters making various negotiations that change their allegiances multiple times within a few minutes), the action is still exciting, and Verbinski is still a master of large-scale battles and effects-driven spectacle. It's hard to care about the outcome of a battle whose stakes have become completely unclear, but at the same time it can still be enjoyable to watch a bunch of ridiculous characters fight each other. Geoffrey Rush is still fun as Barbossa, and Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley do their best to bring some emotional grounding to the story, but the romance between Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann (including a marriage ceremony in the middle of a battle!) is still a total dud. It's gratifying to see Elizabeth as the captain of her own ship, even if the mechanics of getting her there are a bit nonsensical. The entire movie is a series of nonsensical plot developments that occasionally produce cool results.

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