Imagine a film with dark, surreal but grounded settings of strange, sleazy cultures that no longer exist and may never have existed in quite that form, where seedy inhabitants resolve to fighting, stealing and betrayal to accomplish every day actions. Imagine a film that is funny, yes, but devoted to showing its pathetically cruel monsters of people. And imagine a film where, when its characters are not lurking through dark corridors of makeshift sea ports, they are being hammered from all sides by salty storms and sea battles.
Then take a look at Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, which starts of genuinely solid and then, like its predecessor, bloats into a sci-fi menagerie of special effects and endlessly boring action sequences. And at two hours and 45 minute long, you wonder why this overly complicated and rather mindless action film wasn't an hour shorter.
As most people know by now, I was a big fan of the first Pirates of the Caribbean: it captured the dark, stank and comically wretched mood of the pirate world, while still paying homage to the wonderful Disneyland ride. It had its sci-fi elements of course - the movie was about Captain Jack Sparrow and a couple innocent friends taking on a ghost ship full of ghost pirates - but the concept was simple and brilliantly executed. At World's End, and the second film, Dead Man's Chest, tried to overcomplicate things, and fell into the trap that many sequels do: they tried to go bigger, better and epic, which is rarely ever a recipe for success. Who told Disney that audiences wanted Pirates of the Caribbean to be an epic action-drama about pirates uniting against the now-slave Davy Jones and the evil imperial fleet? We have, and have always wanted, an action-comedy with some cool action scenes, plenty of laughs and lots of pirate goodness. The last two films, filmed back to back, are nearly six hours of barely entertaining stuff we don't care about.
To put things into perspective, you have to remember back to the ending of the first movie, where the fleet has let Captain Jack (Johnny Depp) escape into the sunset, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann are in love with one another and you've just sat through a little over two hours of a surprisingly fun and exciting action-comedy. Now look at Dead Man's Chest and At World's End, which are disasters in comparison. The screenwriters put way too much stuff into these films, which caused bloated running time and an essential piece of the recipe - comedy - to be all but cut out, intentionally or not. By the time this movie roles around, Will and Elizabeth are just as much pirates as all the others, which takes away most of their charm. In fact, the two hardly talk to one another for the entire film, and the movie never really explains why they are fighting - and I sure as hell am not going to sit through Dead Man's Chest again to find out. Captain Jack is literally crazy in this one - after suffering the effects of Davy Jones' Locker, he sees multiple versions of himself hanging from his beard. Barbossa, the evil villain from the first movie played by Geoffrey Rush, is somehow back for unspecified reasons, and seems to be a rather nice guy to fit within the mold of the story. Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) is no longer menacing, as he has been relegated to a tool of the imperial fleet, and so and so on. And my point is: the characters have been warped so much from what made them interesting within the context of the story that they no longer hold any place in our hearts; while things turn out surprisingly and disappointingly "deadly" for one of the main characters, you really don't care for anyone involved in this picture.
All that being said, At World's End is certainly a small step up from Dead Man's Chest, perhaps only because of such lowered expectations. I really was expecting this movie to suck big time, yet it was relatively entertaining for a while. The movie starts off great, and I wish the screenwriters could have figured out how to capture this mood and feel the entire film: Kiera Knightley and others lurk through a Singapore sea port that, at night, appears as though it is a bunch of bamboo poles assembled quickly to form a fishing village. The set is the coolest part of the whole movie, and director Gore Verbinski put more detail into even the non-credited extras here than he did anywhere else.
While I do wish the movie would have remained grounded into reality rather than be about some complex love story between Davy Jones and some psycho goddess Calypso and an evil imperial fleet and a pirate rebellion and about a hundred other sub stories, I did enjoy the surprisingly abstract sequences set within Davy Jones's Locker, which can most easily be described as purgatory. Not quite the dark, stench-filled "locker" you would expect it to be, we find Captain Jack going crazy as he is all alone in an ever-expansive desert. As he commands dozens of hallucinations to do his bidding, he finally gets help in the form of thousands of rock-like crabs that help carry his boat to the ocean. The personal hell sequence really doesn't fit within the context of the Pirates story, but is the one area that shows the screenwriters had a little imagination.
All that being said, At World's End gets worse and worse as it goes along. The screenwriters should have cut the character of Calypso completely out of the movie, as she really is a dull and uninteresting character whose anger is never really explained. She is really there just so the screenwriters would have an excuse to put a whirlpool into the final battle sequence, as her God-like powers are finally released at one point and she grows to be the 1,000-foot woman for a second before exploding into a bunch of crabs. I'm serious.
Furthermore, everything degrades into a CGI spectacle that is less and less interesting as the story progresses. The visuals are absolutely amazing, and quite possibly worthy of an Oscar, but there is no imagination when it comes to action scenes, and too much imagination when it comes to other places. Compared to the claustrophobic, surreal yet ultimately grounded Singapore set in the beginning of the film, the pirates finally make their way to Shipwreck Cove, which is a monument of shipwrecked ships stacked on top of another. The set really just looks like a cartoon, as there is no possible way thirty ships could just be stacked on top of one another. That is a small gripe, though, compared to the lameness of the action scenes. While I really didn't like Dead Man's Chest, it did have one thing going for it: unique action scenes. Between the escape from the cannibals, the sword fight on the giant wheel, the three-way sword fight on the spit and that creature destroying ships (the creature, for some reason, is already dead by the beginning of this movie), it had some pretty memorable moments. At World's End has none. As we approach the finale, we have seemingly hundreds of imperial and pirate ships facing off one another, yet the finale battle scene involves just three ships and a whirlpool. After one imperial ship is destroyed, the rest of the fleet runs away, and the pirates win. How the hell does that make any sense? To make things worse, this 20-minute action scene at the end is so dreadfully boring I almost fell asleep, as it is just a bunch of sword fighting, CGI effects and more all thrown together in such a chaotic mess that you can't tell which way is up, who is who, et cetera et cetera. Will and Elizabeth even make Barbossa marry them in the middle of the sequence.
And to cap things off, after nearly eight hours of pirate action over the course of three movies, one of the main characters gets a punishment worse than death. In a drama, maybe this would be okay, but the audience is here to watch action and comedy, not to see one of the main characters we have been waiting to see prevail get cursed for all eternity. What in God's name were the screenwriters thinking? (and yes, I am aware of the quick scene that appears after the credits, but the ending is still depressing)
Oh, and what's worse: the way the film ends, they have left things wide open for a sequel. Another one?! Are you freaking kidding me! I suggest the title be: Pirates of the Carribean: Enough is Enough Already.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End has its moments and shows signs of promise, but, like its predecessor, gets caught up in a bloated plot that neglects the things that made the first movie so good. This film needed more comedy and less seriousness, and a lot fewer special effects. Better than Dead Man's Chest but still a disaster compared to The Curse of the Black Pearl, At World's End would have benefited from being a mindless action-comedy with a running time under two hours. At nearly three, it is a real time waster.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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