By DaVette See
Let me get this out of the way. I went into Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales with no expectations, good or bad. I held out no hope for a fresh new take on “a pirate’s life,” nor did I go in with the attitude that it would likely be as terrible as three out of its four predecessors. I say three out of four because the fact is, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was one of the best adventure films to ever hit the screen. But as I’ve watched Disney churn out three sequels that altered, adulterated and ultimately abandoned that perfect recipe of action, romance, drama, and comedy, I became disheartened, disappointed and ultimately disinterested. I concluded that The Curse of the Black Pearl was as rare a find as its namesake. It wouldn’t be fair to draw comparisons.
But directors of Dead Men Tell No Tales, Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, seemed almost desperate for us think about the first film. It was like they were saying to the audience, “See, it’s just like The Black Pearl! The search for an elusive magical object of the sea? Check. Bright, beautiful young woman ahead of her time? Check. Earnest young man with the last name Turner? Check. The Royal Navy? Check. A pair of funny pirates? Check. Captain Barbosa? Check. The undead? Check. A monkey? Check. And of course, Captain Jack Sparrow! We’ve got it all!”
Of course, it’s never the ingredients that make something good, is it? It’s what you do with them that matters. And there is nothing more frustrating than watching a film, that has most of what it needs to be great, turn out to mediocre, at best. That is exactly how I felt walking out of Dead Men Tell No Tales: frustrated.
**The rest of this review will contain slight spoilers**
Let’s start with the elephant in the room that is Johnny Depp’s, Jack Sparrow. To be honest, Depp’s performance was no more annoying than it has been since he started playing a caricature of his own unique creation. In every sequel, Jack was a shadow of his former self and the Sparrow of Dead Men Tell No Tales is the same. Gone is the confident swagger and, in its place, a drunken stagger. Certainly, that is part of the point of this tale. In this film, Jack has lost his luck, but you know he’ll get it back by the end of the film, which he does. But the original Jack seemed to make his luck because beneath his curious exterior there was a sharp mind. In this film, he simply runs into his luck by accident.
There is at least one moment that evokes both the spirit of The Black Pearl and the original Sparrow: a flashback where we meet a young Jack Sparrow (played by both Johnny Depp’s digitally manipulated visage and actor Anthony De La Torre). Both the scene and that version of Jack Sparrow was everything we want this film to be. Exciting, clever, with a touch of humor. Why couldn’t the rest of the film be as good as that one scene?
Also frustrating was the waste of time on overlong or entirely unnecessary scenes, when only a few minutes were given to important plot and character points. The bank robbery scene was so off-the-charts and cartoonish that Bugs Bunny would not have been out of place popping up to deliver a snappy one-liner. Plus, it was dragged out for what seemed like hours. Furthermore, the inexplicable “wedding” scene that comes late in the film is equally pointless and takes up time best spent elsewhere. For instance, it would have been nice to see five or ten of those minutes otherwise used to flesh out the critical back story of Kaya Scodelario‘s character, Carina.
Then there was the budding romance between Brenton Thwaites’ Henry and Carina. We are meant to root for these two to get together, but we don’t have a chance to get to know them. Unlike Henry’s parents Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann – whose affection we see develop over time in the first film – this romance comes off as ridiculously fast, awkward and forced.
Actually, “awkward and forced” is a good way to describe the mishmash of subplots littering the film. The Royal Navy captain played by David Wenham? What’s his deal? You never quite get why he is so angry all the time. What about the witch, Shansa? Sure, it’s an incredible makeup job, and Golshifteh Farahani plays her as creepy as possible, doing what she can with the few lines she is given, but why is she there? If these two are meant to be in cahoots, as a brief scene indicates, it would be nice to have seen more of that because otherwise, it simply made no sense.
Despite all the problems with the film, though, there were some positives: Geoffrey Rush and Javier Bardem being the most notable. The scenes where Rush’s Barbosa realizes the truth about Carina, and that of his subsequent sacrifice, are almost worth the price of admission. Even Scodelario, who is, honestly, uninteresting in other scenes, gives as good as she gets in her scenes with Rush. As for Bardem, he turns in a wonderfully twisted and tortured performance as Captain Salazar, rendering a darker, more frightening villain than we’ve seen in the previous films. Unfortunately, he is almost upstaged by the mesmerizing special effects cooked up for him and his undead crew.
Those special effects remain as a prominent positive aspect, and they definitely deliver. Even in an effects-heavy era in film, the effects in this film stand out as exciting and different. However, they don’t count for much in the grand scheme, unless you count awards-time.
As a side note which has nothing to do with how good or bad the film is: I’m not a parent, but I think I’d be hesitant to take a kid under, say, ten years old, to see this one. It isn’t so much the undead effects that are so scary, but Captain Salazar is pretty intense, and the ship itself is a living thing at times. There is also a great deal of violence and killing. Maybe younger kids are used to this kind of imagery these days, but it seems to me the kind of thing that could inspire nightmares.
Oh, and if you are going to see the film, do yourself a favor and see it in the biggest format you can afford. I saw it twice, once on a regular-sized movie screen, albeit with Dolby Atmos® Sound & Dolby Vision™ 3D Laser Projection. Then I had the opportunity to see it at a theater featuring a new multi-projection system called ScreenX which surrounded the audience on three sides giving us a 270-degree panoramic view of certain key scenes. Though nothing could help the story, the images of the sea and the sky were amazing in this format.
Ultimately, the positives don’t come close to outweighing the negatives in Dead Men Tell No Tales, unless you are already a big fan. I suppose it might have had a shot at reviving the franchise had it been crafted more skillfully. The end of the film left open the possibility of yet another sequel, but between missed opportunities and, frankly, Depp’s somewhat shaky public image inextricably linked to the iconic character he single-handedly created, there may not be enough interest left in the franchise to float another film. But if there is another, let’s hope that the producers toss the dead ideas they tried to revive in this one and try for something more lively next time.
DaVette See lives in Inglewood, CA with her husband, Rob, her mother, and her seven (yikes) kitties. She has a BA in English and Theater, and a Law degree. When not writing, reporting and editing videos for BGN, she operates Running Lady Studios producing animated shorts and occasionally works as an actress. She loves books, plays, movies, and more than anything, she loves telling stories.