Friday, June 01, 2007
In Theaters: Pirates of the Carribean: At World's End
Interestingly enough, I was spoiled for the ending of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END by visitors to this very site, who somehow found my review of the last movie via Google searches for THIS film's post-credits scene, specifically entering in the exact details of what happened, which naturally found their way into my Statcounter reports. I suppose it can't be helped, but I didn't realize that was a hazard of the job. Anyway, I've always been sort of on the fence about the PIRATES series, liking the films but not loving them as others do, and the conclusion of the trilogy proved to be no exception. It works as a spectacle, but is at the same time a bit of a mess, and it left me with a laundry list of nitpicks and things that could have been done better. It suffers the common trilogy-ending problem of having too much to do all at once, as though screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio realized that, having gone on an entertaining drunken bender of plot complication in the last film, they had less than three hours in which to wrap up some twelve-or-so separate subplots. The results are just a bit unfocused, as every major character (and there are at least eight by this point) has their own agenda, and new pieces of mythology keep getting dropped in while we're trying to keep track of things. It's probably easier to follow if you've seen both of the earlier films right beforehand.
Okay, I'm going to try this. The film opens in a prison camp, where the East India Company has decided to suspend more than a few rights to deal with the pirate problem. As the first batch of pirates and pirate sympathizers are summarily executed, one of them- a small boy- begins to sing, and the other prisoners join in. It turns out this is a mystic signal of sorts, calling the Nine Pirate Lords to meet and decide how they're going to keep from being wiped off the face of the globe. (There's some business involving nine pieces of eight that it's best not to dwell on.) Meanwhile, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), and Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) have all gone to Singapore under the guidance of the mysterious Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) to get a map from Pirate Lord Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat) that will lead them past the World's End, where they will be able to rescue Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) from Limbo. On the way to and from the underworld, our heroes notice an awful lot of lost souls drifting in the waters, as Davey Jones (Bill Nighy), whose job it formerly was to ferry the souls of people who died at sea to the afterlife, has shirked his duties and is now under the control of the EIC and Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), who has the cephalopodic monster's heart in a box. Sparrow wants the heart so he can kill Davey Jones and be free from his debt. Will wants the Black Pearl (which was also somehow dragged to limbo, and don't ask me about the metaphysics of that) so that Jones will release his dead father (Stellan Skarsgård) from his service. Tia Dalma wants something best-left-unspoilt from Barbossa. Commander Norrington (Jack Davenport) wants Elizabeth (so does Will, of course.) And Elizabeth just wants revenge once she finds out her father (Jonathan Pryce, rather criminally shortchanged) has been killed by Beckett.
To achieve their various ends, the characters engage in more double-dealing than the cast of RESERVOIR DOGS; we even get a Mexican standoff which is amusingly defused when everyone realizes their guns have been underwater. This poses two basic problems. The first is the lack of a strong central driving thread for the movie. Theoretically it's about the war against the pirates, but this gets completely submerged at a number of points. (It doesn't help that Beckett has no real bite as a villain.) Not to mention that at various points, Jack and Will are both willing to make separate deals with Lord Beckett, which really muddies the waters as regards who the enemy is supposed to be. Sao Feng starts to have an impact on the plot, and would have been a good baddie (Chow Yun-Fat has great presence in the role), but he's very quickly shoved aside. The action jumps back and forth rather clumsily and you're expected to remember a lot of obscure details from the last two pictures. Great if you're a devoted fan, of which the series has many, not so much if you have a casual appreciation.
And this wouldn't be so much of a problem if I were carried along by my connection to the characters. The characterization in this film is really no less strong than in the first two, but since everyone's basically out for their own interests for the majority of the running time, and since they're willing to betray each other if need be, it's kind of hard to sympathize with any of them. Elizabeth, as the one who wants Beckett's head on a block (at least symbolically), is at least in the best position to move the story forward and get the pirates united, but she's there out of a shallow desire for vengeance. Will's devotion to his father is touching, but he's willing to sell out the pirates (though he does specifically want amnesty for Elizabeth and himself.) Sparrow just wants his own freedom, which he'll get by any means necessary. To be sure, we all know that some kind of reconciliation has to happen by the final act. But that leaves us without anyone to closely identify with for nearly two thirds of the running time, and comparatively very little screen time left for them to actually unite and face the common foe and resolve the myriad dangling plot bits. At some point during the planning of these two films, Rossio and Elliot made everything much more complicated than it needed to be. I'm all for ambiguity and complexity and sophisticated plotting, but there's a very thin line between "intricate" and "byzantine". Even the resolution of the central romance between Will and Elizabeth- and I did always want to see those two crazy kids end up together- is given one twist too many, necessitating the fateful post-credits sequence to begin with.
On an up note, the action in this film FINALLY has the bite and the sense of danger that were mysteriously missing from the first two films. It's not perfect- the sequences are still fairly chaotic, without a clear "storyline" for the action- but it does a better job of capturing the classic swashbuckling feel. While some of the contrivances of DEAD MAN'S CHEST (the giant wheel and the rolling wicker cage of doom) seemed to be just a bit much, the weird things that happen in this installment make a goofy kind of sense. The climactic battle, with two ships spiraling down a whirlpool, firing broadsides at each other and sending raiding parties both ways, all under heavy rain, is a doozy. Gore Verbinski also continues to get good performances- the oft-ignored-except-by-young-girls Orlando Bloom does a lot with his limited role, and a beautifully sunburnt Knightley projects a real fighting spirit (an early scene where she's searched for weapons is especially well-played). Depp is always good and ever shall be and there's no point saying any more about that. Geoffrey Rush has a lot of fun with his return to the series, Naomie Harris is nicely creepy, Skarsgård gets to do some interesting stuff, and at long last we get a cameo by Keith Richards as an old pirate who is apparently Jack's father.
On a basic level I have to say the movie does deliver what it promises. We get well-executed pirate action, we get closure (mostly) on the plot, we get tempests and sea goddesses and fish-people and explosions and maps to forbidden lands and Mackenzie Crook being funny and Keira Knightley being pretty in a saucy bad-girl kind of way and so on and so forth. It suffers from a failure to prioritize and maybe too much of a need to form the last act of a trilogy- this would have been better as the last two films in a series of four, really. But there is more on the horizon, and I can't fault these films for reviving a dormant genre as though it had never been out of style and emphasizing characterization and snappy banter and the occasional bit of intense method acting along the way. PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END will satisfy the fans, and it's not too bad for the rest of us.