This is, surprisingly, my first current film review this year. I’ve been so caught up in my novels that I hadn’t been to the cinema until now. This one’s pretty spoiler-free, I think – if you’ve seen the trailers or read any pre-release publicity material, you probably already know more than I reveal here!
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is, as its closing credits state, “suggested by” the novel of the same title by Tim Powers, reviewed on this blog earlier this month. This is a pretty accurate description, since all that has been retained from the book is the central conceit: that Blackbeard is searching for the Fountain of Youth to extend his life and continue his voodoo-enhanced reign of terror in the Caribbean. Since the first movie was also heavily inspired by the same book, there frankly wasn’t much left to pillage (without reprising Curse of the Black Pearl) – and it shows.
It’s not that there’s anything seriously, woefully wrong with the film – it’s not the random, almost incoherent mess that was At World’s End, but it lacks the sparkle of Curse of the Black Pearl. Whether that’s more the fault of the director or the scriptwriters, I leave to more analytical moviegoers to decide, but given that director Rob Marshall is a choreographer with more experience directing musicals than action movies, this was never likely to be the pinnacle of the Pirates franchise. On the other hand writers Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott didn’t give him a lot to work with – and in their case, we know they are capable of better. They wrote Curse of the Black Pearl, after all.
Again, part of the problem seems to come down to the impossibility of adapting the book a second time, and therefore being deprived of the narrative core that drives Curse. Without Will and Elizabeth to provide the romance element, the scriptwriters hit upon pairing Jack Sparrow with a previously unheard-of paramour, Blackbeard’s daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz). But Jack’s character doesn’t suit angsty romance, and his chemistry with Cruz doesn’t exactly set the screen on fire either. So they tried tacking on a subplot about a young preacher (to me at least, a very obvious substitute for the book’s hero, John Chandagnac) and the captive mermaid. However the preacher, Philip, is such a minor character that for a long time you don’t even know his name, and so the whole thing feels thin and under-developed compared to Will’s life-long devotion to Elizabeth. Sadly, two weak romances are no substitute for one good one.
The pacing is not great either. The film feels a good half an hour too long – and not just because of the excess romance scenes. Some of the action set pieces (like the mermaid’s capture) are dragged out as if to milk every last CGI possibility, and the final obligatory battle between pirates and soldiers is interrupted by a typical piece of Captain Jack’s witty banter – except that the dialogue lacks the dazzling panache of the earliest scripts and so only serves to bring the scene to a grinding halt.
Overall it’s not a bad movie – if one had never seen the previous ones, it might even seem like a clever resurrection of the pirate genre – but Curse of the Black Pearl was always going to be such a hard act to follow that On Stranger Tides suffers badly by comparison. There are far worse ways to end a series, though, so unless Rossio and Elliott can pull something extraordinary out of their tricorne hats, I very much hope this is Captain Jack Sparrow’s last, still-entertaining gasp.