Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Movie Review)
2 out of 4 stars
As lovable as Captain Jack Sparrow may be, the ‘Pirates of the Carribean’ series as a whole is clearly treading water in this latest outing. Despite boasting stellar performances from its cast and moody, gothic visuals, ‘Stranger Tides’ fails to provide a coherent story, genuinely exciting action, or any dramatic subtext to counter its numerous explosions and swordfights. Even with Johnny Depp reprising his Oscar-nominated role, ‘Stranger Tides’ is easily the most superficial and shallow entry in the series to date.
The film opens with Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and his accomplice Gibbs (Kevin R. McNally) in the midst of planning an escape from a London jail, where they are due to be hanged for their crimes. After a daring carriage chase through the streets, the pair manages to reach the city’s docks and stow aboard a ship headed out for the ocean.
Unfortunately, the ship turns out to be none other than the Queen Anne Mary’s, vessel of the demonic pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane). Even further complicating matters, Sparrow’s Spanish ex-girlfriend Angelica (Penelope Cruz) is also aboard the ship as its vice-captain, claiming to be Blackbeard’s long-lost daughter. With an army of undead soldiers who watch over the crew and prevent them from escaping, the pair plans to lead the ship to the mythical fountain of youth, where Blackbeard is intent on extending his life and therefore escaping a prophecy predicting his imminent death.
However, Blackbeard and Angelica aren’t the only ones interesting in finding the fountain. Sparrow’s former pirate adversary Captain Barbarossa (Geoffrey Rush), now a legitimate officer of the Royal Navy, is also leading his own expedition to the Fountain with the intent of claiming it for the British Empire. Finally, the Spanish army is also sailing to the Fountain in the hope of destroying it altogether, believing it to be a pagan artifact created by the devil.
Realising the fountain’s worth, Sparrow joins Blackbeard’s expedition in their quest hoping to ultimately steal it for himself. Of course, the journey there will prove to be among his most difficult yet: he and the crew must fight off cannibalistic mermaids, death-defying traps, and trek through sprawling jungles before reaching their goal.
If there’s one reason to see ‘Stranger Tides’, it’s Johnny Depp’s performance as the ever-iconic Jack Sparrow. Still as lazy, bumbling, yet roguishly charming as he was eight years ago, Depp instantly brings humour and style to an otherwise mechanical film. In fact, it’s a testament to Depp’s skill as an actor that he can still portray the character with so much passion and energy, particularly when the story itself offers no dramatic changes to his character. Like Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal or Sean Connery’s James Bond, there’s no denying Depp’s Sparrow is one of the greatest movie characters in film history.
The supporting players also bring their best game as well, bringing comic-book style intensity to potentially bland parts. Geoffrey Rush’s Barbarossa is more sinister than ever, using darting eyes, a snarling guttural growl, and a wooden leg to great effect. Penelope Cruz is also a welcome addition to the cast, adding a great deal of sexiness and humour to her scenes with Sparrow. Even Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and British stage actress Judi Dench are impressive in small parts as Sparrow’s father and a noblewoman who Sparrow sexually assaults respectively. In fact, the only disappointment in the main cast is Ian McShane, whose serious and quiet portrayal of Blackbeard seems oddly lacking in menace and charm.
Despite its enjoyably pulpy performances, ‘Stranger Tides’ fails to fully develop the motivations and dramatic depth of some of its characters. The chief example of this is the confusing subplot between Blackbeard and Angelica: not only is no answer given as to the truth of their relationship, but the two have zero chemistry whatsoever as a father and daughter. Considering how much of the film’s length is devoted to the pair, it’s almost insulting to see such a major dramatic element treated in such a haphazard manner. Similarly, Captain Jack Sparrow also lacks significant character development, although Johnny Depp’s performance is so effortlessly captivating that it hardly matters.
As for the story, even the narrative of the original Disney theme park ride is arguably more involving than that of ‘Stranger Tides’. Little more than a slipshod pastiche of fantasy, action, and adventure clichés, the film occasionally feels like a second-rate video game in its narrative excess. Additionally, the film’s plot is almost the same as the first, from the opening where Sparrow escapes London in evasion of the authorities, to story’s body where he commands a ship’s crew to an island in search of a magical treasure, to the conclusion where a sacrifice must be offered to unlock its power. Both of these flaws just serve to increase the feeling of constant and wearying déjà vu which permeates the film.
Most unforgivably though for a summer blockbuster, most of the film’s action scenes are uninspired and unexciting. This is especially true of the generic sword fights which make up the bulk of the film’s set pieces, which are so smoothly choreographed and performed by stunt doubles that it’s hard to feel much tension during them. Two exceptions to this are the chilling mermaid attack upon the crew’s arrival on the island and the opening escape from London, the latter of which stuns in its inventiveness and energy.
On a final positive note, ‘On Stranger Tides’ does consistently amaze with its visuals. Whether it’s the darkened mast of a ship at night looking out on the ocean, the bustling, dirty streets of 19th century England, or the lush jungles of the Carribean in which the Fountain is hidden, the film’s backgrounds always pulsate with mystery and life as a result of the film’s amazing set design and atmospherically dark lighting. Composer Hans Zimmer’s score also contributes to the film’s otherworldly and mystical feel, re-using his classic suspense and adventure themes from the trilogy to great effect.
Ultimately, ‘On Stranger Tides’ is a typical B-grade summer blockbuster: loud, obvious, and soon to be forgotten after it leaves theatres. Undemanding viewers desperate for another outing with Jack Sparrow will probably be satisfied, but even then it’s hard to imagine them greeting this project with any level of passion similar to the first picture. Even though it’s mildly entertaining in parts, ‘On Stranger Tides’ is definite proof that it’s time for Jack Sparrow to hang up his sword and move on to new shores.
‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ is currently playing in Shenzhen and Hong Kong theatres.