Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

One of my most strongly-held beliefs about writing is that ending a story is incredibly difficult, perhaps more so than starting one. It takes real talent and skill to end a story with only a few carefully chosen threads dangling while the rest are closed off in a satisfying sense of closure. I don’t think this is so much a matter of the characters being where the reader or viewer wants them to be, but whether they are in a place that fits their characterization. And of course, how the characters got there is equally as important.

Imagine then the difficulty of trying to write an extension to the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, The Curse of the Black Pearl. The Black Pearl threw something new at the screen—wide open sea-faring adventure, drawn with a fairly tight script featuring undead sailors and the breath-taking personality of Captain Jack Sparrow, as played by Johnny Depp. With very little expectation, since it was based on an amusement park ride, The Black Pearl exploded into the cultural imagination. Suddenly, pirates were cool again, in no small part to Depp’s flamboyantly wacky Captain Jack, which was deservingly nominated for an Oscar. The movie was funny and fun, the action fairly non-stop, and the audience really didn’t have to think very much to follow what was going on; even Captain Sparrow’s humor was visceral and slapstick, Python-esque without oblique cultural references. The man just wanted his ship back.

The measure of the success of the formula can be found in the sequel, Dead Man’s Chest, which set all sorts of box office records. There were chills and surprises and the special effects grew even more remarkable, and there was a satisfying cliff-hanger. Jack was Jack, perhaps a little more slapstick than in the first movie, but he was present in all his selfish stylish glory.

And then there’s At World’s End.

The writers emphasized what had been a minor plot element in Dead Man’s Chest, much to the detriment of the rest of the story. Suddenly, Davy Jones isn’t so much the enemy as is the East India Company, a nefarious capitalistic machine bent on world financial domination, and to ensure it they need to get rid of the pirates of the world. No longer is the crisis about Jack Sparrow; it becomes an allegory about the extent to which people will go to create and maintain power. And to make sure the viewers know that this is what the movie is really about, the opening scene depicts the East India Company hanging all the people in a colony who are pirates, associate with pirates or know about pirates, including a child who has to be put on a barrel so that his head can reach the noose. The horror of the scene is increased as we witness the line of victims stretch the length of the fort, and the guards stripping the boots off the deceased. We are shown, in no uncertain terms, that this movie has aspirations of seriousness. And that’s where it falls off the rails. I mean, what is the point of a Pirates movie where Captain Jack is relegated to an almost minor role?

Because that’s what happens. Jack is almost inconsequential to the plot of the movie. Will Turner, Elizabeth Swann, even Captain Barbossa have more to do with the events of the movie than Jack. This is due, in no small part, to Jack having to be rescued from his cliff-hanger from the previous movie, forcing the action to fall on the shoulders of Turner, Swann, and Barbossa. They hold up admirably, but the movie already has three main characters in it by the time they get to Jack. The scenes with Jack talking to himself, while fun, answer the unspoken question about Jack’s sanity, further minimizing his effect on the suddenly important events surrounding the plot. And when our pirate heroes meet with the pirate lords, we’ve got six more characters to take into account, as well as three villains and a goddess. It all becomes too much.

I suppose it is possible for the movie to be as fun as its prequels given the diminution of Jack’s role, but there just isn’t a lot of humor outside the scenes with Jack. The earlier movies had a sort of cartoonish violence that is replaced with the realistic violence of cannonballs blowing through ships with full crews. While there is very little gore, bodies fly everywhere during the battles, effects I don’t recall seeing very much in the earlier movies. To be sure, it’s a beautiful movie, and the effects are fairly spectacular, but the ends they serve are not as whimsical as before.

And ultimately, Mrs. Speculator and I found the denouement of the movie, the bizarre union of the quarrelling lovers, Will and Elizabeth, to be highly improbable. They were passionate in the first movie and confident in the second. But in the third, they have too many secrets from each other that never get talked out. Perhaps it is the excitement of the battle which causes the proposal to be made and the acceptance to be given, but it asks a lot of the audience, especially as it comes out of not nowhere but instead the jarring dissonance of their fragmented and faulty conversations. I tried to convince my wife that perhaps this was an example of love conquering all, but I’m not sure I completely buy that explanation myself.

The most entertaining moments are Jack’s interactions with his rival Barbossa, but at the same time they are a little distressing. As the two argue and bicker for command of the Black Pearl, their scenes are amusing, but Jack never takes the lead in those competitions. The strong dominant (though wacky) Jack Sparrow is replaced by someone who can only duplicate the actions of his competitor in the hopes that the crew (and audience?) will recognize in him the traits that make a great captain.

And finally, the movie limps to an end. All of the problems are solved, but in order to get there, the movie has about four endings. It wasn’t entirely necessary to go on, though hinting that more movies could be made was a nice treat. I suppose a joyous celebration like the one at the end of Return of the Jedi is out of the question. Nonetheless, until its end, the movie moves briskly from action scene to action scene, often charming and always exciting, but just not giving off the same vibe as its prequels. And sadly, the solution to its weaknesses is the thing that made the first movie so great in the first place.

It just needs more Jack.

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