I had high hopes for On Stranger Tides: without the over-elaborate narrative labyrinths created for Gore Verbinski’s sequels, the film could have returned to its adventure caper roots, remaking pirate films cool as it did first time around, and hopefully offering something new for a franchise that I didn’t particularly want extended. The problem wasn’t that I was particularly sick of the universe created from the Disney theme park ride – I simply didn’t see much justification in wringing out a character simply because he was still a viable financial commodity.
However, On Stranger Tides did come with a reasonable enough sounding plot – the action follows Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, of course) as he sets out to find the fabled Fountain of Youth, in the company of an old flame (Penelope Cruz), an older ally (Kevin McNally), an old adversary (Geoffrey Rush‘s Barbosa) and a brand new enemy, Blackbeard (Ian McShane) who seeks the fountain for his own ends. On the “quest”, Sparrow and his lot also meet a young man of the cloth (Sam Claflin) and a mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who Blackbeard learns is a necessary part of the ceremony for unlocking the fountains infinite life. It is certainly more simple than the last two sequels, and the introduction of a new ostensibly human villain would surely offer some balance to Sparrow’s scene stealing flamboyance, especially in the hands of an actor of McShane’s presence and power.
But, on first viewing, at this year’s Cannes festival, I was hugely underwhelmed: the film had some strong component parts, and Depp brought back the same exuberance to the role that will probably define how people will remember him (somewhat cruelly), but there was something rotten at its centre, and I wasn’t gripped at all.
Having had the benefit of subsequent viewings, the film isn’t quite as bad as I initially felt, though it still remains an inferior sequel. Personally speaking, the film is a disappointment because of its failure to meet the enormous potential for a fresh start that came with jettisoning some of the flotsam and jetsom characters and story arcs. Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom felt unnecessary by the end of At World’s End – and that was chiefly down to the writing choices, and the camera’s unwavering fascination with Depp’s Sparrow – and this fourth film would offer an opportunity to go back to the swash-buckling foundations without a flowery, distracting romantic aside between two horribly stiff characters.
Once again it is the Jack Sparrow show, and once again there is no progression in the character at all. But then that is sort of the point – to both the film’s and the character’s detriment – Sparrow is a caricature, larger than life and enjoyable precisely for his ostentatiousness and even grotesqueness. He is also governed by a precise set of rules, thanks to how popular he, and Johnny Depp’s performance of him have become since the first film sailed onto screens, and thus he must always end up at precisely the same point by the end of the film, as he was at at the outset. Even when there are hints of growth and self-realisation, it is all simply a ruse, set up so that Jack can end the show with a knowing wink to his audience, and an acknowledgement that he will continue to be his usual, raucuous, cheeky self no matter what happens. That is all well good for fans who turn up to see Johnny Depp do the same thing over and over again without any real deviation or progression, but it’s no good in traditional narrative or filmic terms.
Because that exchange between willing audience and character/performance is effectively the same created by going to see the same pantomime every year, with the same script, and the same actors playing the same roles endlessly. There might be some comfort in familiarity, but ultimately the experience will become tireless very, very quickly.
In the hands of Rob Marshall, the film stutters badly. Formerly Gore Verbinski offered some effortlessly brilliant set-pieces, innovative and creative and most of all immaculate choreographed to include a relationship with the very clever cinematography. So even when the plot and the script were pea-soup impenetrable, there were these moments of brilliance, spectacles that stood out as triumphs of direction. But Marshall does not seem to possess such abilities: his set pieces have some impressive scope, but the direction is terribly sloppy, the camera never choreographed to frame the action and the result is strangely cold and removed, which is catastrophic for the flow of the film, and the action spirit.
Having said that, in the mermaid attack scene, Marshall offers up one of the enduring set pieces of the franchise, in a rare moment of competency and creativity meeting on the same level – the action is tense and frenetic, and the design is as good as anything Verbinski offered in any of the other three films. But everywhere else, the execution is just plain sloppy – and even the Jack-heavy set-pieces, such as his escape through London at the start of the film feel flat and forced, which criminally robs the character of some of his effortless charm and magic.
The old faces other than Depp offer dependable anchors to the rest of the franchise – Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa may not have quite the twinkle or appeal of his other Pirates appearances, but he is still entertaining in a caricature sort of a way, and Kevin McNally pops up a few times to offer some grounding effect on his Captain – but the new faces suffer variously successful fates. New pirate sidekick Scrum (Stephen Graham) is okay, but he can’t match the charms of Sparrow’s former crew who are now sadly all gone, and new love interest/female Sparrow variant Angelica suffers by poor writing and Penelope Cruz’s occasionally impenetrable accent. The new Knightley/Bloom dynamic duo, in the shape of Berges-Frisbey and Claflin works well on screen, but they aren’t given too much to do, despite offering the most rounded characters of the whole film and you get the feeling the next film will be more theirs.
But it is McShane’s Blackbeard who suffers the most – he shows flashes of brilliance, and his character design is very impressive, but the script is particularly cruel to him, and he is badly underused as a truly villainous force, so yet again Depp’s Jack Sparrow ends up with no couunterbalance and is unfortunately left to grandstand over scenes and run amock when he and the film would have been better served by subtlety and understatement.
The question remains now, are we all willing to see a fifth one made? Well, the box office return would seemingly confirm as much, but something must be done to readdress what went wrong with this fourth installment, because following the trend set by this film, a fifth will surely flounder, before sinking badly.
As with most movies filmed in 3D, and not butchered in post-production, the image clarity of this high-definition transfer is very high, and in all honesty watching the 2D blu-ray seems the better option than forking out the extra for the 3D version, because aside from the opening scene, that added dimension never adds anything to the film at all. At the cinema, it was noticeable just how shallow, and mostly pointless the 3D was, since it never added much depth anyway.
Colours, textures and black levels are equal to some of the better transfers of recent times, though there are some noticeable blemishes and the occasional drop in quality for no discernible reason. For instance, skin tones waver towards an orangey tint in darker sequences, and detail dips noticeably around the same points.
Audio-wise it’s much the same story: for the most part the soundtrack is wonderfully immersive in terms of both music and sound-effects, but there are places, like the direction of the action, where the sound direction and design feels surprisingly flat.
Not a huge amount to shout home or anywhere else about – in fact, the selection of bonus features numbers just four, and while it is always nice to see an audio commentary when so many modern releases ignore the need these days, tagging in two adverts and a blooper reel as the entirety of the package is pretty much just embarrassing.
- Audio commentary with director Rob Marshall and Executive Producer John DeLuca
- Bloopers of the Caribbean
- Trailers for Lego Pirates of The Caribbean video game
- ‘Discover Blu-ray with Timon and Pumbaa’ featurette.
- DVD Copy