Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides



In trying to work out what went wrong with the making of this movie—which is pretty much everything—I think we can begin at a point before the making even got underway. The Pirates of the Caribbean series was once conceived as a trilogy. The first picture was a great comic swashbuckler; the second was good in parts; the third was a dire mess. The Wachowski Brothers, whose three Matrix films followed a similar downward spiral, knew when to call it quits. The Pirates producers, however—mindful of the nearly $3 billion the first three pictures pulled in worldwide—saw no reason to follow suit. And so now we have On Stranger Tides, a movie for which the term "dire mess" seems entirely insufficient.

The first sign of trouble is the script. Writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who worked on all three previous films, were apparently short of new ideas this time out, and so found it necessary to borrow some from a 1987 pirate-fantasy novel called On Stranger Tides, by Tim Powers. Then there's the cast. Since On Stranger Tides is essentially a reboot, several of the series' more amusing characters—like the comical swabbies Pintel and Ragetti and the squid-faced Davy Jones—have been eliminated. So has original director Gore Verbinski, now replaced, bafflingly, by Rob Marshall, best-known for helming the musical Chicago. New recruits include a school of oddly vampire-fanged mermaids, an uninteresting captive missionary, a contingent of haughty Spaniards, a clutch of zombie sailors, and an irrelevant voodoo doll. We'll get to the rote 3D in which the picture was shot in a moment.

Fortunately (you'd think) Geoffrey Rush is still onboard as the mock-menacing pirate Barbossa; and so, of course, is Johnny Depp as the irreplaceable Captain Jack Sparrow. (Depp was reportedly paid $55 million for his continued participation in the franchise.) This time around, Captain Jack is on a mission to find the Fountain of Youth. So is his old nemesis Barbossa—no longer a freelance pirate here, but a one-legged privateer in the service of the British King George. The lively back-and-forth between these two characters was a highlight of the previous movies; since this one has maybe three good lines (the best of them delivered by Keith Richards, returning as Jack's old dad), that once-reliable zing is gone. And Rush, now hobbled with a peg leg, has been directed to overact so flamboyantly that his performance seems more than anything a tribute to the late, great hambone Robert Newton and his immortal Long John Silver.

Especially in the beginning, the picture is very talky, which is unsurprising—there's an awful lot to talk about. Jack finds himself pressed into the crew of the famed pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane, lamentably underacting). Blackbeard is desperate to find the Fountain of Youth because of a prophecy that has foretold his death at the hands of a one-legged man (hmm). Exactly how youth-restorative waters would be of any use in deflecting a sword through the heart, or whatever, is hard to say, so the writers wisely don't say it. Also onboard Blackbeard's ship is Jack's long-ago lover Angelica (Penélope Cruz), who may—or may not, not that it matters—be Blackbeard's daughter. The sight of two such appealing actors as Depp and Cruz failing to work up any sort of romantic chemistry is one of the movie's most curious disappointments.

A mermaid attack on the Blackbeard party introduces a pretty water nymph named Syrena (played by Spanish actress Astrid Berges-Frisbey with all the esprit of a beached fish). Syrena's appearance is fortuitous, since a mermaid's tear is for some reason crucial to utilization of the Fountain of Youth. To put her in a crying mood, Blackbeard says, "I will tear every scale from her body one by one." This might have been interesting, but the threat of it doesn't do the trick. Syrena's tear is eventually secured, however, and then it's off to find two magical chalices that also play a murky part in the Fountain quest, and to beat Barbossa to the prize.

Along with its overabundance of talk, the movie is burdened with altogether too much walking and climbing and general slogging around through watery jungle. There's also an excess of sword-fighting, none of it staged with the wit of, say, the battle in the blacksmith shop in the first Pirates film. And so what with Marshall's mincemeat editing and the shifting visual planes of the 3D process—which is in any case employed in the most formulaic ways—these chaotic melees quickly grow monotonous.

The picture's most melancholy defect, though, is Captain Jack himself. Depp's inspired conception of this eccentric character, with his kohl-shadowed eyes and swanning deportment, was once the series' central delight. Here, though, the actor has run out of new places to go with it, and his dutiful reiteration of all the familiar gestures and reactions is a dispiriting thing to witness. Like this overworked franchise itself, the Captain has been squeezed dry of the fun he once provided. And yet a fifth Pirates movie is already in the works, and a sixth is also threatened. A sinking sensation is hard to dispel.

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be published in November by St. Martin's Press.

NEXT: Piracy As Promotion

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  1. Never watched any of these. Is the first one really worth watching?

    1. It’s alright. Worth doing if you don’t pay too much for it, and need to kill a Sat. evening. I suggest having a drinking game where you do shots everytime Orlando Bloom does something gay.

      1. I doubt my alcohol tolerance is high enough to allow me to survive that.

        1. They also supposedly airbrushed Keira Knightly’s boobs to make them big enough to be appealing. After seeing her little boy chest in King Arthur I can believe it.

          1. Is this some sort of homoerotic movie? Like Top Gun? Don’t much care for those.

            1. The first scene explains that having a woman onboard is considered bad luck. Make of that what you will.

              1. So does Alien 3.

                1. Alien 3 was the very definition of a gay movie.

                  1. I thought that honor was reserved for Jaws 4.

                    1. Never saw it. Is that the one where Jaws attacks Fire Island?

                    2. Never saw it. Is that the one where Jaws attacks Fire Island?

                      Did Judas Priest do “Raw Deal” for the soundtrack?

                    3. It attacks Provincetown, not Fire Island, you dolt. And db, it was “Ram It Down”, not “Raw Deal”.

                      You guys are hopeless. You do know that Wikipedia exists, right?

                    4. But the shark is still named Bruce right?

                    5. Ahem, check the lyrics from Raw Deal:

                      I made a spike about nine o’clock on a Saturday
                      All eyes hit me as I walked into the door
                      Then and then the guys were fooling in the demin dudes
                      A couple cards played rough stuff, New York, fire island

                    6. The shark, for some strange reason, is named Clancy. And db, I told you it was P-Town and not Fire Island. Try to keep up.

                    7. So it has a dickie and a latt? instead of a handlebar mustache?

                    8. Best part of Jaws 4? Michael Caine!

                    9. There is no part of Jaws 4 that can have the word “best” applied to it.

                    10. What, you didn’t find a giant shark jumping out of the water, emitting a roar, and then being rammed by the prow of a boat to be entertaining? I suppose you prefer him in 3D at Seaworld?

                    11. It’s only so-so. Battlefield Earth was better.

                    12. Battlefield Earth!
                      No, “High Road To China” w Tom Selleck…

                    13. The first time I read this comment I thought it said Butterfield Earth, and was trying to figure out what movie you were mashing up with Liz Taylor’s Butterfield 8 (an over the top riot in its own right).

    2. The second one was incredibly boring. I lost interest about half an hour into it. The first one was pretty good though. Never saw the third one.

    1. That’s a criticism of a Spinal Tap album. How does this help me?

      1. The book this one is adapted from is very good. I’ve only seen bits and pieces of the previous movies on broadcast TV. They seemed like decent kid-fare.

        1. It’s a book? I thought it was a ride at Disney?

          1. The first movie is based on the Disney ride. The new one is from Tim Powers’ On Stranger Tides

            1. That must’ve been some ride.

    2. pb&j!!!!

  2. Unless Ian McShane calls Johnny Depp a cocksucker, I’ll never see the thing.


      1. I came here to make this exact comment, but was not fast enough. Oh well.

        SWEGIN, COCKSUCKER! ala Wu.

  3. See? Loder does pan some movies!

    1. I’d say this one fits the definition of “low-hanging fruit” though. I imagine a few of the usual suspects will give the film good reviews, but Peter Travers stopped being serious a long, long time ago.

  4. The first one is, none of the others really are.

  5. The first movie is entertaining, and does what it’s supposed to. I liked it. The second one was mundane, and the third was unbearably uninteresting.

    Only James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ was shittier.

  6. It is only apt that I download this movie from

    1. Personally, I suspect they release movies like this only in order to punish people who download movies.

  7. I fell asleep during the second and third. Those are long movies and the exciting pirate music become but a lullaby. Is this a good movie for a Sunday matinee nap?

  8. I liked them all including the third. Trying to find the puzzle piece to escape Davey Jones lockers. Freeing “Calypso”. I vote thumbs up!

    1. Sadly, it has become somewhat popular to hate on these fairly solid movies, much in the same way it became trendy to hate Dane Cook a few years back.

      The waterwheel swordfight in Pirates to was amazing. It STILL blows me away, and I’ve seen it like half a dozen times. The unexpected betrayal of Jack, the constant changing of hands of the Davy Jone’s heart and subsequently the power dynamic, all inthralling if your nose isn’t a mile up your own ass.

      Three culminated a great setup from two with stunning form. The trips to and from World’s Edge were breathtaking visually, and the climactic battle in the maelstrom after each player had set his/her pieces in motion defined edge-of-your seat action.

      I instantly lose a little respect for people that harp on these movies and offer empty rhetoric to back up their assertations, much in the same way I lose ALL respect for people that claim to have liked ‘Sucker Punch’.

      1. See Hooha, you actually gave great reasons why you thought they were solid. I only managed a couple sentences followed with a thumbs up. I’d be a lousy film critic. I’m glad at least one other person liked them. Thanks

  9. I think that they became scared after the second one, and tried to reproduce more movies like the first.

    Unfortunately, the thing with good movies are that they shine in their own – to try and copy another movies gusto will certainly always lead to failure.

  10. C’mon, no one posted this yet? The definitive Ask A Ninja review. Just rinse and repeat.

  11. umm, too much information.

  12. Too bad, after Deadwood and the much too short-lived Kings I was looking forward to watching Ian McShane be badass again.

  13. The Tim Powers book, like a lot of his stuff, is really, really good. My recollection of it (its been some years) doesn’t line up at all with the description of the movie.

    My advice: skip the movie, read the book. If you like it, try some others. Stay clear of the trilogy set in contemporary America (Earthquake Weather, forget the other names) unless you are a hardcore fan. Anubis Gates is probably my favorite.

    1. Anubis Gates is much better than On Stranger Tides,yet I’d recommend either book.

  14. This is very intresting movie. Thanks for share !

  15. thanks for this, it was very helpful

  16. I saw “The Real Pirates of the Caribbean” on The History Channel. And frankly, I’m so tired of Hollywood and Disney lying about what scumbags those pirates were. They were plunderers, rapists, murderers, yet you watch Pirates of the Caribbean and there’s hardly any violence. Nobody loses their hands, feet, or gets stabbed! What kind of BS is that?

    1. That’s the pirate lobby for you.

      1. +guffaw

    2. Interestingly by all accounts Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard, never actually killed a man in cold blood. If you surrendered he’d loot your ship and then send you and your crew on your way without any harm. He basically used his distorted reputation and fear tactics to get his way rather than with outright violence.

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