“We’re good and lost now,” says Barbossa with satisfaction. “For certain you have to be lost, to find a place as can’t be found. Elseways, everyone would know where it was.”
What he had in mind was the otherworldly realm beyond the world’s end, but Barbossa might as well be describing that almost equally unattainable holy grail of popcorn franchises: a worthy third chapter to a trilogy. The shoals of Hollywood history are cluttered with the wrecks of threequels that fell short of their predecessors: Superman III, Batman Forever, X‑Men 3, Shrek the Third. (I consider Spider-Man 3 a rollicking exception to the rule, but that puts me in the critical minority.)
Even so, after last summer’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, I came to At World’s End with high hopes. The two Pirates sequels were made back to back, and scripted together as two parts of a single story. And Dead Man’s Chest had a wonky brilliance that made it one of the best popcorn flicks in ages, outdoing even the solid success of the original Curse of the Black Pearl — which already bucked the considerable odds against any film based on a theme park ride. Surely, if any filmmakers could beat the third-act curse, it was director Gore Verbinski and company.
Give the filmmakers credit: They were willing to get good and lost. To sail into uncharted waters, to do something new, rather than play it safe by repeating what had been done before. To go to the ends of the earth, to take risks even bigger than the ones that made Dead Man’s Chest such a joyous ride.
Alas. They got good and lost… and they never found their way again. If Dead Man’s Chest was inspiration gone amok, At World’s End is more — much, much, much more — of the same, only without the inspiration. In every respect it outdoes its predecessor, except in charm, entertainment and fun. Add Pirates of the Caribbean to the roster of franchises foundering on the rocks the third time out.
It’s not awful. It’s fitfully entertaining. There are even flashes of brilliance here and there, such as the spectacular return of the Black Pearl from Davy Jones’s Locker, which is at once very funny and almost poetically inspired. But the consistent pleasures of the earlier films are for the most part dampened or missing altogether.
Johnny Depp still reels and prances as Jack Sparrow, but the character’s appeal has always lain in the fact that he was as much a con artist as a pirate, with a peculiar blend of quirky brilliance, hot air and self-aggrandizement, able to keep just a half-step ahead of everyone else, subtly manipulating events to his own advantage, all the while impudently flirting with Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and slyly goading Will Turner (Orlando Bloom).
Sparrow was the series’ Han Solo figure, the dashing scoundrel, right down to his climactic vanishing into the maw of the Kraken at the end of Dead Man’s Chest, which visually suggested the sand-pit monster (the Sarlacc) from Return of the Jedi but dramatically paralleled Han’s descent into the carbon-freezing unit in The Empire Strikes Back.
All of that is gone here. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Will, Elizabeth, and the Caribbean witch Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) succeed in their mission to ferry back Sparrow from Davy Jones’ Locker, but he’s a shadow of his former self, a dazed and confused prisoner of a plot he understands no better than we, mumbling to computer-composited replicas of himself in a feeble conceit that is technically expensive, surely, but dramatically cheap.
As for Will and Elizabeth, until now they’ve been sort of Luke and Leia figures — the lowly but valiant young hero, the feisty action princess — without, of course, the familial entanglements that Lucas introduced between Luke and Leia. Now, alas, they’re more like the Anakin and Amidala, with far too much angst and self-seriousness, and no time amid the plot machinations for the lighthearted chemistry of the earlier films.
Elizabeth even sort of looks like the exotically attired Amidala in the Mandarin getup she wears after she becomes captain of an Asian pirate ship (sorry, no time to explain). As for Will, while he still yearns to redeem his father Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgård) from the clutches of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), he now lives in the dark shadow of a grim fate — one less dire than becoming Darth Vader, perhaps, but hardly the satisfying resolution that the series needs.
Then there’s Davy Jones himself, the most stunning and memorable special-effects villain since Return of the Jedi’s Jabba the Hutt. Here, pressed into the service of the East India Company by the nefarious Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), Jones’s formidable presence is incalculably diminished; he’s a patsy, with little of the aura of barely restrained menace that he should have had even under these circumstances.
In a curious way, Hollander’s terrific performance as Beckett — one of the film’s few bright spots — is paradoxically part of the problem. The little fellow persuasively dominates the screen without once raising his voice or even an eyebrow, and as eye-poppingly convincing as Jones is, he can’t push back against Beckett as he ought to. When Jones snarls at Beckett that he can’t be summoned like some insignificant lackey and Beckett coolly replies, “Evidently you can,” we ought to feel that Beckett is playing with fire. Instead, we feel that Jones is all empty bluster.
Although Beckett is a strong character, as a villain he’s disappointingly prosaic measured against the previous films’ supernatural seafaring antagonists, the undead Barbossa and the tentacled Davy Jones. Beckett’s crimes — which commence with declaration of martial law and suspension of the precepts of British common law, habeus corpus, trial by jury, legal representation and so forth — is overly fraught with the banality of real-world evil for a franchise that has cheerfully glossed over the actual evils of piracy. In a universe in which bloody pirates have been so sanitized that they aren’t a whole lot more menacing than their peers in Gilbert and Sullivan, and no actual heinous acts of piracy are committed, we shouldn’t be confronted with government-sponsored mass hangings of civilians, including a child.
So much promise unfulfilled, so many setups leading only to letdowns. Consider the last film’s cliffhanger return of Barbossa, whose brilliantly orchestrated death was the climax of the original Curse of the Black Pearl. When he made his electric reappearance in the final seconds of Dead Man’s Chest, relishing that bite of green apple so poignantly denied to him at the end of Curse of the Black Pearl, Tia Dalma explained that the journey to world’s end and beyond to bring back Jack Sparrow from the dead required the guidance of one who “knew those waters.”
The evident implication was that Barbossa, having himself returned from the dead, was uniquely qualified to lead the journey to bring back Jack. At the very least, the story behind Barbossa’s return should have been something comparable to the convoluted and satisfying way that he died — as well as Jack’s return.
No such luck. All we learn about Barbossa’s return is that Dalma brought him back to life. Period. Of his “experience in those waters” we learn nothing — except that it has nothing to do either with his having returned from the dead or with his qualifications for bringing back Jack. Barbossa’s return and Jack’s return are unconnected and even radically different events, since Dalma makes a point of distinguishing between the fate of Barbossa, who merely died (and thus could be brought back comparatively easily), and that of Jack, who went to Davy Jones’s Locker (thus requiring an involved rescue mission). The only practical implication of Barbossa’s experience, in fact, is that he is qualified to guide them to Singapore, where he knows that the Asian pirate Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat) possesses a fascinating interactive map that will help them chart a course beyond the world’s end.
I don’t mind that the filmmakers arbitrarily gave Dalma the power to raise the dead. (Given what we learn about her power later in the film, it’s a moot point.) I even understand why Dalma would need to bring back Barbossa — and for that matter why she must now also bring back Jack. (Which, since they both know it too, kind of moots their efforts to kill one another throughout the first film, since it’s not very likely that Dalma would allow either of them to stay dead for long, at least if they hadn’t named a successor. Sorry, no time to explain that either.)
The real problem, though, is that Barbossa’s having died and come back doesn’t matter a whit. He brings back no unique perspective; his experience has nothing to do with how they will rescue Jack; he doesn’t even have an interesting story to tell. Given how spectacularly staged his death was, this deus ex machina return is a major disappointment.
Then there’s Davy Jones, who is given a tragic–romantic back story, and even a poignant scene with his lost love. This could have been the stuff of grandly mythic romantic nonsense, but instead it just peters out as both characters drop out of the story, with no real sense of closure or character arc.
At World’s End so vastly expands the scope of the Pirates of the Caribbean universe that a summary is an almost futile gesture. Would you believe that Jack and Barbossa are two of nine piratical potentates in a hitherto unknown privateer ruling body called the Brethren Lords of the Pirate Court? And that the famous “pirate code” is codified in an actual bound volume, the Piratus Codex, which the Brethren Lords keep in their secret meeting place, an immense special-effects fortress called Shipwreck Cove? And that each member of this Brethren Court possesses one of nine magical “pieces of eight,” and that this has something to do with a conspiracy between the Court and the malicious, heartbroken Davy Jones to imprison Jones’s tempestuous, unpredictable lover, the sea goddess Calypso, in human form?
So much has the mythology grown and metastasized that it now dominates and overshadows the characters and the story, instead of merely providing the context for them. It’s remarkably similar to what happened in the Star Wars prequels and the Matrix sequels. Perhaps it would be helpful to have a term for this phenomenon: Over time, franchises tend to become mythology-bound.
Compare Jack’s dramatically static wanderings in the wilderness of Davy Jones’s Locker with Neo’s similarly inert train-station limbo in The Matrix Revolutions. Compare the interminable summit meetings in At World’s End with the Senate and Jedi Council meetings in the Star Wars prequels. Remember when it was a joke when Han told Leia that there was “no time to discuss this in a committee”? And then Amidala got the same line in the Senate in The Phantom Menace, when she really was discussing it in a committee? When a franchise is young and fresh, before it gets mythology-bound, there’s no time, or need, for committee meetings.
Remember in Curse of the Black Pearl, when Jack unexpectedly drew his sword on the undead Barbossa, prompting the latter to sneer, “Ye’re off the map, mate — here there be monsters”? Looking back, you’d have to wonder how what he was talking about. Off the map? No such thing, mate — Sao Feng’s chart can take you to the world’s end and beyond. Here there be monsters? Davy Jones and Calypso, anyone? So Barbossa’s a walking skeleton. Big deal.
The problem with At World’s End is not that the plot is nearly impenetrable. That’s only a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. I don’t need to understand a film to enjoy it. Take Howard Hawkes’s famously labyrinthine The Big Sleep, which nobody understands, yet everyone loves. What makes it work is the chemistry, the attitude, the snappy dialogue — qualities which, in their own modest way, the earlier Pirates films possessed, but this sequel has no time for.
As the film spirals into chaos, one recurring line sums up At World’s End as well as anything. Toward the end, as Cutler Beckett walks almost serenely amid explosive destruction in a veritable sea of flying debris swirling every which way around his head, he says matter-of-factly, and not for the first time, “It’s just good business.” Perhaps Verbinski felt the same way.
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A lot of the criticism you gave At World’s End revolved around things that were left unexplained. Through my nerdy searchings on the internet, I heard that Verbinski cut out quite a lot of material, due to the length of the film. If a director’s cut is ever released on DVD, would you add that in to your review? I think your opinion might change a little then.
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[Major spoilers] Enjoyed and for the most part agreed with your review of At World’s End — just thought that (in case someone hasn’t already told you by now) I should let you know that the writers have confirmed in various internet places that Will gets out after ten years. The reason Davy Jones was so mad at Calypso was that the only way he could be freed from his soul-ferrying duty was to have her faithfully waiting for him at the end of ten years (which she wasn’t).
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.