Published May 19, 2011Oh, Jack, you just couldn't stay away, and now look what's happened. The once proudly bombastic and, yes, needlessly convoluted, but always wildly entertaining, series is shakier than a Red Bull junky learning to walk on peg legs on this fourth voyage.
In an attempt to shed the confounding plot threads of its predecessors, On Stranger Tides, "suggested" by an unrelated novel by Tim Powers, shovels Captain Jack Sparrow off on a predictable and bloodless quest to find the Fountain of Youth.
This time, the cartoonish pirate Johnny Depp is still obviously having a great time inhabiting teams up with former flame Angelica (an adequate Penelope Cruz) and the fearsome Blackbeard for a three-way race against the Spaniards and a British fleet led by Captain Barbossa to find the fountain. Well, to say "teams up" is misleading; Jack is still out for Jack first and foremost and every relationship is steeped in layers of deception, subterfuge and double, triple, heck, even quadruple crossings.
Every element of mystery is telegraphed from a mile away though, relying on the recognition of the broad application of cinematic tropes instead of tension or wonderment to provoke a reaction from the audience. The same applies to Stranger Tides' approach to humour. We're expected to find a simple lack of intelligence among seamen to be ample excuse to guffaw, be utterly amused that Jack would save a pastry during a fight or find it hilarious that Keith Richards knows he's old. Granted, there are fleeting moments where Jack's roguish opportunism facilitates a less trite variety of joke, but the key word is "fleeting."
It's unfortunate that Ian McShane wasn't put to better use as Black beard; he's good, but has little to do. Aside from Depp, only Geoffrey Rush makes the most of his character, fuelling Barbossa once again with cruel nobility and gallows humour, unfazed by the hindrance of a sub-par make-up job.
With Rob Marshall (the decidedly unsubtle director of Chicago) at the helm, one would expect this rote journey to have flashier staging and more vivid design, but this is one drab blockbuster. Never before have I seen such abysmal lighting in a major production. Nearly every action sequence, not to mention the bulk of film, takes place at night or inside a ship, and even during daylight the cinematography favours shadow. The result is a boring, blurry mess that completely squanders its use of 3D. It doesn't help that the editing is choppy and quick, not done with 3D in mind at all.
It'd be silly to demand much logic from a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but consistency is appreciated, even amid the incoherence. That is why Marshall's handling of mermaids hurts my brain. They have vampire fangs. Okay, lame, but not so bad. How about this? Instead of committing to a design and tossing on a shell bra or tapping down hair to cover the forbidden nipples, Marshall elects to avoid hints of frontal torsos at almost all costs. Shoot them from the shoulders up, from behind, under water, in a dark CG blur, just don't reveal any lady shapes. He even goes so far as to dress them in what looks like sparkly leotards that seem to vary in length from belly to shoulders and visibility, depending on the scene.
But that's still not what irks me most. Without any rhyme or reason, a mermaid sprouts legs. Nobody questions it, nothing explains it and it serves no purpose ― she can't walk anyway. We're left to assume that mermaid tails transform into legs out of water, but that being out of water for long will kill a mermaid, and they can't use those legs anyway, but they'll revert to tail form as soon as they're re-dunked in the drink up to their hips. This from the company that gave us The Little Mermaid.
Infuriating lapses in reason and narrative function plague On Stranger Tides and there's evidence of budget conservation all over the place ― hell, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader had far superior special effects and 3D conversion. Aside from performances we've already seen better of, there's very little to enjoy about On Stranger Tides. (Buena Vista)