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May 25, 2007

Third time around, Pirates strikes only fool’s gold

For all the movies I’ve covered for the Maroon, I’ve never felt uneasier walking into the theater than I was for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. As a critic whose job it is to tell people whether or not they should see a movie, it’s very disheartening to realize that no matter what you say, the movie you’re reviewing will have made $50 million before anyone even reads your review. Such is the state of the Hollywood blockbuster, where, as Louis Menand stated in The New Yorker in 2005, “By the time we’ve all seen that it sucked, it’s a hit.” The saying “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” doesn’t even begin to express how many times audiences have been fooled by disappointing summer blockbusters in recent years. With At World’s End, we’ve been fooled once more with a film that fails on so many levels that you have to wonder who can be held accountable for such a catastrophe.

When you have an incredibly popular movie trilogy such as Pirates, the studio is pretty much guaranteed an enormous revenue no matter how badly they mess it up. Disney has spent over $1 billion on this franchise, and based on the revenue of the first two films will almost certainly turn a profit. The filmmakers have seemingly abused their power and resources because all the things that made the first two films even remotely appealing are absent in At World’s End. The first film, The Curse of the Black Pearl, had a plot that was hollow at best and nonexistent at worst, but accomodated for that problem with exciting action scenes, a smart sense of humor, and great performances—none greater than the revelatory, Oscar-nominated performance of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. The second film, Dead Man’s Chest, tried to make a story out of the franchise, but sacrificed accessibility and dragged on for at least an hour too long.

Perhaps it would have been best to leave Pirates of the Caribbean as a one-off, lighthearted summer flick, because the high drama, three-part epic format seems to violate the spirit of the first film. The conclusion to the series could still be remediable with better execution. But for nearly every reason one could possibly want to see At World’s End, the film proves disappointing. Want mindless, popcorn-munching fun from your summer blockbuster? The opening scene, set in Singapore (somehow Singapore manages to be Chinese-themed, all the way down to Chow Yun-Fat), contains a fight scene with a powerful army battling against warring insurgent groups. It seems more like a scene from “Disney Does Baghdad.” The massive collection of explosions, shrapnel, and carnage is enough to make you choke on your popcorn. Maybe you want an engaging plot? The number of deus ex machinas, major plot holes, and logical fallacies could fill the length of a screenplay on its own.

But plot has never been the reason people wanted to see these movies. The main appeal of the first two Pirates films was always the star power and the special effects. Yet, even here, At World’s End fails on an embarrassing scale. The scenery, costumes, and creatures seem unnaturally fake by any standard; even the scenes from Titanic, a film whose technology was a decade less advanced, seem more plausible in comparison. The performances lose all fire under the direction of Gore Verbinski, who apparently believes that human actors, and indeed human life are an expendable part of framing a shot. It’s hard to notice an intricate performance when a frame is so dominated by the indistinguishable mass of bodies, destroyed property, and constant, never-ending explosions.

It would take only the most dedicated of fans to come up with logical explanations for how the actors choose to progress from one scene to another. As for Depp’s Sparrow, the novelty of his performance has clearly worn off the third time around and his obligatory humor feels forced for the first time. Depp, who does not appear until half an hour into the film, also has to deal with a Being John Malkovich-style multiple personality running gag that falls flat on its face. Even the score is off, as the grandiose, captivating theme of the first two films has been sacrificed in favor of music that alternates between classical Chinese (again, we’re in Singapore), post-rock keyboard music, and guitar rock similar to what featured in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, but exponentially less fitting.

Plot summary seems useless in a movie like this, and those who care probably want to see it for themselves instead of having a critic tell them. Suffice to say, there are themes of resurrecting the dead, the evils of economic powerhouses, and fighting for lost traditions and individual humanity. The pre-credits scene is chilling and reminiscent of Gitmo, and one could try to look for political symbolism of a newer economic power fighting against a rebellious, primitive code of ethics. The problem is that the people we are supposed to be rooting for, the Pirate Brethren organized from all over the world, are full of such painfully exaggerated stereotypes of world culture that it makes Epcot seem like a serious ethnography.

Summers are always the worst time to be a film critic, and they’re only getting worse. As barrages of bloggers constantly point out, blogs put movie criticism in the hands of the moviegoers, and who is a print media critic to say what is good? I suppose I’m not immune to the charges of elitism (my favorite movie is a black-and-white Polish film from 1958, hardly reflective of the American public). But when you look at the reactions of disappointed filmgoers, their complaints are usually similar to those of critics, except critics don’t lose $10 in the deal. In the case of At World’s End, it seems that Hollywood has tried to see just how much shoddiness they can get away with before people simply stop going. To cite a group of artists who used keyboards and guitars much more effectively than this film did, I pray—however hopelessly—we won’t get fooled again.