Before the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, the practice of shooting two sequels in quick succession had a short and unspectacular history. In the eighties, they tried with the Back to the Future movies and, while those sequels had some charms, they were pale imitations of the original. These efforts, however, were masterpieces compared to the Wachowski brothers’ follow-ups to The Matrix, which managed to completely suck all of our good will for the original into that blank space behind Keanu Reeves’ eyes.
So why do it? Well, there is the consideration that they can get Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley or director Gore Verbinski for both or the same price per movie, without the risk that their careers will go ballistic between episodes two and three and their salaries would bankrupt several small countries. It also keeps the original creative team together and maintains a sense of momentum from one movie to next without the sense of inertia that goes hand-in-hand with starting a new production from zero.
However, I also think it also overloads the creative team at the front end and the storytelling suffers in the end. Perhaps the best thing you can say about the Pirates trilogy is that the production design, sound and visual effects departments have done a fantastic job of filling the screen with sights and sounds that keep your mind off of the disjointed nature of the narrative.
In a way, it’s kind of appropriate that this film is based on an amusement park ride, since the experience is rather similar. The “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride shuttles you from one visual experience to the next without much concern for the logic that connects them. The film has much the same structure. Some of the lapses in narrative flow are glaring. The Kraken, the giant “beastie” that menaced Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) in the previous movie, is dispensed with in this movie almost as an afterthought, it’s usefulness to the story over. The ending of the climatic scene also comes rather abruptly, with one side giving up without much reason.
On the good side, not only do we have Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) back for another turn, this film brings back the villain of the first, Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), as a reluctant ally. Will Turner (Bloom) finally emerges as a character, willing to sell out both Barbossa and Sparrow to accomplish his agenda. Elizabeth Swann (Knightley) has come the furthest. The formerly naïve governor’s daughter now swaggers through the picture with a surprising amount of pirate “cred.” The actress is clearly having a ball with the role and it comes through in her performance.
The film also reshuffles the deck when it comes to the bad guys, bringing Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander) and the East India Trading Company to the fore, with Davy Jones now forced to work for him. This new dynamic reshapes the trilogy somewhat, making it about the last stand of piracy against the forces of capitalism and civilization. While the multi-billion-dollar industry known as Hollywood never has a problem turning capitalism into a force of evil, what makes this an odd choice is the fact that any victory by the pirates is a pyrrhic one, since piracy did, in fact, die out. Of course, this movie isn’t really about piracy but about a movie version of our romanticized view of the golden age of piracy in the Caribbean, which has little to do with the often grim and brutal reality.
Fortunately, this movie isn’t even paying lip service to history. This is just some of Hollywood’s best magicians pulling out some of their best trick to dazzle us with a lot of light and sound. On this level, the third movie and the entire trilogy manage to succeed on a level that the previous sequel two-fers never approached.
Another benefit is, after writing these three reviews, I will now remember how to spell “Caribbean” for the rest of my life.