Review: “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”

Capping off a trifecta of ‘just adequate’ three-quels to have hit this month, “At World’s End” is the longest, darkest, most surreal and sadly weakest entry in Disney’s mega-successful ‘Pirates’ franchise. For all the disjointed bombast and juvenile silliness of the disappointing ‘Chest,’ it was still more of a fun and cohesive high seas adventure than this dreary, convoluted and all too self-serious epic.

Yet, like the recent “Spider-Man” or “Shrek” entries, its not a disaster by any means – merely yet another example of product, which should’ve been more thoughtfully planned and scripted, being rushed out and overstacked to hide the lack of a strong narrative. It’s well known that screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio weren’t given enough time or leeway to properly come up with a script before filming was underway, and thus much of the two sequels (especially this one) were massively rewritten even as they were filming.

That lack of preparation shows more glaringly than ever in this entry. Whilst there’s some direct continuity links to the last film, much of the story’s mythological elements such as the pirate brethren lords, Calypso, the stabbing of Jones’ heart, etc. just come out of nowhere. In ‘Chest’ when we learn Beckett gave Jack his burn mark, it felt like a clever piece of setup. In ‘End’ where an item on Jack’s person ends up being a key component to the film’s central plot, it seems more like a lazy afterthought.

Characters like Beckett, his right-hand assassin, Bootstrap Bill, Davy Jones, etc. – which felt decently established in the last film – are reduced to pure caricatures, only servicing to move the assorted jumble of subplots along. Added to this are more backstabs, betrayals, reversals and shifting loyalties than a Robert Ludlum or Len Deighton Cold War spy thriller. There are no twists per se as everyone betrays everyone else at point or another, and repeated claims that all of what is happening is what Jack had planned seems facetious at best. Short of the rules of a silly dice game, ‘Chest’ followed a logical path whereas ‘End’ often simply doesn’t make any sense.

With so many characters there’s little in the way of a lead, but a good job is made of giving everyone fair time. Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow is deliberately not the central figure this time around, that load more evenly shared with his still in love cohorts (Orlando Bloom & Keira Knightley) and the very welcome return of Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) who often ranks up there with Sparrow in terms of the best moments, despite his character having lost some of the dark edge which made him memorable. Depp is deliberately less slap sticky, returning to the darker and smarter routine of the first film – but the fresh edge he brought in ‘Pearl’ has failed to return as well.

The actors are as good as usual and hold up their ends well despite obvious exhaustion, even if some (notably Knightley) are stuck playing against the very nature of the character they created. Bloom’s sadly all too covered up tanned torso still looks great in wet togs, but he remains a bland hero – despite an interesting and almost mythic conclusion to his love affair subplot. Stellan Skarsgard, Jonathan Pryce and Jack Davenport are wasted this time around, though Tom Hollander does the snooty contemptuous villain role with ease. Chow Yun-Fat makes for a good new character but he’s hardly in it, and his send off involving a near rape seems very awkward in a Disney film. Depp remains the man to beat, but Rush and Nighy give him good competition.

Critics have already been screaming that the film is basically confusing and incoherent – a claim that in some ways is true. Like “Lord of the Rings”, these films demand that you are more than familiar with the previous entries and don’t play any sort of catchup for newcomers or even casual viewers. Yet as a fan of the last two who is quite familiar, it remains somewhat of a mess – and it’s not a matter of convolution but coherence as loyalty shifts and plot points often take place with no logical reason.

Yet even at 168 minutes, the pace is pretty consistent. There’s no completely unneeded diversions, like Chest’s cannibal island visit, and everything is wrapped up relatively neatly – even with hints of a further sequel’s supernatural treasure and potential villain. Events that happen here – however jumbled or mashed together – do figure towards the central story, and there is a refreshing sense of life and death as some series regulars meet unexpectedly grim fates. It’s bloated and way too long to be sure, but it balances out that heft across its various acts (no soggy middle act like ‘Chest’) which means you don’t feel it as much as you’d expect.

What’s really missing though is a sense of fun – it’s a morose film, opening with multiple hangings, and one that is bound to its rules more so than ever. The free spirited whimsy that made the first one an instant classic and was glimpsed in moments of the second (cannibal island escape, the sword fight on the wheel, etc.) are gone. There are no winks here, only occasional smile-inducing barbs about bigger instruments or Jack’s mania.

Still, the action is spectacular, effects are often amazing (Davy Jones remains the most convincing CG character creation ever attempted so far), and whilst it often coasts along already established formula far too often, it’s a comfortable and familiar ride that’s intermixed with moments of inventive or technical genius. A junk boat sailing through an ice cave, a limbo that looks like a desert done by David Lynch and filled with multiple Jack Sparrows, a pirate cove made entirely of shipwrecks, etc. the visuals are often really striking – even the small ones like a teardrop carefully lifted high by Davy Jones tentacle.

Same with the action sequences – the attempted escape from Davy Jones’ locker is superb fun, the long and somewhat overdone battle between two ships in a whirlpool is filled with a lot of technical wizardry, though the Jack & Davy Jones sword fight remains a highlight. Gore Verbinski and the crew have worked their asses off and it shows – all the money is right up there on screen, the sets are lavish, the FX superb and even if the story is often formulaic and rote – Verbinski’s lens is never dull and always alive with quirkiness, clever twists and some occasionally haunting visuals.

Looking back in a few years time, only the first “Pirates” will be remembered with any affection. Debates will rage about the two sequels, some preferring one over the other, but everyone pretty much agreeing that despite their moments of entertainment – neither is a shade on the original. ‘End’ serves far more as a fitting companion piece to the last film than as a stand-alone entry, and whilst I enjoyed ‘Chest’ more than this, ‘End’ strikes as ultimately a touch better as a piece of filmmaking.

Overburdened with exposition and dark drama, it does pull together story strands and wraps things up, but to do so it sucks much of the life, energy and just plain enjoyment out of the franchise to get back to essentially where it was at the very beginning. Calls of ending this franchise are premature – Chest and End’s problems lie in the sheer tomfoolery of rushing out these sequels so fast and together. Like “Spider-Man”, the ‘Pirates’ need to take a break for a few years and properly come back with a smarter, simpler, lighter, and more inventive entry to properly reinvigorate them into the smart crowd pleasers they began as.