Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides ★★½

2017 movie viewings, #112. As regular readers know, I decided recently to watch all five "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies for the very first time, as part of my larger efforts this year to watch a whole series of sometime mediocre but always visually dense films in order to justify the big-screen HDTV I received as a present last Christmas. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the first one, Curse of the Black Pearl, a nearly perfect balance of CG and practical effects, highly effective location shooting, a script that nicely teetered between Golden Age Hollywood cliches and modern supernatural elements, and exactly the right amount (that is, not much) of Johnny Depp's swaggering glam-rock Jack Sparrow.

And then like most others, I found myself disappointed by the next two films in the series, Dead Man's Chest and At World's End (which I reviewed together, since they were both made at the same time), in which director Gore Verbinski felt the pressure of continuing a billion-dollar franchise and decided to take everything just completely over the top, under the mistaken pretense of, "If a little Jack Sparrow is great, then a WHOLE LOT of Jack Sparrow will be REALLY, REALLY great!" (Spoiler alert -- it isn't.)

And that brings us to the fourth film of the series, On Stranger Tides, which I went into with complicated feelings; because for those who don't know, the script was adapted from a 1987 novel by one of my all-time favorite writers, the genre-blurring speculative author Tim Powers, and so I was naturally excited to see what a studio with unlimited resources like Disney might do with a book like that, even as I knew going into it that most people feel like this is the film where the entire franchise slid off the rails. (It's the first one not to be directed by Verbinski, instead helmed by musical-theater veteran Rob Marshall; and with a $400 million budget, it currently holds the title of "Most Expensive Movie Ever Made.")

The original novel is a typical Powers mishmash of fascinating elements, including the intersection of proto-science and voodoo magic that actually happened in the 1600s, a quest by famed pirate Blackbeard to find the fabled Fountain of Youth, a self-sentient Caribbean jungle, zombies, mermaids, and a whole mess of other supernatural details; and to its credit, the movie version tries to stick fairly faithfully to this, although with the problem of having to shoehorn Jack Sparrow into the middle of it all, and to somehow make him relevant to the proceedings despite being a fifth wheel to an entire action-adventure universe that was created without him.

And indeed, this is the major and overwhelming problem with this movie -- that although it's certainly well-made, it feels like it takes place in a completely different universe than the one where the first three "Pirates of a Caribbean" movies reside, precisely because it does, a film that would've been a wonderfully self-contained serious story full of richly dark supernatural elements, if not for having it interrupted by Depp stumbling into the middle of the frame every five minutes, batting his mascaraed eyes in confusion while muttering, "I say, I say, this is a ghostly pickle we're in, savvy?" It essentially prevented me from being able to even view the film on its own terms, making it impossible to judge it based on how well or badly it interpreted its source material from Powers' book, because I was just so freaking distracted every time a Disney character showed up like they had wandered off a set next-door.

The whole thing feels like if you took '60s James Kirk, cheap gold shirt and all, and suddenly put him in the co-pilot chair of the Millennium Falcon ("Warp 9, Mr. Solo!" "What the hell are you talking about?"); and it's obvious that this bizarre franchise-commingling disaster was perceived negatively by audiences at large as well, regardless of whether or not they were aware of Powers' original novel, the main reason this was greeted by so much deep and persistent criticism. (But make no mistake, it still made hella money -- with $1.1 billion raked in and counting, seven years later it still stands as the 23rd highest grossing movie of all time, the obvious reason they went ahead and made a fifth chapter too, despite the nation collectively throwing its hands in the air with that one and saying, "Ugh, are you kidding me?!")

And speaking of that fifth film, the universally panned Dead Men Tell No Tales (directed by a couple of unknown Norwegian hipsters, a couple of unknown Norwegian hipsters, for Christ's sake), I originally torrented that a couple of weeks ago, planning on watching it at home to finish up the series; what I didn't realize, however is that that film is actually still in theaters, and that the copy I torrented was made by literally some dude sitting in the audience in a Hong Kong theater and camcording the whole thing from his seat, and I just refuse to watch movies that way. So I'll either see it while it's still in theaters here in Chicago; or much more likely, will be waiting until it comes out on DVD in another six months, meaning that it'll probably be awhile before I finally finish up my write-ups of this franchise. But in the meanwhile, On Stranger Tides might actually be a film you'll want to take a chance on if you never have, more interesting than its reputation has it and that is only really sunk simply by trying to cram a second, entirely different franchise into the proceedings. Or, you know, do yourself a bigger favor and just read the novel, you squinty-eyed film nerd.

Jason Pettus liked these reviews