Wednesday 18 May 2011

From the archive: "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End"

Thoughts from the deck of a sinking ship: as a member of the general public who, with exceptions, seem to have taken the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise to its foolish heart, you'll have little or no idea what horror it is to be presented with a third in the series. Very rarely can anyone heading to the cinema for an afternoon's supposed entertainment have looked and felt more like a man being led to the gallows; I swear the usherette taking my ticket let slip a murmur of "dead man walking" as I passed.

The POTC trilogy is fascinating only for the ways it defies all known laws of movie physics, comprising not one but three films based on no more inspirational a source than a theme park ride, and this after the series' second entry, last year's Dead Man's Chest, surpassed its predecessor to become one of the biggest grossing films of all time, despite constituent parts - slipshod direction, drippy leads, a script that appeared barely spellchecked, let alone waterproofed - that suggested it might, in most normal circumstances, have sunk without trace.

For At World's End, hesistantly described as the final in the series, the line between jovial piss-taking, the irreverence fans have come to regard as the Pirates stock-in-trade, and outright taking the piss is crossed once and for all: this latest clocks in just shy of three hours and will, probably, against all logic, make even more money. At World's End is subject to the expansion and bloating that hits all successful franchises eventually (just look at Spider-Man 3); it doesn't help that The Curse of the Black Pearl and Dead Man's Chest were bloated enough to be going on with already, thank you very much.

Minor characters, mere pawns in those first two films, suddenly start to jostle for their own storylines, the creators complacent in the belief there's an audience for them, whether we care about any of them or not. The Pirates franchise is, for better or worse, defined by this carelessness - it doesn't have to respond to criticisms of the second film, since parts two and three were filmed back-to-back - and this new film duly brings back even those characters that stuck in the craw last time, like Naomie Harris's black-toothed voodoo priestess, surely the most prominently demeaning role any up-and-coming young actress has ever taken for a chance to catch a Hollywood agent's eye. (It's not as though Harris even needs it: she gave a perfectly fine performance in last year's Miami Vice.) The casual racism is expanded here with the addition of funny-talking Asian and African pirates: irreverence is one thing, insidiousness quite another.

Physically, too, this remains a very ugly franchise, something trumped-up roles for Geoffrey Rush, a squid-faced Bill Nighy and the coral-encrusted Stellan Skarsgard, and the addition of Chow Yun-Fat as a scarified Singaporean with rank fingernails, lank facial hair and a producer's eye on the lucrative Asian market, doesn't exactly help. Of the more obviously attractive elements, Keira Knightley - repositioned here as a proto-feminist warlord on a par with her bounty hunter in Domino - is stuck with that Bisto gravy tan she was dipped in between films one and two, Johnny Depp - introduced with his nose and tongue in extreme close-up - persists with that swishing rastafarian look that a great many people apparently find hilarious, and as for Orblando - coming shortly to a West End stage near you, in a belated shot at credibility - well, if you can find a boy with no qualities more substantial than diverting cheekbones attractive, you can only be 14 years old. At least the Tomb Raider movies had Angelina Jolie in them.

It was around the film's 137th instance of a double-cross passing for a significant plot point that I was struck by just how susceptible our popular culture has come to the unrewarding grotesque: I don't necessarily want to come over all high-minded, but Jordan or Jade Goody or Pete Doherty could walk into a Pirates of the Caribbean film, and no-one would turn a blind eye, not even ship's mate Mackenzie Crook, with his blind eye. Certainly, Klaus Badelt's score - with its spaghetti Western pastiches and interminable love themes - is pretty hideous to have to listen to, the Morricone riffs presumably there as a "playful" nod (everything in Piratesland is "playful"; inverted commas abound) to a subgenre celebrated for its lack of restraint.

The problem with a mish-mash like At World's End is that it doesn't have a Leone at the helm, but a Verbinski; that it doesn't know when to stop. What was so stirring about the original swashbucklers - films like Scaramouche, The Flame and the Arrow, The Crimson Pirate - gets buried beneath an understanding fostered in the worst of producer Jerry Bruckheimer's features, that nothing is ever enough. Just as Dead Man's Chest decided to stage its only swordfight of note atop a giant, out-of-control waterwheel - making the clash of swords precisely the least significant aspect of the scene - At World's End faffs around for two hours before getting to any real swordplay, then smothers it by having Keira and Orblando get married in the middle of it all.

I know I risk sounding like the character in Little Britain who continually turns away pirate memory games on the basis they're not pirate-y enough, but really: Pirates of the Caribbean could care less about piracy, which is a shame, considering some of the junk piled on top of it throughout. One universe can't hold it in in At World's End: the film falls off the edge of the world like a lead weight, and into an alternative reality where there are multiple Jack Sparrows (including, inevitably, a CG one in a state of some disrepair), two captains, and the ghosts of once-dead characters (like Keira's father Jonathan Pryce) revived for no good narrative reason.

The bloating might be forgivable if the world of the film had been bursting at the seams with ideas or jokes, but it's not; instead, we're given three hours of nods, winks and twitches. As an illustration of how overdone and over-produced the film is, consider the introduction of Keith Richards to the Pirates fraternity: his cameo as Captain Jack's dad would have been a lot funnier if he'd swaggered on looking like Keith Richards - but, instead, the make-up department have adorned him with ribbons, bows and eyeliner, swamping whatever kind of joke this is for good. (It may also be attributable to an ignorance of rock history, but at the screening I attended, his appearance raised not a single titter.)

The few critical apologists for Dead Man's Chest - notably Anthony Lane in The New Yorker and Leslie Felperin in Sight and Sound - arrived at the opinion audiences like these films precisely because of their carelessness, the way they promote irresponsibility; as a counterblast, if you like, to the po-faced sincerity of such comparable (yet less profitable) blockbuster entertainments as the Spider-Man films and Superman Returns. This is all very well, except that it's a very safe, conformist idea of irresponsibility - punk never had so many posters on buses and bus shelters, key advertising sites - and it assumes that what we need these days, and what the movies would do well to continue selling, is more consumption and idiocy, excess and thoughtlessness, and more ways of spending our money on vapid, worthless product.

I wish no harm on all those hastening to see At World's End this weekend looking for a good night out, but they're on the wrong side of the culture wars, turning up like sheep or lambs to the slaughter to hand over the five or ten pounds that will bring us all depressingly closer to the prospect of Pirates IV. Nobody truly loves this franchise, or needs it because something in its emotional rigmarole (Keira and Orblando denying they fancy one another, then snogging just for the heck of it) touches the heart, soul or mind; they go to see it because it's there, and within easy reach of the snack bar, all barnacles on cardboard, yo-ho-ho and a 2.5-litre, family-sized bottle of dumb.

(May 2007)

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