REVIEW: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)

Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of William Turner (Orlando Bloom), seeks the mythical Trident of Posiedon in order to remove the curse that keeps William aboard the Flying Dutchman. Joining him on his quest are astronomer Carina Smith (Kaya Scodelario), and Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) – who is on the run from the vengeful ghost of the Spanish Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem).

Pirates of the Caribbean returns for a fifth installment, not so much biting at the heels of the fourth film as limping into port after one hell of a development storm. It shows: while there are plenty of ideas, fantastical imagery and action to be found, there is an overwhelming disinterest that emanates from the film. It feels tired, but more specifically it feels contractually obliged. It has been six years since On Stranger Tides, and there is a generally leaden feel to the entire film that spoils its chances of making an impact.

There is a half-hearted attempt in this film to relaunch the franchise. We have a new romantic pair of leads in Henry and Carina, and to their credit Thwaites and Scodelario give the most enthused of the performances. I was impressed by Scodelario in Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (2011) and the Maze Runner films, and she continues to impress here. She has a natural screen presence that could, given the right roles, make her a major star over the next few years. With Thwaites I typically struggle – certainly he did the risible Gods of Egypt no favours – but to his credit he acquits himself ably in a somewhat under-written role.

The returning cast seems a little worn-out. Geoffrey Rush, usually the highlight of every Pirates film as Captain Hector Barbossa, comes across as rather subdued and dull. While there is humour to be had from the pirate crew, notably Kevin McNally’s ever-reliable Mr Gibbs, collectively they mostly remind one of just how much the franchise lost when Lee Arenberg and MacKenzie Crook bailed after the third film.

As the villainous Captain Salazar, Javier Bardem does a reasonable job, although he’s fighting against multiple superior villains from past films. The longer a franchise like this continues, the more difficult it becomes to make an impact. I am not convinced Salazar makes enough of one here.

Then there is Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, easily one of Hollywood’s most iconic characters of the past quarter century. In the 2003 original Depp was genuinely sensational, combining physical comedy with a fairly cold, sharp core. As the sequels progressed audiences have seen more of the comedy and less of the core, and that has been entirely to the character’s detriment. On top of that there is Depp’s seemingly lazy performance. It is perhaps a little too easy to read into his personal issues during the production of Dead Men Tell No Tales, since they were plastered all over the entertainment and gossip press at the time, but it definitely feels like Depp was not putting in the effort that he put into his earlier outings. For this viewer, Jack Sparrow has essentially out-stayed his welcome.

I do feel somewhat sorry for directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, getting their first chance to play in a big-budget production after their earlier film Kon Tiki cause the eye of Disney executives. If they had a chance to impress their own aesthetic onto the film then they failed to do so. Much more likely is that they simply did not get that chance at all. This is a slick, corporate product carefully constructed to be as similar to the earlier Pirates films as is possible – and that ultimately helps to derail it, since in quality terms it simply cannot compete.

There is entertainment to be found in the film. The production design is strong. Geoff Zanelli – taking over composing after four films in an assisting capacity – does a good job with the orchestral score. There are visually arresting ghosts, some nice cameos, an animated shipwreck that eats other ships, and zombie sharks. If you have lasted through the other four Pirates films and reached this far, you will probably get some value out the fifth. It is, to my mind, the weakest of the set. A post-credit teaser points to a sixth film. Without a significant change in cast, story and style, I am not sure I really want Disney to make it.

One final criticism requires spoiling the plot somewhat for anyone who has not seen the film. Henry Turner’s quest to break the curse that affects his father is, ultimately, a successful one. That actually irritates slightly. One of the strengths of At World’s End was that the victory came with a cost: Will Turner got to survive and reunite with his father, but was trapped on the Flying Dutchman and only able to see his wife one day every ten years. It had a wonderfully folkloric, lyrical quality, and combined tragedy and romance in a beautiful fashion. Dead Men Tell No Tales pretty much wipes that away. It is a plot thread that was much better left untouched; much like, if I am not be completely honest, this franchise.

 

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