Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Stranger, Yet Familiar

Way, way back during the previous incarnation of this blog, I posted a bit about the then-current Pirates of the Caribbean film, Dead Man's Chest. Going back and re-reading my excited ramblings is a bit humbling now - possibly my views on that film have since been a bit soured by the failures of At World's End, but in retrospect I seem a bit . . . uncritical (also less skilled with formatting).

Still, having seen the latest installment in the franchise - Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - I can safely say that it was at least as good as DMC, and probably a bit better.

The biggest factor in this, I think, is that the film-makers really dialed back the "epic" dial for this installment, especially as compared to the escalation of the previous sequels. Indeed, while there is plenty of swashbuckling at the individual level - including the very nice opening carriage chase, and a very nice nod at what I consider one of the worst elements of At World's End - there was a distinct lack of action on a grander scale. The biggest example of this takes place shortly after Barbossa sets sail, as he runs into a small Spanish fleet with the same goal as himself (or so he thinks!). Barbarossa prepares for a battle, but backs down when the Spanish don't deign to notice him.

The other major setpieces, the mermaid hunt and the final battle over the Fountain of Youth, both do involve multiple participants, but at a scale far closer to that of the first Pirates movie than either of the next two. This is for the better, I think, though in retrospect it seems odd to have skipped a ship-to-ship battle when even Curse of the Black Pearl had one.

Speaking of the mermaids and the fountain, the two latest fantasy elements to be added to the Pirates universe, I found their inclusion into the Pirates universe quite natural. Both are after all, genuine pieces of Caribbean lore, and have some ties with the previous films (unlike, say, the whole "Calypso" plotline from At World's End, which had neither quality).

One thing I didn't like about the film, though, was the way they used Blackbeard. It seemed to me that what the film-maker's did was use the trappings of Edward Teach's career without really catching his whole character. Not to take anything away from Ian McShane's performance, but Blackbeard - the historical Blackbeard, that is - has always seemed to me to have had a violent, expressive personality; a far cry from the film's portrayal, which seemed to me to be going more for the "calm, affable, reasonable person who may kill you in cold blood at any moment" type. Frankly, there should be nothing cold about Blackbeard - this is the pirate famous for tying burning fuses into his hair, for crying out loud. And, admittedly, they did show up - but only in Blackbeard's entrance shot, at least as far as I noticed. The worst of it is, we know full well that it would have been possible for the film-makers to have kept them burning all or most of the time:

I doubt this guy would have been such a Blackbeard clone if they had known that Blackbeard himself was going to show up.

Lest I be accused of being overly nitpicky (a charge I'll happily concede to when appropriate), that's not the only piece of the Blackbeard legend to get co-opted for the film: just off the top of my head I can also think of his famous remark that if he didn't kill one of his men every so often, people would forget who he was - in the film he says this while suppressing a mutiny, in history it was shortly after shooting Israel Hands in the leg for no discernible reason. There's also the matter of his playful showmanship - the whole, "six guns with two bullets" thing is, to my mind, greatly overshadowed by the historical Blackbeard's famous recreation of Hell in the bowels of the Queen Anne's Revenge (Blackbeard, naturally, not only stayed in the longest but didn't seem affected when he did emerge). Not to mention that no matter how unique the film's skull-and-crossed-wings was, it can't really compare to Blackbeard's highly non-standard and symbolism-laden banner.

Hmm, it seems that the Blackbeard issue bothers me more than I thought. Really, though, the historical issues didn't distract too much from the enjoyment of the film, and there were a couple of other things that could have brought the film down, but didn't. I'm thinking specifically of the Phillip/Syrena storyline here, which seemed like a hamhanded attempt at recreating the Will & Elizabeth romantic element but ended in a satisfactorily unromantic way. Actually, there were quite a few places where the film seemed to be poking fun at some of it's previous excesses, such as the aforementioned fight between Jack and his impostor, and his line about needing a man who can go like this:

Somewhat more seriously, I might go so far as to say that the use of the Fountain of Youth in On Stranger Tides is the latest exploration of a theme that's been building throughout the series; an exploration of mortality and the perils, pitfalls, and prices of avoiding it. This theme surrounds Davy Jones and the crew of the Flying Dutchman, of course, ("Do you fear Death?"), but first appears in the curse laid on the Aztec gold which, if you'll recall, extended the victim's life in exchange for everything that makes life bearable. It's almost as if the theme of the whole franchise was stated in the third film by Captain Teague - "It's not just about living forever, Jackie. It's about living with yourself forever." Pretty heavy stuff for a film series based on a theme park ride.


Wynn said...

Wait wait wait. Are we talking an exploration of morality or an exploration of mortality here? You seem to be discussing the latter...

T. Everett said...


Yes, that was supposed to say mortality. Good catch, I'll just go and fix that . . .