A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

Man, I WISH Dead Men Told No Tales

The non-spoiler review for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is that it’s a piece of shit movie and you should feel free to spoil yourself by reading my spoiler-filled review below:

The funniest joke in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is also its first. The town of Santa Marta* has recently opened a new bank, complete with a new vault, which is said to be completely unbreakable, a way for the town to embrace the modernity that is sweeping the Caribbean colonies and keeping them safe from the plunder of pirates. To demonstrate the vault’s adamantine qualities, town officials open it up…and find Jack Sparrow sleeping inside.

*At least, I think it was Santa Marta. It was one of the towns from Sid Meier’s Pirates!, which I believe is the only source of research anyone on any of these films has ever done.

This joke is mostly an homage to/rip-off of the opening scene of Charlie Chaplin’s great film City Lights, where a statue to “peace and prosperity” is unveiled in front of a large crowd, only for the crowd and dedicatees to discover that The Little Tramp is sleeping atop it. It is also a joke that briefly made me consider Johnny Depp’s performance as Jack Sparrow in a new light. One of Depp’s early roles, in 1993’s Benny & Joon, showcased a talent for imitating great silent film artists like Chaplin and Keaton. Maybe the reason his performance as Jack Sparrow had gotten increasingly broad is that Depp was trying to bring something of Chaplin’s physical comedy to the role–after all, the eye shadow that’s a dominant feature of Sparrow’s look does resemble Chaplin’s greasepaint makeup. It made me reassess what Depp might be trying to do with the role.

Unfortunately, the joke is also representative of the film as a whole, because it’s not really funny in and of itself so much as it briefly reminds you of a funnier, better movie before obviously demonstrating that it completely missed the point of what the better film was trying to do. In this one case, the film it reminds you of is City Lights, but for most of the running time, the film it tries desperately to remind you of is Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

Practically every plot element from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Appear in Bad Movie is recycled from the original. You have a young man and young woman going on an adventure to find a pirate treasure with Captain Jack Sparrow, falling afoul of a band of undead pirates and the British Empire, both of whom want to kill Sparrow and wouldn’t mind getting the treasure for themselves. There are double-and-triple crosses, and extended battles between undead pirates who can’t be killed and regular pirates who can, but who never seem to grasp the basic imbalance at play in these battles. The main difference between the two films is that this one handles every single element terribly.

Take the first part, the male and female leads. Both are played by attractive, appealing actors in Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario, and with the right script you could see them having a decent level of chemistry, similar to Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley in the first film. But the first film establishes this by giving Knightley and Bloom’s characters an actual relationship in one of its first scenes: we see that they like each other but are divided by their class and her betrothal to a captain. It’s a fairly basic, cliche relationship, but it’s easily understandable in one scene and makes us sympathetic toward both characters. Pirates of the Caribbean: Kaya Scodelario’s Chest, by comparison, never actually gives us any sense that these two attractive young people should be together, or are attracted to each other, or even know each other’s names. In fact, I’m pretty sure they don’t even learn each other’s names until the last fifteen minutes of the film! I was genuinely shocked when they kissed at the end, because the movie had done nothing to establish them as a couple.

It doesn’t help that both characters have motivations that are as convoluted as they are unrelated. Thwaites plays Henry Turner, son of Bloom and Knightley’s characters, who is trying to rescue his father from the Flying Dutchman by finding the magical artifact of Poseidon’s Trident. Scodelario plays Carina Smyth, who is looking for the same thing because…she has a journal? It’s never really explained why she’s looking for it. She doesn’t even believe in magic, as she is a scientist, and therefore has been declared a witch, which, more on that later, but there’s not really a reason for her to be looking for a trident she’s pretty sure doesn’t exist. She doesn’t know who her father is, and while some movies might use this common ground to establish a relationship between Henry and her, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Absent Father is an Overused Trope basically just has Henry say “Hey, both of us grew up without our dads, weird huh?” and then leaves it at that.

Likewise, the first Pirates movie walked a sword’s edge between adventure, horror, and comedy, with its undead ghouls, swashbuckling battles, and campy performances, which were expertly blended across most scenes. Over the course of the sequels, however, these components have gradually separated, like a bottle of Italian dressing that hasn’t been shaken in a few minutes, so now you have scenes where an undead Javier Bardem mercilessly kills dozens of people, and then you cut to a scene where Jack Sparrow and a few pirates get confused at Carina calling herself a “horologist,” which is basically what passes for wit in this film.

Oh, and one note about Carina: the single characteristic that Pirates of the Carribean: Does “Caribbean” Have Two Rs or Two Bs or Two of Both has generously bestowed upon her is that she is a scientist, and she studies astronomy, and she believes in science and spends a lot of her time expounding upon how great science is, and as a result all the men start screaming that she’s a witch, because obviously that’s how people reacted to women who said the word “science” in the late 18th/early 19th century. We know it’s around that time because a guillotine (said to be “just arrived from France” is employed in an execution.

At first I was going to criticize this film for featuring witch hysteria in a post-Enlightenment time period, but then I remembered: there are actual witches in this film universe! There’s all sorts of supernatural stuff going on. There are at least three different types of undead, multiple cursed and magic artifacts, people who have been brought back from the dead, and, if this particular MacGuffin is to be believed, the Greek god Poseidon exists and has a magical trident. Oh, AND, in what’s clearly a refutation of real-world astronomy, the stars have such large parallax that the relative position of individual stars in a constellation changes after sailing in one direction for a single day. So clearly, in this universe medieval astronomers are correct, and the stars exist in a firmament a few hundred miles above the earth.

Hell, this universe’s version of Galileo apparently invented the spyglass to help him find pirate treasure. Yup! In the world of the Pirates movies, Galileo, a man of such unflinching intellectual integrity that he declared the infallible manifestation of God’s will on earth wrong in its conception of the universe, took a single look at the laws that seem to govern this universe and said “Fuck it; I’mo look for some pirate stuff.”

The real question here is, what the hell is Carina doing talking about how science is all great? Science clearly is this world’s equivalent of witchcraft: a bunch of funny words and strange ideas that are contradicted by clearly observable phenomena. And for that matter, why are they trying to kill her for being a witch? She doesn’t get the results a witch does in this world, and if she did, she’d be a useful asset! She could help you bring folks back from the dead!

Between the science-mindedness of Carina, the appearance of the fancy new vault and guillotine, the fact that Barbosa appears to have turned his pirating into a corporate business, and the final act of the movie, in which Carina and Henry destroy Poseidon’s Trident, therefore putting an end to every pirate curse in existence, it seems like the film is trying to gesture toward the idea that the modern world is finally encroaching on pirates, that the untamed waters of the Caribbean are being modernized by the slow progress of civilization.

The problem is, the film completely refutes this idea. By the end of the film, the vault is broken into, the guillotine is destroyed, Carina’s science is proven definitively wrong by the existence of ghosts and curses, Barbosa’s monopoly is broken up, and everything has returned to the pre-modernity, pirate-friendly status quo. So any sense of change or character progress or the need for anything in this world to move forward is completely counteracted. Even Bloom and Knightley seem in their brief cameos that they’ve aged maybe two years in the past seventeen. Don’t expect Poseidon’s trident being destroyed to last, either. Now that we know that Poseidon is an actual living being in this world, we know he’s probably going to just head up to Olympus and ask Hephaestus to make a new one.

Then again, maybe that’s not a bad thing from Disney’s perspective. Thanks to rubes like me, the Pirates films continue to make money despite significantly diminishing artistic returns. The last thing they want is this ahistorical pirate world being forced to confront any sort of limits. In Pirates of the Caribbean: Rated Argh for Pirates, Fuck You, we may have the idea Disney franchise film: the same basic story with a few new CGI sequences, repeated for maximum audience placation.

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This entry was posted on 26 May 2017 by in The Glowing Screen and tagged , , , , .
May 2017

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