Movie Review - Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Someday, someone will have to explain to studios why making the same movie over and over again simply doesn’t work. I suspect there’s a logical fallacy, where executives assume that because they’ve made a successful movie in the past that audiences want to watch over and over again, then repeating the same beats across multiple different movies will produce the same results. The problem is that the entire reason most audiences return to a movie for repeat viewings is because of its freshness, its originality, the ways the characters surprise and inspire them. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl worked 14 years ago because Johnny Depp’s absolute lunacy breathed fresh life into a tired genre. That inspiration has long since worn off, however, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales has washed ashore, trotting out the same tricks and asking a blockbuster-weary audience to act like they’ve never seen any of this before.
Johnny Depp returns as Captain Jack Sparrow, the roguishly mischievous pirate who lost his spark somewhere in the middle of the third film. We first catch up with Jack asleep on the job, passed out in a bank vault and oblivious to the happenings around him; this is a great metaphor for Depp’s performance, which is as phoned-in as they come. He could play Captain Jack Sparrow in his sleep – and he does. Depp can’t be blamed, as Captain Jack is largely sidelined once again to allow for a sweeping story involving the trident of Poseidon and the gaggle of characters trying to reach it so they can exploit its magical powers.
We meet Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), son of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley’s characters from the first three Pirates films, who seeks the trident to free his father from his watery fate. Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) also seeks the trident with the help of a magic map gilded with a mystical ruby. Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa returns to stir things up, and Rush again proves to be the only one left in this franchise who seems to be having any fun. The British, led by Lord of the Rings’ David Wenham, are also giving chase because this is a Pirates movie and someone always has to be running from the British; and ALL of the characters are pursued by Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), a Spanish sea captain cursed many years ago by Jack Sparrow to a live a life of ghostly imprisonment. There is much talk of sea curses, more than one double-cross, and a fair amount of supernatural violence.
Despite seeming to pride itself on how many characters and plotlines it can squeeze into one movie, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise continues to exhibit a staggering lack of imagination. Dead Men Tell No Tales is practically a checklist of things that have already appeared in other Pirates movies. Jack’s crew loses confidence in him? CHECK. Someone wants Jack’s magical compass? CHECK. An undead crew of pirates led by a supernatural captain? CHECK (for the fourth time). An execution scene where our heroes are saved at the last second by hidden allies? CHECK. If you’ve seen it in a previous Pirates film, odds are it’ll be in this one, too. Every genre has tropes, but the Pirates movies seem to be assembled at random from a bag that only contains scenes and events that happened in previous Pirates movies.
The saddest thing about Dead Men Tell No Tales is that there are glimmers of inspiration. An opening action sequence involving the aforementioned bank vault gives the movie an early shot in the arm, and the climax of the film shows a passion and love for the franchise and its characters that the rest of the film sorely lacks, though the emotional payoff is almost an exact duplicate of the climax from another 2017 summer blockbuster. Methinks the Disney creative minds have been plundering each others’ creative notes. The middle of the movie is pure empty spectacle, though, a joyless, chaotic, halfhearted mess that drowns what little treasure the movie has to offer.
The obligatory end-credits scene teases where Pirates 6 may be headed, which is to further revisit what’s come before and continue to undo the storylines and conclusions of the previous films. This would be a mistake. Audience interest isn’t infinite and the Pirates movies, should they decide to needlessly continue making them, need to chart a course for uncharted waters before they sink to the bottom under their own weight. Dead franchises tell no tales.