- Fun action scenes, although sometimes too outrageous and unbelievable
- Rushed narrative with shameless McGuffin
- Main characters Jack and Henry either annoying or boring
- Kaya Scodelario’s Carina, Rush’s Barbosa and Bardem’s Salazar are all excellent
- Occasional laughs, sometimes jokes so desperate they’re cringy
- Not an awful film, but it could be so much more
There’s no doubting the enormity of the success of the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. Audiences liked the originality, the imagination, the characters, the comedy, the action. There was lots to be enjoyed – even in the latter two, which were notably less liked. The fourth one afterwards was wobbly at best, almost killing the franchise. So here’s the latest attempt to bring it back up to par, the fifth instalment. So does it live up to the highs of the original? In short, no; definitely not. There are things to be enjoyed, certainly, but it seems as though the mighty Mouse House that is Disney has lost the capability to make a good Pirates film.
After promising his father he will find Poseidon’s Trident to free him from The Flying Dutchman, Will Turner’s son Henry (Brenton Thwaites) seeks out help from his father’s old friend and adventurer, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). Henry is attacked by Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) who escapes the ‘Devil’s Triangle’ and is set on getting revenge on all pirates, particularly his old enemy, Captain Jack, while using Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) to find him. Henry finds Jack, down on his luck with a reluctant crew, and forms a shaky alliance with him and horologist Carina (Kaya Scodelario), also searching for the trident by following stars. Ships are sailed, sword fights are fought, rum is drunk and romance is forcibly eschewed in.
Honestly, the story itself isn’t too bad, which is what you’d hope from Terry Rossio, the writer of the original three and who contributed to this story. In typical Pirates fashion, a magical object is the key to all their problems (at least until the next film) and there will inevitably be something to do with Jack’s compass. I usually like the treasure-hunting, clue-searching stories; Indiana Jones, James Bond, Uncharted games, even National Treasure. This one isn’t done quite as well. Not much happens in their hunt for the trident. There’s no particular clue or revelation that leads on to another. They just follow stars until they come to the island. In fact so much is spoken about the stars than the actual trident that by the time you get to the trident it doesn’t really seem like a big deal anymore. It’s a shameless McGuffin that seems more like a side quest, while the real story seems to be Salazar’s hunt for Jack and Jack evading situations.
The narrative itself just seems rushed, with neither the directors nor writers wanting to put any time or care into how the story unfolds, not even letting us warm to the new characters. This extends even to the editing which, for lots of the film, cuts too quickly, little care taken to make a carefully crafted film; each scene in between the action is rushed along. On top of this, most plot-points are explained with boring, on-the-nose pantomime-esque dialogue. It’s as if this script weren’t given the redraft it so desperately needed (although perhaps this is what you get when you leave screenwriting duties to one of the men responsible for Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull… whatever happened to the same man who wrote Catch Me If You Can?!).
Comedy has been an intrinsic element in the Pirates films, an aspect which made us all fall in love with Captain Jack in the first three films particularly. Sadly it’s just not up to scratch this time round. That’s not to say it’s not funny – quite often it is. Yet there seems to be too many attempts at comedy that that fall flat; too many cartoonish comedic attempts, including Jack quite literally falling flat on his face. There are enough jokes that hit for it to still be funny though and for us to politely ignore the jokes that miss.
The cartoon action however is sometimes too much – to completely defy physics wobbles our willing suspense of disbelief and becomes too outrageous; you can easily suspend said disbelief watching Jack jump from canon to canon, but a mere six horses cannot drag a whole building with a heavy safe for approximately 10 minutes; and if you come between the hull of a ship and a canon of another ship, there will be a rather unfortunate and bloody mess, rather than you simply crashing through the hull.
Nevertheless, despite this when the action is good it can be really good. The fight scenes are as fun, slick and exciting as ever, the sword fights and ship battles expertly choreographed. This is aided by the wonderful and immersive CGI that throws us into this fantastical pirate world within the Caribbean that fuels our imagination, much like the other films. The CGI ghost sharks, despite being a little silly, were a particular highlight for me. This is the kind of imaginative excitement that we love in a Pirates film.
If only this extended to the characters. There are many characters from the original trilogy that we loved besides Jack. We liked Will, we loved Elizabeth; heck, we even liked Norrington from time to time! In this film it edges towards having too many characters with too many goals, a similar flaw to At World’s End. The British Redcoats for example were ultimately pointless and just a deviation and excuse for a few fun fight scenes. But more than this it’s notable that there are only three decent characters we like – and Jack isn’t one of them. Geoffrey Rush as Barbosa was excellent as usual, always a highlight in these films, bringing a perfect mixture of comedy and pirate deviousness to the character. (MINOR SPOILER IN NEXT SENTENCE) His revelation of his link to Carina in particular makes us warm to him like we haven’t before (END OF SPOILER). Having an excellent actor like Javier Bardem was extremely fortunate and luckily they didn’t let him go to waste. As with most of his films, Bardem is a highlight, always a perfect villain who actually brings fear and dread, the belief that his character is actually dangerous. The character who stood out for me was Carina. I’ve been a fan of Kay’s Scodelario since seeing her in Skins. With expressive eyes, she can evoke a thought or emotion with just a look. Although slightly using the prototype of Knightley’s Elizabeth Swan, Carina is still her own character, loveable and delightful, holding her own and being the strong female character that in part drives the whole film. My only criticism of her is that her romance with Henry is forced and doesn’t develop organically, it just happens at the end of the film, coming from nowhere and confusing you utterly.
On the other hand, there are a couple of characters who aren’t as joyous to watch. For starters, Depp’s Captain Jack just isn’t the same. Too drunk and not as charming as he used to be; something’s happened and we can’t help but miss the old Jack. He does have his moments, of course, where he’s still fun to watch. But unlike other films, he’s not the highlight he used to be. The weak pillar of the film for me though was Home and Away actor Brenton Thwaites’ Will Turner Mark 2, Henry Turner. Perhaps it was just the lines in the script he was given, but he’s rarely convincing and his character is neither likeable nor particularly necessary. Orlando Bloom was more than just a pretty-boy who interacted with Captain Jack. As this character’s son, we needed more of his father.
SPOILERS IN PARAGRAPH Of course we do see Will Turner in this film. Not necessarily on fine form, but it’s nice to see a familiar face. And although forced in more than Carina and Henry’s romance, it was a delight to see Knightley’s Elizabeth reunite with Bloom’s Will. In fact their post-credit sequence is the highlight of the film. This presents the problem that by seeing them, we’re instantly reminded how superior the original three films are and I can’t help but rather watch them instead. Or alternatively a prequel; although just serving just to add some background to Salazar, the scene with the young Jack Sparrow was undoubtedly one of the best moments, showing that perhaps a prequel showing how Jack came to be Captain of the Black Pearl may be a better option for the sixth film. After all young versions of actors can be very successful – just look at Kurt Russell in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 or Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher in Rogue One.
All in all it’s not great, but it’s really not an awful film, despite its numerous flaws. And I suppose a sixth entry is inevitable since this film had already grossed over $300 million in just a few days, pushing the total franchise’s gross to over $4 billion. If you’re looking for a silly, but fun film with a few laughs, some exciting sword-locking, ship-blasting action scenes, then you’re be relatively entertained. But I hope for more in the next one (if it happens) because this isn’t the way I want this pirate’s life to end. So drink up, me hearties, yo ho and bring me that horizon for a better sixth film.