Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Or: Captain Jack Sparrow vs. morality… and subplots
Well I’m all for a few jolly hours spent watching pirates being pirates. Unfortunately in recent years the Pirates franchise has offered us a law of rapidly diminishing returns. Yes fun stuff did happen and we did indeed get to watch, but empty kinetics increasingly drowned out the last vestiges of story and the enjoyably pantomime characters ended up all at sea.
In fairness, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio et al have gone some way towards making amends for the disappointment of the previous two films with Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Their plot is stronger, at least in the first half. The best of the film’s action set pieces in London is really well thought through. Jack and the gang get some well-chosen cheesy lines and their screenplay allows Geoffrey Rush to have such fun in the first act, as Barbossa plays the role of a newly powdered and bewigged privateer, that he steals every scene he’s in.
Sadly the movie ends up hitting the rocks because they can’t navigate around the central, fundamental truth of the Pirates series: you just can’t give Jack Sparrow depth. Don’t get me wrong, we love Jack and we love Johnny Depp’s intentionally flighty and flyweight incarnation. But it’s a performance designed beautifully around the pleasures of the surface. For all his hilariously fey physicality and semi-addled diction, Jack is the unchanging rock that anchors the vessel of the plot to the seabed and keeps it honest. And by honest I mean light as air. He’s a light rock, you see? Work with me…
On Stranger Tides tries simultaneously to give Jack moral and romantic depth by partnering him with an old flame to whom he ‘done wrong’ and yet apparently never actually slept with (we can hear the Disney corporate typewriter clattering away behind the scenes most strongly here). Simultaneously, however, it acknowledges the impossibility of the task by inventing a tedious subplot involving a captured priest who falls for a mermaid and whose pure love causes her to shed the tear the pirates need to perform a ritual at the Fountain of Youth.
Jack could never be capable of pure love or selfless feeling, so why force the story down these blind alleys? It’s not like he is going to change – and nor do we want him to – so why waste time, narrative energy and plot coherence pretending that he might? What’s more, crime of crimes the presence of Angelica on Blackbeard’s ship completely undercuts the great Ian McShane’s attempts to imbue that iconic character with any real menace. Furthermore another subplot involving Barbossa’s quest for revenge against Blackbeard combines with the mermaid story to rob Captain Jack of much importance at the film’s climax.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, like its predecessors, is still caught between the structures of a straightforward heroic adventure and an ensemble narrative. This time it might have got away with it if some of those ensemble subplots hadn’t been doomed to inadequacy from the get go.