Welcome, friends. Last night I saw the latest of the Pirates of the Caribbean films – Salazar’s Revenge (terrible title tbh) aka Dead Men Tell No Tales (the much superior US (?) title). And I have some thoughts about it. This is less of a measured and academic “review” and more of a “Emma has a lot of feelings so let her word vomit them here including lots of CAPITAL LETTERS OF ENTHUSIASM and reaction gifs”… buckle in, folks, it may be a bumpy ride!
I went into the latest instalment in the running-out-of-steam Pirates of the Caribbean franchise with low hopes, such low hopes that I’m not even sure the word “hope” should be found within 10 feet of my expectations. I’d heard 2 and 1-star reviews across the board. So, suffice it to say, I expected a hot mess. What did I get? Well, not a hot mess, more a lukewarm mess, if anything. To me, Salazar’s Revenge made more sense and had more potential than the fourth film, On Stranger Tides, which means I didn’t find it nearly as disappointing as a lot of reviewers and critics did. “Potential” is, I think, the key word here, since not all that potential was fulfilled enough for my tastes, but more on that later. If you’re going into this expecting a ground-breaking sequel, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment from the off, but if all you want is a bit of light relief and nautical adventure? This fits the bill.
Let’s start with the premise…
“Johnny Depp returns to the big screen as the iconic, swashbuckling anti-hero Jack Sparrow in the all-new “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.” The rip-roaring adventure finds down-on-his-luck Captain Jack feeling the winds of ill-fortune blowing strongly his way when deadly ghost sailors, led by the terrifying Captain Salazar, escape from the Devil’s Triangle bent on killing every pirate at sea – notably Jack. Jack’s only hope of survival lies in the legendary Trident of Poseidon, but to find it he must forge an uneasy alliance with Carina Smyth, a brilliant and beautiful astronomer, and Henry, a headstrong young sailor in the Royal Navy. At the helm of the Dying Gull, his pitifully small and shabby ship, Captain Jack seeks not only to reverse his recent spate of ill fortune, but to save his very life from the most formidable and malicious foe he has ever faced.” (Summary from IMDB)
From this point in there will be
blood spoilers so please, for the love of all that is good and holy, if you intend to see this film and do not want to be spoiled then DO NOT READ ON, GO AWAY AND LIVE YOUR LIFE IN BLISSFUL IGNORANCE, GO NOW.
For those of you still with me, let’s proceed…
First, let’s discuss the plot…
I think the plot is largely why people are comparing this to the first film. It feels a lot more like a beginning-middle-end film – introduce protagonist and motivations when they’re young, have them age, introduce whatever tomfoolery Jack and his crew are up to, have protagonist leave their usual situation for adventure on the high seas, searching for something/someone, big pirate battle, conclusion complete with kissing, swelling music, and that good ol’ horizon.
But I’m not sure this plot entirely holds up, but when does it in a Pirates film once you start really scrutinising it? The overarching plot is that everyone is seeking the Trident of Poseidon because it… rules the seas? Breaks curses? IT DOES SOMETHING POWERFUL SO WE SHOULD WANT IT. Likewise, I’m not sure what kind of device Jack’s compass was meant to be in this film. It was the thing keeping Salazar and his ghost crew confined? It points to what you most desire? It leads you… places… I’ve forgotten at this point what mythology we’ve had surrounding it and, to be honest, I’m kind of fine with that, I’ll happily be confused and just go with it, I’m already suspending so much disbelief at this point.
Look, if you basically accept these basic plot devices and don’t look any closer then the plot holds up pretty well – just chill and go along with it, this is made to be a summer blockbuster with some swashbuckling action, it’s not a restrained super complex indie art house film. Just watch for the big explosions and pretty shots of the sea, ok? We all know what we’re getting with Pirates by this point, so a half-baked plot will kind of suffice. Is there anyone who can still truthfully say that they keep coming back to the Pirates franchise for the deep and meaningful plot? No.
Now to the characters. Full disclosure: I understood maybe 50% of what Javier Bardem said. Admittedly, I tend to watch films and TV shows with subtitles, so that’s my own fault but, when Liz leaned over and whispered to me “how you doing understanding what he’s saying?”, it wasn’t an unfounded concern.
Part of the problem is the CGI which sounds odd but bear with me… the whole point of Javier Bardem’s character, Salazar, is that he’s… a ghost (?) so is half-formed, some of his face isn’t there (side note: what is it with Bardem playing characters like that? Hello, Skyfall, much?) so his speech is affected by this. Also he speaks in a raspy whisper, as all good villains clearly should. However, as a villain, I liked that he had a backstory which was different to the others. Of course they all have to have a long-standing grudge against Jack Sparrow (the guy gets around the seas, it seems), but at least this was slightly different in that it had the Spanish Navy Pirate Hunter angle. Plus I feel that this grudge is founded; I’d be pretty pissed off too if Jack Sparrow had tricked me into sailing into the Devil’s Triangle and resulted in me and my crew becoming undead.
I would like to take a moment to mourn the loss of the British Navy as a relevant antagonist. Gone are the days of Commodore Norrington (my love, my heart) and Cutler Beckett, up to the plate steps Faramir… cough sorry I mean David Wenham… as the obligatory Authority Figure Against Pirates (?). The problem is that he was so one-dimensional that I almost forgot the Navy were even after anyone until they occasionally cut back to a ship on the horizon and I remembered that, oh yeah, there’s those guys chasing… someone (??) too.
Ostensibly David Wenham served an antagonist to Carina’s character, as she was awaiting execution as a witch. That storyline right there has SO MUCH POTENTIAL that wasn’t even touched on at all in the entire film, which is amazing considering how long this film was. A strong young woman who has education and knowledge behind her (the scene where she spies a No Women Allowed sign on the shop front is the closest we got to Pirates pursuing that interesting angle) and whose knowledge is considered witchcraft… that is SOMETHING TO PURSUE, it’s interesting, why was it not even hinted at?? The “horologist” joke was given more screen time than this, and that was a pretty basic joke that didn’t need repeating!
The main problem with Carina is that the opportunity to develop her character is gone. We will never see her character develop in any subsequent films because she has now been introduced as is off on her merry way. Unless we get flashbacks (unlikely), this is the character we’re working with, nothing more, nothing less. Overall, I think Kaya Scodelario is a fine actress and I liked her Carina – she was different enough to Elizabeth Swann who, let’s face it, started off pretty privileged and pampered for the majority of the first film, for all her romantic interest in piracy. Carina Smyth isn’t so alike that you need to constantly compare and contrast, but if I were to, I’d say she had potential to usurp early Elizabeth but that potential was squandered – if anything she seemed stupider by the end of this film.
As to Carina’s parentage… I liked the reveal. (I’m not gonna lie though, I was a bit disappointed she didn’t turn out to be Will’s or Elizabeth’s kid too because that would have been that enjoyable kind of super awkward once her and Henry realised.) I think it adds an interesting angle to Barbossa, though, and it had the potential for some interesting scenes with him and Carina… if he hadn’t gone and needlessly fell to his death at the climax of this film, that is. (Seriously he could have climbed down that anchor chain and stabbed Salazar, he didn’t need to fall and hope to stab him on the way down, though, hey, 10 points for pulling that off somehow.) But I liked that, through Carina’s descriptions of her father, we learned some facets of Barbossa that we wouldn’t have otherwise – he’s interested in astronomy, for one, and I’m SUPER invested in developing upon that because SPACE and STARS, that’s my jam. Also I love anything that discusses the whole angle of new discoveries of ways to explore the earth and chart and NEW SCIENCE and academia – it’s part of why I love learning about the early modern period in Europe.
Orlando Bloom Mark 2… sorry, Henry Turner (I had to think what his name even was then) Orlando Bloom-ed better than Orlando Bloom did in this film – he even did the noble “I am a Hero voice” that Will Turner affected throughout the entirety of the first Pirates film. That made me super nostalgic, I’ll admit, and overall I didn’t find Henry too terrible? He has a pretty easy-to-follow motivation though and, in a film crowded by characters with sometimes non-existent motivations, that was a relief. Having him introduced as someone who is trying to set his father free by finding the Trident of Poseidon presented a pretty simple and logical motivation but it became clouded once the character aged. We next see him taking up posts on British Navy ships who chase after pirates… why? Is it because he’s trying to hunt down Jack Sparrow because he thinks he will know how to get the Trident? Is it because he thinks Jack will want to help him, as he’s Will’s son? I’m not sure I remember why he’s obsessed with Jack… and I only saw this film yesterday so… yeah that illustrates how poorly they actually explained characters’ motivations in this film. Back to Henry himself though, I think he and Jack work well as a pairing, but sadly there wasn’t quite the bantering spark that was so prominent in the first film. (Can you sense a trend here?)
And I understand the Obligatory Romance… the characters are the same age and have corresponding goals so obviously they’re going to have a something, regardless of whether or not there’s any chemistry between them. Their bantering interactions pale in comparison to Will and Elizabeth but they were reminiscent of them so, given another couple of films, I could see that developing along quite nicely. The slap at the end was unexpected and I liked it. I could have done with less kissing in the conclusion, though, if I’m honest.
We have to talk about the elephant in the room… Jack Sparrow. Jack Sparrow is looking a little… dated, if I’m honest. With four films behind them, Johnny Depp’s performance is pretty damn assured, he doesn’t need to do much more than show up, swagger a bit, and be that loveable rogue Captain Jack Sparrow. The problem is that behind that drunken rogue, there’s always been some sense of capability, he had intelligence and cunning, and had a bigger plan behind that joking surface – you had a sense that he was playing off each of the characters against each other and would switch sides when it suited but it would all come out alright in the end. However, the act is wearing a tad thin now… and I’m not entirely convinced Jack is spinning any plates behind the scene whilst he’s “playing” the drunk pirate. I think he is just a drunk pirate. He’s lost some of his spark and his charm. They need to do something with Jack, or else he’s just “fine” by this point. And if this is Depp’s last outing as Jack? Disappointing.
But that’s the problem, I think, of any franchise – you get too comfortable with the characters and the more you see them the more you know them and the more you know them, the less they stand out as hilarious and amazing. I love the Jack of the first couple of films but by this film, film five, he’s just adequate. Is that down to Depp’s performance? Is it because he isn’t given anyone else to act against that has real meat behind their character enough to create a spark of chemistry between them? Is it down to what I now know about Depp colouring what I think of his work? I don’t know, but I do know that they need to add more colour back into the character because he’s becoming a tad stale by this point. (Or is this the last outing for Captain Jack? Only time/money will tell.)
Cinematography and visual effects
The cinematography and visual effects were as beautiful as I expect from a film with this much money behind it to be honest. Once again, there is much scenery porn of the wide open crystal-clear sea with that famed horizon that Jack so loves. I’m pretty easy to please when it comes to Pirates, give me one of those shots of a character at the wheel of the ship and then pan out to that wide-shot of them at sea and I’m sold, I’m a happy camper.
The reveal of how Salazar’s ship kind of (for want of a better word) mounts other ships to take them down was RIDICULOUS and I LOVED IT. Like Salazar’s crew, his ship is a husk of what it once was and it’s skeletal and creepy looking because of this and I actually think the visual effects work done on the crew and the ship were pretty good. I think it unsettles audiences but in a different way than the skeleton crew of the Black Pearl or the sea-disfigured, barnacle-wearing crew of the Flying Dutchman – it’s a different kind of undead and, to be honest, I’m quite impressed that the Pirates design team manage to create something new and distinctive for their antagonists film after film. I saw this film in a small picturehouse, I can’t help but wonder what it would have looked like in 3D IMAX – I’m sure it was stunningly realised.
The BIG FINALE scene was every bit over-hammed and ridiculous and it was great because of it. This illustrates the divide with Pirates audiences, I think. The walls of water do not make any physical or logical sense at all. But it’s a film with undead pirates walking around and skeletal sharks attacking people so… I mean, if you’re willing to suspend disbelief for that, can you not suspend it for another 20 minutes to watch this scene happily? As Liz pointed out… they were all scrambling to climb up the chain of the anchor… why didn’t they just… swim into the water around them and then swim upwards until they broke the surface? The only bit of the water that was dangerous was the rushing plunging bits at the sides of the walls between the gap so if you just… get yourself out of the gap and then try to swim up… surely you’re fine? Like I said, if you ignore PHYSICS, you’ll be fine with this one. And I am kind of ok with ignoring physics, after all I watch MCU films so… I’m used to it. Plus this one has pirates so… you know… I’m invested in it.
Although, with this I must say one thing I do miss… I miss sword fights. I miss the sword fights of the first couple of films. There’s a beautiful simplicity to a good old fashioned sword fight, complete with the clash of steel and that sweet sound of the impact. (You know the one I mean.)
Nowadays it seems finale and climax scenes must include obligatory big money, blockbuster style CGI action with IMMINENT HUGE DANGER – against this, what chance does the humble sword fight stand? I’d disagree, I will always champion the humble sword fight in terms of making your heart pound and you worry for the characters, we don’t need a HUGE WALL OF CRUSHING WATER to make us worry for them, just give a bad guy a sword and a grudge against the protagonist and you’re good to go. This aspect that I think the film franchise has (mistakenly) thought they had to develop – the old “go hard or go home” mentality – for fear of losing audiences due to boredom borne of “more of the same”. But I wouldn’t say I’d get bored of sword fighting scenes, to be honest, I expect them in a Pirates film and, if I don’t get them, I tend to be disappointed. There are amazing stunt crews and fight choreographers out there, so use them.
Look, no one was expecting marvels in this film. It’s the fifth outing of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and is it getting old? Probably. Will I still watch it? Yes. I had pretty low/no expectations so I can’t rightly say I was, in any way, disappointed. I think what this film suffers from is a lack of… well… spark and vitality, which isn’t a surprise – it’s had four predecessors and we’ve become pretty attuned to what strings it plays and the tunes it produces. By this point, it’s never going to be anything fresh and fantastic but it’s familiar and there’s something mildly comforting about that because, if nothing else, it serves as a reminder of the utter brilliance of the original Pirates of the Caribbean film – in fact, as soon as I’m done writing this review, I fully intend to re-watch that film.