Pirates of the Caribbean 4: Is the most most expensive movie ever made even any good?

My post last week was about Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and even though you might not think about it, On Stranger Tides – even a decade after its release – remains the most expensive movie ever made. Compared to the first three films in the franchise, On Stranger Tides is considerably less memorable and less popular among fans. In that post, I speculated about what the cause of such a high budget could be, and essentially boiled it down to three things: 1. Johnny Depp costs a lot of money 2. Filming on the water can drive up production costs 3. CGI was handled by a wide variety of companies. And that seems to be it, mostly. Of course, we don’t know everything about the budget, but that seems to explain a fair amount of where the $410 Million ($378.5 Million net) was allocated.

But when you think of highly expensive movies, eventually your thoughts will turn from “How was the budget of this movie spent?” to “Is this movie good?” Which brings me to the point of this post – asking if Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is any good. As a longtime fan of the franchise, someone who used to watch the first three as comfort movies, I have a lot to say about this one.

Is it good? Looking back at the critical consensus when this movie premiered, the answer certainly seems to be no, but frankly, I think there are quite a few things to like about this one – though, it is not without its problems. So, hopefully, I can take a charitable but fair look at this movie to determine what’s good about it, as well as what keeps this one in the shadow of its three predecessors.

The good!

Captain Barbossa Returns

I first saw this movie in theaters, and I don’t remember seeing too much of the promotional commercials or trailers leading up to it, but I knew I was going to see it, having been such a big fan of the first three films. Having known so little about it, I wasn’t sure who was coming back in this film; sure, Jack and his sidekick Mister Gibbs (played by the wonderful Kevin McNally) were certainly returning, but otherwise, I had assumed it would be a new cast. They were in for a challenge, since it could certainly be presumed that neither Orlando Bloom nor Keira Knightley would be coming back to the series. So I had assumed that Depp and McNally would be back, and no one else.

You can imagine my surprise – and my delight, as a longtime fan of the series – when I realized that Geoffrey Rush would be returning as Captain Barbosa. but Barbosa was different now. He had been in possession of The Black Pearl at the end of the third movie, and had since lost it. Another thing he had had at the end of the third movie and now lacked at the beginning of this one – Barbosa has lost a leg between the third and fourth films. He’s now a privateer (basically a pirate for hire) for Great Britain. It’s a fun redesign for the character, both visually and conceptually.

Barbosa’s arc in the first movie is that he wants to shake off the curse of immortality, which leads him to die. In the third movie, upon seeing the dead Kraken in At World’s End he and Jack have a rather poignant conversation about dying, coming back to life, and the impermanence of living. And as part of an arc across the first three movies, Barbossa becoming a legally-sanctioned privateer feels like him adapting to a world that is less hospitable to pirates. So in this movie, we get to watch as he makes speeches about what it means to be “King’s men,” really hamming up this personality of a loyal British subject, only to reveal in a conversation with Jack that it’s all an act, and that his only goal is revenge on Blackbeard. This is all laid out in the middle of the movie, when we get to see Jack and Barbossa work together as they try to steal the two magical chalices from the Spanish in what I would potentially describe as this movie’s best sequence.

Across all five movies, the recurring characters, either in the way they’re written or the way they’re performed, get worse throughout. But Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa stays consistent as the movies go on. It’s a terrific and dynamic character, and he’s always having fun. He’s the archetypal pirate, and he’s so much more.

Ian McShane as Blackbeard

After watching the 1950’s movie Horrors of Dracula, the one thing I found myself saying about Christopher Lee as the title character centered around one particular word: Presence. Christopher Lee compelled a scene in an impressive way, in every role, but particularly as Dracula. When he’s a scene, he’s the focus – everything seems to revolve around him. A similar thing can certainly be said about Ian McShane in this movie.

In any long-running pirate adventure worth its salt, you have to eventually bring in Blackbeard. And there are fewer actors who could do Blackbeard quite like Ian McShane. If you’ve seen him in Deadwood or American Gods, you know that he’s got this larger-than-life presence, with a strange dash of charisma; his Blackbeard is cruel but oddly likeable.

I don’t quite know what to make of the way Blackbeard is written both in terms of motivations and dialogue. His lines read like a screenwriter trying to use big words to make a character seem old-timey, but his motivations make him compellingly complex. He’s kind of like a dark reflection of Jack, who is always seeking immortal life, but there’s this almost-vulnerable hunger in the way he’ll do anything to extend his life, even to the point where he’d offer the life of his own daughter.

This isn’t an all-time great performance for McShane, who always brings his A-game, but it’s up to his high level of quality. But importantly, Blackbeard feels like the pop culture idea of what a pirate should be. If you’re looking for a fun pirate adventure, you’d expect there to be a great pirate villain – which is just what McShane’s Blackbeard is.

Continuing a Franchise

It’s hard to explain this, but I like this movie as a part of a franchise, and exploring a broader world. I like that we get to see London, a place in the world we didn’t see in the previous three movies (side note, isn’t Richard Griffiths as George III really good?). I like that Keith Richards comes back as Captain Teague to give a little bit of exposition. I like that Jack Sparrow has a reputation in the world, and that there’s someone impersonating him, leading to the terrifically fun sword fight between Jack and the impostor. (The continuity with the impostor kind of gets a little murky when Jack finds himself aboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge, but I can’t be bothered to care about something that the movie is barely concerned about.) And perhaps all, I like that this movie manages to stand alone better than any movie in the series after the first.

How is the On Stranger Tides the first of the Pirates movies to have mermaids? Or Blackbeard? Those seem like no-brainers.

Producer Oren Aviv is quoted on IMDb as saying about this movie: “It’s important to get the story right and it’s important to me to scale it down, because we can’t get bigger. The movies have subsequently gotten bigger and bigger and very complicated and they were satisfying on so many levels obviously, but I want to kind of reboot the whole thing and bring it down to its core.” And this improved tremendously on the worst part of At World’s End; that movie is way too long and way too complex. It’s got far too many double-crosses and plot layers to care about, or to follow in one viewing. In At World’s End, the scale got far too large and the plot felt too involved, whereas On Stranger Tides felt smaller by comparison, in a good way.

The bad!

Boy Howdy, this romantic subplot is bad

After Will and Elizabeth exited the series, something was certainly missing. Ostensibly, Will and Elizabeth were the two main characters, even if Jack was always the fan favorite. Removing them took away some of the franchise’s strongest characters.

The romantic subplot involves a missionary character who Blackbeard refused to kill because Angelica said it would be bad luck, and a siren Mermaid. Now, I like these elements separately; a cleric character in a franchise with a constant motif of death and immortality feels like a no-brainer, and so does having monstrous mermaids in a magical seafaring adventure. I can only assume that these things didn’t show up earlier (for the most part) because any of the previous movies would have been too full of other things going on.

Where this gets tricky is that neither of these romantic leads are the main characters, and neither end up being that interesting in execution. These actors were young, and I generally find that older actors give better performances – but among the memorable characters in the Pirates franchise, Philip and Syrena are not exactly the most memorable or the most liked. In the fifth movie, there was a better attempt at this, but replacing Will and Elizabeth is a tall order.

Also, this movie does a silly bait-and-switch, where it makes it seem as though Philip is dead, but from the way it’s filmed you can very clearly tell that it’s a fake-out, and we’re not surprised when he shows up two scenes later. The most proper comparison is when Rise of Skywalker tries to tell us that Chewbacca’s dead, only to have him show up in no time at all. He’s brought back to make sure that the crew can get the macguffin mermaid tear they need, and then forgotten for a long portion of the movie.

At the end of the movie, no one is thinking about these two characters – when Philip gets stabbed in the midst of all the fighting, he runs back to Syrena who then runs (or rather, swims) to help the people she has been calling evil for the whole movie in their moment of need… for some reason, which remains unclear. She then pulls the dying Philip (who is actually dying this time) under water, in a sequence that is very confusing for those of us who watched the mermaids pull helpless sailors to their doom about an hour earlier. This scene is confusing enough to prompt at least one person to ask on Quora, “What happened to Philip in Pirates of Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (part 4)?”

Where’s the CGI?

One thing that came up in my post looking at the budget was the use of CGI in this movie eating up the budget of this film and not being quite as memorable as the previous ones. Sure, the mermaids must have been costly to animate, but I had difficulty thinking of what else could have required such a budget. Every so often, I would see an establishing shot that might have been CGI, and then there were animals such as a snake or a frog that were CGI, which I felt didn’t really need to be. Particularly in the case of those animals, I suppose they might have been filming on location, and the standard Hollywood animal handlers might not have wanted to fly out to their filming location in Hawaii, but I feel like there must have been some easier, more practical solution. A movie doesn’t need CGI, but I feel like this movie had a certain CGI budget allotted, but didn’t know exactly what to spend it on.

I do have to admit, the one very memorable CGI shot comes in the movie’s climax, in which we watch Blackbeard’s body deteriorate, quite violently and viscerally, which is caused by the Fountain’s curse. It’s very visually striking, but it certainly doesn’t explain everything. CGI doesn’t really impact my opinion of this movie in the same way great CGI like in Dead Man’s Chest or a movie with bad CGI. Mostly I mention it here because… well, there’s ultimately not that much to mention.

A Bad Use of Prophecy

This might be a petty nitpick, but early on in the movie, Angelica tells Jack that Blackbeard is operating under a prophecy that he’s going to lose his life at the hands of a one-legged man. This comes fairly soon after seeing that Barbossa has lost his leg, so there’s no room to wonder who it might be. I might appreciate that this prophecy comes as a direct result of his actions – Barbossa wants to kill Blackbeard because Blackbeard had attacked him and took both his leg and his ship – but there’s no fun in it being so obvious. Imagine hearing that a one-legged man would kill Blackbeard and then two-thirds through the movie, someone loses their leg, perhaps after Blackbeard cuts it off – wouldn’t that be thrilling as all hell? Wouldn’t it be a fun twist?

Instead, when we hear “one-legged man” we have to wonder, “Well, how many one legged men are there in this movie? Oh, there’s only Barbossa? Must be him then!” Previously, the prophecies were never as explicit, they were terms and conditions to the treasure; Oh, if you take one of the medallions, you become a skeleton pirate, or if you stab the Heart of Davy Jones, you have to take his place.

But, related to that, I like the caveats they put on the Fountain of Youth having a cost. If the Fountain only granted life, that would be incredibly boring. But granting additional years of life at the cost of someone else’s life – now that’s interesting.

Remembering what’s missing

And a lot of what’s missing here is caused by the fact that this movie comes after the end of a trilogy. I’m sure if George Lucas did a Star Wars sequel in 1989 focusing only on Han Solo and Chewbacca, it wouldn’t be that great. Will and Elizabeth’s absence is felt to a crippling degree. Jack isn’t that compelling as a main protagonist, and other than that, who do we have? Philip and Syrena? Angelica? If anything, Barbossa is the best character in this movie. Things that these movies did well enough previously – CGI, or vague prophecy mumbojumbo – don’t work quite as well here. At World’s End‘s problem of scale is fixed here, and Captains Barbossa and Blackbeard are also bright spots in this movie, but I don’t know if this movie has enough to outweigh the bad. (But it gets close, which is far more than I could say for its sequel.)

But at the same time, I don’t think this movie is awful, it’s just adequate. In a way, the fact that such a huge amount of money was spent and all the studio got was a movie that is just “adequate” – and again, my perspective is the charitable one, from a fan of the franchise – is almost damning. There’s clearly a lot of potential in this movie, and there are just as many problems. There isn’t one easy fix. I’ve always loved this series, and the fact that in the wake of the first trilogy there’s been a weak installment and one that is outright bad, I worry that if this series ever comes back for a sixth movie, they won’t learn from their faults.

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