Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
There’s a lot to be said for knowing one’s place in the world--not aiming too high or sinking too low--but intrinsically understanding one’s station and what’s expected of that station. I am not, thankfully, talking about human beings, but rather films.
There’s nothing wrong with being a popcorn movie so long as you don’t aspire to anything higher. And while popcorn fare may not be fois gras, most of us find popcorn an enjoyable and satisfying snack. There are some films that simply defy the normal critical analysis, that embody the intellectual equivalent of physical horseplay and in so doing are purely and simply enjoyable.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End is not such a movie.
If films are made in rapid succession or better yet, simultaneously, their overall quality, whether good or bad, can usually be predicted by the first one out of the gate. The Matrix: Reloaded predicted the continuing mediocrity of The Matrix: Revolutions, whereas the brilliance of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring all but ensured the same sort of radiance throughout the entire trilogy. So it should come as no surprise that, after the staggering disappointment that was Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, At World’s End shouldn’t be far behind.
Ignoring even the slightest expository dialogue to remind viewers where the last Pirates installment left off and why, At World’s End instead launches straight into a plot so muddled and convoluted it is barely worth trying to unravel here. That they began filming without a completed script (no lie) is instantly obvious.
Suffice it to say, our heroes go off to rescue the dead Jack Sparrow, now suffering in Davy Jones’ Locker (which ironically enough, looks remarkably like a bad Terry Gilliam movie); must face the treachery of Davy Jones and Lord Cutler Beckett, now in dark league together; convene all the world’s pirates for one final, epic showdown; set a goddess free, and reunite a pair of estranged lovers. Before it is all over, Elizabeth Swann will take her own stab at Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, her love affair with Will Turner will fold into a bittersweet (and oddly appropriate) dénouement, and Capt. Jack will find himself much as we first met him—marooned and shipless (although, after three films, I was sick enough of him to do the same).
If the script is a cohesive disaster, the special effects are masterful. But then again, what did you think they were spending all of those millions of dollars on, a screenwriter? At World’s End is filled with some utterly transcendent eye candy. Three moments that stick out in my mind are of a pirate’s vessel sailing across perfectly still water that flawlessly reflects the starlight above making it look as if the ship is suspended in space; the Black Pearl set aground in the middle of a vast desert of sand; and the final moments of Lord Beckett as the world shatters into splinters all around him. (The closing credits go on forever, rightly acknowledging hundreds of digital artists. By the way, if you didn’t stay to watch all those names sail by, you missed a final bonus scene tagged onto the very end.)
It’s not so much that Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End is bad, so much as it is boring. Clocking in at just shy of three hours, the film is laboriously slow going with few substantive action pieces to make the long stretches worthwhile. In forgetting its origins, the third Pirates film, just like the second, also forgets to be fun. This is its greatest sin. We can forgive tedious patches and even muddled plots, but what is unforgivable is when a popcorn movie like this one has indefensible delusions of grandeur.
Perhaps the only thing worse than popcorn pretension is not knowing when to stop. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End does not, itself, know when to end. That it concludes by setting up a possible fourth installment in the franchise is enough to make one question just who are the real pirates and who are the ones being plundered.