I just figured out why I’ve been craving potato chips today. It’s because my review of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, a movie that is junk-food cinema, has been percolating in the back of my mind. This is not a good movie — it’s just empty calories. But I scarfed it down anyway. Like junk food, it is satisfying in its own limited, instantly forgettable, hungry-again-an-hour-later sort of way.
Here’s the thing: Remember how we all felt before Curse of the Black Pearl, that first POTC movie so many years ago? Remember how we rolled our eyes and groaned, “Sheesh, a movie based on a theme-park ride? Based on a bad theme-park ride?” If Tides had been the first movie we got, our fears would have been borne out. Much of what returning screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio have given us here feels perfunctory, calculated and obvious — what a Disney-fied idea of piracy would entail. Not much cold-blooded murder or abduction — though, there is some, it’s true — and very little scurvy or forced naval servitude. It’s all yo-ho-ho fun in the pirate army. Not that the previous three flicks have been Schindler’s List on the high seas, but they had a balance that is missing here.
Johnny Depp is back as
Captain Jack Sparrow, who is hugely entertaining. Jack is off to search
for the Fountain of Youth, and there’s a secret map to the place. And
some zom- bie pirate officers who get in his way. And some voodoo. And
some mermaids who need to be captured … you get the drift. Jack Sparrow
is so much a 3D special effect all by himself that the movie hardly
needs to actually be in 3D.Jack is fun to be around.
But Jack is out of equilibrium here in Tides. He’s got Penelope Cruz as a delicious lady pirate to banter with — and as a former lady love of his, there is a nice collection of naughty back-and-forth, too. But she’s a lot like Jack. And there’s Ian McShane as the pirate Captain Blackbeard, who is a very bad man indeed, and Geoffrey Rush is back as Barbossa, Jack’s longtime frenemy ... but they’re a lot like each other. There’s a bit of a feeling of too-many-notes here, and all singing the same tune.
What Jack — and Tides — is missing are Orlando Bloom’s upstanding Will and Keira Knightley’s proper-lady Elizabeth. Kirk needs his Bones and Spock. Harry needs his Ron and Hermione. Jack is all id, and he needs his ego and his superego to tamp him down and call him on his bullshit. There is a bit of promise for a short while that the handsome, upstanding young blond square-jawed priest (Sam Claflin) would be the new Will, the one to stand aside and point at Jack and tell him he’s a jackass and force him to be better than is his wont. But that never comes to pass. And Jack is left without an audience to shock.
Because as much as we might love Jack — and I do, I really do — I’m not shocked by him anymore. All the stuff that seemed fresh and funny eight years ago now feels familiar, and hence less surprising: That is in the nature of a three-quel. Which is a good reason, probably, to stop making movies that need numbers at the ends of their titles.