REVIEW: ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales’ strands you in overly-familiar waters

Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Depp in  Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales , directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg.

Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg.

The first act of the newest Pirates of the Caribbean movie features a sequence where a team of horses, hooked up to a one-ton vault, end up towing an entire building through the streets of an island township. In the midst of this chaos is Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), waving his arms like a mad octopus, in the throes of the shtick that Depp has offered on movie screens for 14 years. None of it is remotely plausible, and it goes on much longer than it has any right to.

Sadly, the same could be said for the franchise as a whole; ridiculous and stretched into too many installments, Pirates remains a strangely profitable enterprise for the Walt Disney Company. Barring some sort of tragic incident with its embattled star, there are likely more sequels on the (watery) horizon. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing – after all, the first film in the series had plenty of authentic thrills and laughs – but as each new sequel sails into theatres, the filmmakers tend to put the emphasis on all the wrong parts, leaving movies that aren’t outright bad, but suffer from humdrum plots and recycled ideas.

Like the three sequels that came before, Dead Men Tell No Tales hits all the targets of what makes a recognizable Pirates film. We’ve got a new flavour of undead villains to contend with (this time suffering from various levels of flame-roasting), a young hotshot (Brenton Thwaites) learning the pirate life from Sparrow, a corseted ingénue (Kaya Scodelario) and a magical, sea-inspired item to find and wield.

Javier Bardem as the slightly crispy Captain Salazar.

Javier Bardem as the slightly crispy Captain Salazar.

This time, the object that everyone’s after is the Trident of Poseidon, which the movie puts forward as the ultimate magical item in the Pirates world – it can control the sea itself and break any curse. The movie sort of forgets to explain where it came from (Do the Greek gods exist in this universe? If so, where have they been this whole time?!), but each main character wants it for a different reason. Henry (Thwaites) wants to free his father, series regular Will Turner, from the curse of the Flying Dutchman. Carina (Scodelario) believes she owes it to her long-lost father to find the artifact. The evil Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) wants it to exact revenge on Sparrow. And Jack? True to form, Jack doesn’t seem to decide whether he wants the thing or not, but that may just be Depp’s ambivalence about the character shining through.

Either way, the chase for the Trident is the main driver of the plot, but this doesn’t stop the screenwriters from laying on some groan-inducing dialogue to prod us along. Wherever you look, there’s a character babbling about old grudges or prophecies or some other bit of Pirates mythology; scenes designed to rush us to the next action setpiece. It’s not that we should expect moving drama from the franchise, but thinking back to the first film, we at least had a consistent dynamic about the pirate life; was it pure freedom, or a criminal occupation? What Dead Men Tell No Tales forgets is how the series hooked us in 2003 with swashbuckling, banter, sword fights, and ships exchanging cannon fire. By contrast, the later Pirates films have less to do with actual piracy than with unlocking bland supernatural powers.

Kaya Scodelario as Carina Smyth and Brenton Thwaites as Henry Turner.

Kaya Scodelario as Carina Smyth and Brenton Thwaites as Henry Turner.

The newcomers to the series, Thwaites and Scodelario, do their best, but are ultimately boxed in by playing characters who feel far too much like 2017 versions of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann from the first film. To its credit, the new film does try to insert some progressive commentary with Carina’s backstory as an amateur scientist, who’s constantly accused of being a witch. But the female-empowerment angle feels slapped on, and it certainly isn’t an antidote for Carina being the only female character in the entire film, or how she immediately falls for the first handsome (or hygienic) dude her age.

Despite being shot through with issues that would sink smaller movies, Dead Men Tell No Tales still gets by as an idle distraction. In other words, there’s just enough sight gags and one-liners, along with the Disney-sized special effects budget, to keep you from falling asleep. But like the sequels that preceded it, the film is a shadow of the rousing entertainment that the franchise once promised. As the star, Depp bizarrely seems to be getting less and less to do, to the point that he’s merely an accessory in the climax. Risky as it may seem, perhaps it’s time for Pirates to ditch its formula and start over with a new antihero. Surely some garden-variety pillaging can’t be so hard?

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales gets two stars out of four.


Stray thoughts:

  • Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is my current favourite in the series. His costuming is always top-notch, and he’s actually the secret hero of the new film.
  • Everything with David Wenham’s Navy officer character made me angry. A wasted actor and a pointless subplot.
  • Holy hell, that digitally de-aged Johnny Depp flashback was spooky. Sometimes it looked like parts of his face were floating around!