Not good. It was so not good that it made me wonder if we will ever see a great studio action movie again. Of course “great” is a relative term when PIRATES 2 has smashed SPIDER-MAN’s opening weekend box office record, and pummeled REVENGE OF THE SITH’s opening day record. It is the most successful opening in history. And it may spell doom. I realize that a movie review is a bit far afield for this comics-focused blog, but I believe the issues it raises are part of Hollywood’s entire move towards comics and nerdery as source material. (And yes there will be SPOILERS.)
In prep for watching PIRATES 2, I watched PIRATES 1 on Thursday. A breath of fresh air when it appeared, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN was smart, sharp and sassy. It surprised, not only with Johnny Depp’s Oscar® nominated turn as tipsy Jack Sparrow, but with an actual plot that was based on character motivation and twists and turns.
I had forgotten how much fun PIRATES was, and how refreshing is it to see a movie where the characters act intelligent. The best thing about it for me, is the sly, subtle way that it reinvents the traditional Disney Princess movie. PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN is about Elizabeth, not Will, not Jack. The story opens on her, confined by both social expectations — her stuffy father’s desire she marry Norrington — and social conventions — her crippling corset. It’s her actions and decisions that drive the story, and her viewpoint we see most of the characters from. Of course, as in all good scripts, the other characters have their arcs, as well — Will’s desire to be recognized for his deeds and Jack’s desire to get his ship back.
In looking at the movie, it’s clear that Elizabeth has to be the hero. Jack in particular is, like a shot of spiced rum, too rich, too special. While we understand his motivations, we laugh more at him than with him. While Will also undergoes the hero’s journey, he’s much more peripheral to the action. Plus, the annals of pirate lore are equally spilt between the Jim Hawkinses of the world who crew a boat, and the young girls of the world, abducted or stowed away. It’s one of the very few fantasies that woman get involved with in a fundamental way.
The entire core of the film — indeed, the entire core of the appeal of pirates — is the scene where Jack tells Elizabeth what the Black Pearl means to him:
Elizabeth: And you’ll be positively the most fearsome pirate in the Spanish Main.
Jack : Not just the Spanish Main, love. The entire ocean. The entire world. Wherever we want to go, we’ll go. That’s what a ship is, you know. It’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails–that’s what a ship needs but what a ship is…what the Black Pearl really is…is freedom.
Why do people like dressing up like pirates and marching around anyway? Because it means freedom. Why do 99% of all pirate movies suck? Because it’s more fun to dress up like a pirate and march around than construct a movie that captures such a vague ideal. Because freedom is double edged. The finest scene in PIRATES is the one where the ghostly Barbossa greedily watches Elizabeth eating an apple; the undead pirate zombies may be free but too much freedom has cut them off from every aspect of life that gives it a savor — the taste of food, the feel of the wind, the touch of a hand. The life of freedom from responsibility ends in a prison, or as a tattered corpse doomed to helm a ghostly ship for all eternity.
At the end of PIRATES, of course, Will has proven his worth, Elizabeth has chosen a life of freedom, and the two of them act in concert to rescue Jack and send him back to his life as a trickster of the seas. The movie is a huge worldwide hit, NOT because of special effects — it was actually quite modest in that regard — but because it satisfies and surprises, giving movie goers the things they secretly crave most of all — a good story.
So then…to the sequel? With Elizabeth’s journey having been faithfully captured, one might think that the second film might feature Will’s journey — perhaps as he finds his father. And the third? Well, that might be where we finally dig in to Captain Jack Sparrow and find out whether he’s a good man or not?
That would have been a simple plan. Cunning and direct. And that is where it has gone so horribly, horribly wrong.
Disney, sensing franchise gold, decided to save money by filming two sequels at once. As the Matrix movies showed, this is not always good. As reports from the set showed, the shoot was a bit of a nightmare, constantly behind schedule, and the script for #3 hasn’t even entirely been written yet.
PIRATES II opens enigmatically, with Elizabeth sitting in her wedding dress in a pouring rain. It seems that a prissy representative of the East India Trading Company has caught on to Will and Elizabeth’s illegal freeing of Jack, and they must pay the price. The scene doesn’t make any sense, as filmed –just why IS Elizabeth sitting in the rain in her wedding dress? — and for the next two hours, the film is like a video game of non-stop set pieces — Jack meets Bootstrap Bill, and learns he’s run afoul of Davy Jones, who owns not a locker but the Flying Dutchman; Will sets off to find Jack in order to free Elizabeth. There are cannibals, a crew of sailors who look like crustaceans, a voodoo priestess, and a giant squid. It all sounds like it could be great fun, but all of the connective tissue has been cut out of the film. There are no breaks in the action for such things as character development or plot or wonder. I would call it empty spectacle, but it isn’t even very spectacular — there’s barely a single memorable shot or tableaux — moments like the first appearance of The Flying Dutchman should be filled with mystery and awe, instead, it just shows up on the screen.
If this film were a mere hour and 45 minutes long, like a action flick should be, it wouldn’t be so bad, but it’s a bloated 2 hours and 24 minutes! OF NON-STOP ACTION, clowning and cgi. It’s horrifically tediously exhausting…I can think of no more damning comment on this film than to say that I wearied of seeing Johnny Depp as a pirate . At this point I might as well fill up my pockets up with stones and wade into the surf. Young skinny Elvis was sexy. Hollywood today represents old fat Elvis, clutching a sweaty handkerchee.
It’s not to say that there aren’t a few good things here. Depp, Bloom and Knightley nail their roles. Verbinski jumps right into the nasty, rum-sodden look of the world — everyone looks like they smell really, really bad. The last half of of the film actually stops for a few moments that are based on character — in particular Will’s relationship with his father, and Elizabeth being torn between Jack’s adventurous allure and Will’s steadfast love. But why did all this have to be stuffed into a half hour at the END of the movie? Wasn’t the love triangle the very CRUX of the film? Couldn’t the filmmakers have actually developed a story instead of just cramming it onto the screen in a queasy panic?
The answer, I think, was the pressure to make a “hit”…in which they have disastrously succeeded. Verbinski may be a talented director, and the filmmakers all have good intentions, but he is clearly out of his depth here. The CGI is piled on, as if that could solve everything. Action scenes go on and on and on without any clever gimmicks or business. There’s no buildup, no anticipation — everything is just shoved in your face, as if the audience can’t be trusted to think.
But maybe they can’t. In a world where CGI is the answer to everything, filmmaking has become an empty, joyless exercise. It’s not fashionable to like Steven Spielberg, but his superior filmmaking skills produced action films with stories. His films seem positively old fashioned nowadays. Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi stand apart as the only makers of blockbusters who are allowed to throw in moments when we see inside the hearts of their characters. And sadly, CGI seems to have driven Jackson, at least, insane, as the morbidly obese, grotesquely self indulgent KING KONG showed.
Raimi then stands alone; as I wrote at the old Beat, it was the wacky, pointless moments of the Spidey films — Peter Parker’s long monolog on looking into MJ’s eyes; the girl with the cake; the music montage — that make these films good movies, not just dehumanized mechanical encounters. But Disney is no Sony — they could never trust a filmmaker to know better than a board of directors. It’s a world of entertainment where truly global hits are few and far between because of all the competition from the Internet, but the answer isn’t more…but deeper.
Thus, even as Hollywood wonders more and more why people just don’t want to go to the movies anymore, they get more and more frantic. More and more action must be the answer. Where the real danger lies is that even intelligent movie-goers can no longer tell the difference between videogame action and good movies.
Let me put it another way. You may have felt good when you walked out of PIRATES 2 or SUPERMAN RETURNS or BATMAN BEGINS…but did you really feel the way you did after you saw a truly GREAT movie that was about action? Like THE INCREDIBLES, or RAIDERS, or ALIENS?
BATMAN BEGINS is a case in point. Every man I know between the ages of 20 and 40 thinks this is the greatest thing ever. I thought it had some good action in spots, and was well acted, but had no dramatic spine after the first half hour or so. When questioned, they all tell me that the reason they loved it is because it gave them back “their” Batman. Fair enough, but just don’t debase the term by saying it was a great movie.
When questioned as to what *I* consider a great movie, I usually bring up Stephen Chow’s KUNG FU HUSTLE, an action comedy in which each and every bit of business pays off, each and every character has a chance for redemption and development, and the action always plays off of character. I would sit through that movie a thousand times. I would sit through THE PRINCESS BRIDE a thousand times (in fact I have.) I would sit through TERMINATOR 2 a thousand times — in each of them, the opening scene leads directly to the closing scene — nothing is superfluous in between.
In a great interview at Box Office Mojo, PIRATES screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, who have written some of the best movies of recent years, talk about the subtext that PIRATES 2 has that was lost in the shuffle:
Terry Rossio: The world wants there to be movie stars and, in a sense, the story becomes Johnny Depp—because people want that. In terms of understanding why he’s [created] an iconic character, the story becomes ‘Johnny Depp is brilliant’ which of course is true because Johnny Depp is brilliant. People are not necessarily as interesting in pedestrian reality. You still have a storyboard artist who comes up with a visual of Johnny first stepping onto the dock as the ship sinks. We wrote that [scene in which Jack Sparrow is introduced]. We wrote lines like: ‘you’re the worst pirate I’ve ever heard of—’ and [the response] ‘but you have heard of me.’ People quote those lines. If the character had walked on screen and just stood there and said, ‘hello,’ it wouldn’t be the same. So, clearly the screenwriting goes into the creation of the character. And I have to credit Gore Verbinski’s direction.
Ted Elliott: When we were writing and making the first movie, [we had in mind] the Sergio Leone [spaghetti] Westerns like The Man With No Name [movies]. The Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef characters are essentially gods compared to all these mortals. They can shoot better, they can ride better, they’re smarter, they’re faster and they don’t say much. To some extent, that’s what we were playing in the first [Pirates], that Jack and [Captain] Barbossa [played by Geoffrey Rush] are kind of pirate gods. They come into the lives of these two mortal characters—
Terry Rossio: —and we continue that into At World’s End—
Ted Elliott: —and, to some extent, Jack is the demi-god, the trickster. He straddles both sides. Is he on the side of the gods—is he opposed to the gods?—is he on the side of the mortals? He’s on his own side.
Captain Jack Sparrow is the trickster, and he is too powerful and exotic to ever see inside his mind. The reason the first movie was a surprise hit is that it touched on the archetypes of storytelling that all humans secretly yearn for. Pirates of the Caribbean the ride is full of mysteries that can never fully be explicated — the mysteries of death and honor and the pursuit of wealth over the pursuit of happiness. There’s ONE moment in POTC 2 that sort of touches on this — a shot of the three heroes walking across a deserted spit of sand in search of treasure. It references all the great artists of piracy and the sea, Homer, Wyeth, Pyle, whose works capture the magnetic, perilous allure of the sea–vast and deadly, beautiful and unknowable.
All great art is based on those kinds of moments. If PIRATES 2 is one of the biggest hits in movie history, it’s riding on the goodwill of an opening chapter that remembered that. But unless Hollywood understands that — and I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting — we’re doomed to a world of empty, unsatisfying films that leave us wondering why we didn’t enjoy them more.