The 29th Best Move I Saw This Year: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

The colon situation in these blog titles is really getting out of hand. 

Whenever the latest movie in a film franchise comes out, it’s automatic that at some point in one of the ads, some movie reviewer quote-lackey will exclaim “It’s the best Pirates/Mission Impossible/Indy/Rocky yet!” I know for a fact several of these ads existed for this movie, I saw them everywhere. I just spent a good half-hour scouring the internet for one from this film without success, so you’ll have to take my word for it. But if you ever went near a television this last May, you must have seen them too.

I was obsessed with finding one of these because these are ads that mean simply nothing. While finding someone willing to say that the newest version of the franchise is the best ever may convince some people, it’s usually those people who weren’t going to see the movie anyway. After I saw the movie, a number of people who hadn’t seen it said to me, “I heard it’s pretty good!” No, you didn’t, I thought. You just turned on your television.  

On Stranger Tides is not “the best Pirates yet.” It’s not “arguably the best Pirates yet.” It’s not even “possibly the best Pirates yet.” It’s an overweight, poorly-realized mess, just like the movie before it was, and just the opposite of the fresh, carefree original. It’s not a movie. It’s just another piece in an increasingly wobbly franchise.

I’m going to propose something that is going to shock you Orlando Bloom haters to your core: this is a film that desperately misses having Bloom as its hero and central focus. There, I said it. 

I know, I know. You hate Orlando Bloom. You find him effeminate, wooden, and unremarkable. You may not be wrong. But whatever your opinion of Bloom, the fact remains that the character he embodied, Will Turner, was precisely the sort of chap an adventure movie needs. He’s brave, inexperienced, motivated, in love with an unattainable girl, and wildly out of his depths in the world he’s jumping into. There to guide him is Jack Sparrow – wily, mysterious, untrustworthy, everything you hope to find as a partner in a tall tale. Together they swash and buckle and do deeds of derring-do, and at the end the boy and the girl are reunited and his sly partner has managed to sneak out a bit of treasure for himself. Roll titles.

The filmmakers saw how well this worked the first time around and followed that up with a series of films that turned abruptly away from this concept. They recognized that the runaway success of the first film had made Jack Sparrow a huge icon (correct) and that they needed to have even more of him in the next movies (right again). So they dial back the importance of the other characters (wrong) and move Jack Sparrow to the center of the film (wronger still). Then they develop romantic tensions between Will’s love, Elizabeth Swan, and Jack Sparrow (probably wrong), but leave those tensions unresolved at the close of the trilogy (idiotic). And suddenly we have a franchise so disoriented that Johnny Depp is telling stories about how he and the director had conversations that went something like “I don’t understand it either, but let’s just shoot it.” And this is on the set of the final film in the “trilogy,” At World’s End, which is the most expensive film ever made. This is not the mark of a franchise sure of its standing.

On Stranger Tides tries to fix some of the ways its predecessors went off the tracks. It gives us a new, pure-hearted hero, a missionary (a fairly forgettable Sam Claflin) and a love interest for him, a mermaid (French actress Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, frail and impossibly lovely). There’s also a new love interest for Jack: an old flame (Penélope Cruz), as well as a new villain, Blackbeard (Ian McShane). Everything’s all set for a fresh start, right?

Of course not. That would mean that we’d learned something.

The storyline between the missionary and the mermaid is shunted to the side, and the two never really interact with the main characters, meaning that the movie added two new characters yet never used them for the purpose they were most needed: providing balance for Jack Sparrow. Instead, they’re just added weight. And, once again, Sparrow is placed in the center of the film, making all his untrustworthiness and general silliness frustrating rather than endearing.

While the notion that Penelope Cruz could be Ian McShane’s daughter is an amusing one, there’s not much to their story to draw in the viewer. Instead, we’re left watching the film lurch along on all the familiar action-movie beats until finally dragging to a halt in a runtime mercifully much shorter than its predecessor. And I’m left with the strange and altogether unwelcome feeling of missing Orlando Bloom.

I'm gonna go Redbox the first movie right now. All this disappointment has made me miss it terribly.