The subtitle of the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie is “Dead Men Tell No Tales.” The moral of the movie, alas, is that the same cannot be said of dead franchises.
The first Pirates film was an unexpected success: wildly overlong and over-plotted yet kept afloat by a wicked, bravura, and utterly original performance by Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, a swishily swaggering mélange of rum, eyeliner, and impudence. As is customary, the sequel was a pale imitation, and the third installment of the presumed trilogy went a bit trippy and meta.
Which would all have been well and good enough. But money makes people do silly things. The half-hearted and wildly unnecessary fourth movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was one such thing. It will surprise no one to learn that the latest installment in the franchise is another. At least On Stranger Tides had the decency to be a standalone movie; with Dead Men Tell No Tales, there is talk of that most pernicious of cinematic gambits, the “soft reboot.”
Captain Jack returns, of course, although the character’s originality has gradually evolved into very nearly its opposite, a species of tired and vaguely embarrassing drag act. Given that his co-stars Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom abandoned the franchise after the initial trilogy, Jack is supplied with a new pair of pretty, mutually attracted protagonists. Brenton Thwaites plays Henry Turner, a young adventurer who is the son of Bloom’s and Knightley’s characters. (No, the franchise hasn’t actually been around that long. Yes, it feels as though it’s been around even longer.) And Kaya Scodelario portrays Carina Smyth, an astrologer and horologist—sadly, there are quite a few jokes playing on that first syllable; more sadly still, they’re above average for the film—who is eventually revealed to be the daughter of ... well, I’d best leave that to “eventually.”
Javier Bardem shows up as the villainous undead pirate hunter Armando Salazar, inheriting the precise plot functions performed in previous installments by Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa, Bill Nighy’s Davey Jones (who at least had the decency to hide himself under a faceful of tentacles), and Ian McShane’s Blackbeard. And series regular Rush is back again, his pirate Barbossa having been un-undead for several films now.
There’s a small role for Bloom, whose current career seems to consist largely of retconning characters (Legolas, Will Turner) from the period when some mistakenly thought he was a plausible leading man, into projects (The Hobbit, this latest Pirates entry) released at a point when we all know he’s not. There’s even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of Knightley, who clearly has better things to do than waste time in this franchise. In place of a previous cameo by Keith Richards, who was a principal inspiration for Jack Sparrow, we have a cameo by Paul McCartney, who was not.
As with the roles, so too with the plot. Per the norm, there is a mystic artifact to be acquired, the Trident of Poseidon, which has the power to break all of the sea-curses accumulated over the previous four films. (How’s that for a reboot?) There are plots and betrayals, piratical zombies and sea monsters and a ghost ship, and much bouncing around from vessel to vessel.
Even when the movie introduces new elements to the franchise, they are the stalest chestnuts in the cupboard. Jack Sparrow is given an entirely gratuitous origin story, so that he can be cinematically de-aged à la Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War or Kurt Russell in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. In fact, if you genuinely desire subplots about paternities revealed or a noble sacrifice by a secondary character in the final reel, go see (or re-see) Guardians 2, which does both better.
Depp slurs and sways his way through the film as usual, but reports of his erratic behavior on set cast the performance in a somewhat different light this time around. When, at one point, he introduces himself with boozy extravagance as “the great Captain Jack Sparrow,” his audience’s palpable disappointment feels as though it accrues as much to Depp himself as to the character he is playing. Meanwhile, newcomers Thwaites and Scodelario possess a small fraction of the shimmer supplied by Bloom and Knightley before them.
It all adds up to a dreary, dispiriting voyage. During the finale, as Bardem’s Salazar makes a final, mortal approach, he bellows, “This is where the tale ends!” Please, please, please, let it be so.