TL;DR – This is a paint by numbers film with no direction or heart, a real disappointment, and the better title is probably Pirates of The Caribbean: Coincidence on the High Seas
Score – 2 out of 5 stars
P.S. – There is a post-credit scene
So here we are looking at the fifth film in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, and I’m sitting here wondering where it all went wrong. The first Pirates of the Caribbean was one of those breaths of fresh air that pop up every now and again, a brilliant standalone film, reinvigorating a genre of film that had disappeared, and it had one of the greatest character entrances in film history. Its two follow-up films which completed a trilogy of sorts were not as good as the first but fine films in their own right. However, the last film felt more like a continuation out of necessity rather than a new story that they felt needed to be told, and this continues in Dead Men Tell No Tales. So at this point, it should be no surprise that I didn’t like the fifth Pirates of The Caribbean film so we’re going to break down what worked and what didn’t and one of those lists is going to be bigger than the other.
Before we get into the heart of the review let’s take a moment to set the scene. It has been about fifteen years since ‘At World’s End’ and about four since ‘On Stranger Tides’ and Henry (Brenton Thwaites) the son of Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) and Will (Orlando Bloom) is on a quest to free his father from the curse that bound him to The Flying Dutchman. Henry is convinced that the only thing that can help is the fabled Trident of Poseidon and also that the only one who can help him find it is Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and his magical compass. To try and find Jack Sparrow who had gone into hiding Henry signs onto the British Navy so he can explore the Caribbean, where after a confrontation with Captain Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem) he arrives at Saint Martin runs into Carine (Kaya Scodelario) who has been arrested for being a witch, she’s not, she’s actually an accomplished astronomer, and has to hunt down the Trident before everyone else can get it. As far as a set up goes, it’s not bad, but as we’ll find out it is not without its many issues.
So let’s start the review with the casting and performances because this is one of the film’s few strong points. Look we’ll get onto the story in a moment and that does impact on the performances, but despite that, I do think most of the cast is doing a great job with what they are given. Javier Bardem is amazing he has such a presence about him that even behind the CGI overlay his performance shines through. I did quite like Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario performances, which yes has more than a little feeling of Will and Elizabeth 2.0, but they make it work through a sheer stubborn will. Geoffrey Rush, well Geoffrey Rush is just a delight on screen, I mean he shined in Gods of Egypt and that was a dumpster fire of a film and here, while he doesn’t have any of those classic moments from the first film his presence is felt in every scene he is in. Now, of course, the big question is Johnny Depp and eh, it’s not bad but at this point, he has been playing the same character in all five films and there has been no real character development so you may or may not like it depending on how over you are with Captain Jack Sparrow. One thing I will say is that the film woefully underutilised David Wenham.
When it comes to the technical side of things it is more of a mixed bag, with some parts like the visual effects being fantastic in places and oddly poor in others, and the music being all over the place. A lot of the visual effects in Dead Men Tell No Tales are really quite good, with standouts being Salazar’s ship and crew. I really did like the semi-corporeal feel of the crew, and the ship opening up to eat its prey was a fascinating design choice, as well as this, there were some really good water effects which are not the easiest thing to pull off. However, while it was good to see some decent visual effects, there were also some quite poor CGI which I was not expecting. There were some overhead shots of Redshirts running which looks really poor (I assume they were CGI, if they weren’t then something was off with the framing), also there was a scene where a small boat was being towed at speed and it could not have looked more green screened, and the de-aging tech is still not quite there. The physical sets and costumes were all really good, I really liked the town they created it had a lot of interesting details, and allowed for one of the better action sequences in the film. However, one area that was a real let down for me was the music. When you have had one person (Hans Zimmer) be the creative force behind the music from a franchise it is difficult for another person to jump in, as there is that tension between adding your new voice and respecting what came before, we saw this play out with Rogue One. Now I should say that Hans Zimmer’s score for Pirates of the Caribbean is one of my favourites from the 2000s so maybe this is clouding my view, but this score was lacking heart and didn’t add anything new that stood out for me.
Now while the things I have mentioned are snags, at the heart of Dead Men Tell No Tales’ problems is a story with no direction, it is more of a combination of stock story points slapped together with a thin veneer of plot, and it is frustrating to sit and watch two hours of lazy story writing. At every point the story took the opportunity to take the most boring direction, whether through rehashing plot lines from the past, or having characters acting stupidly, or by going ‘surprise’ when the rest of the audience saw it coming a mile away. When a character announces that they are on a quest to find their father that they never knew, well I’ll let you guess how that turns out and you’re probably right on the money. You have the captain of a large (deep hulled) British warship knowingly chase pirates into uncharted water, ok, near a rocky island with sharp rocks gouging out from the water, um wait, then into a cave with no knowledge if the masts can even fit or it there is an exit, wait what no, you are bad at your job. There is no tension throughout the film, everyone who we have seen in the past might as well been wearing a force field. The whole film is filled with both literal and metaphorical Redshirts that exist only to be killed so none of the good cast has to die. [Spoilers]There is one point where a bunch of secondary characters escape a ship, yep that ship was dead moments later, and no one that we could possibly care about was put in any real danger. When we have an extended fight sequence with Jack Sparrow’s head in a guillotine, well you know they won’t be that serious in putting anyone’s life in any real danger or peril. This leads to a dull and emotionally flat film, indeed there was only one moment in the entire film where I felt any kind of emotional attachment to the characters or the narrative and that was a scene almost at the very end of the film. [End of Spoilers] Now this was probably not the writer’s fault, they might have been working from a brief with a lot of things being forced onto them that they had to add whether it worked or not, but it ends up being a flat nonsensical mess.
Structurally the film is also a mishmash of long setups, overwhelming coincidence, and long stretches of dull padding. Look I don’t mind a slow build, indeed I championed Arrival for that very quality, but there is a difference between a slow build and a film taking forever to get started. We know from almost the start that the film will be a hunt for the Trident of Poseidon, but it is not until we are well into act two before that actually starts. Before this we are stuck sitting through one coincidence after another, oh Henry needs to get to the Trident, well he runs into Salazar which means he can get to St. Martin (which if you think I am going to gloss over the fact that St. Martin was never a British colony you are mistaken) when he finds Jack, but also Carina the only person in the world with a map to the Trident, also if Henry was not there Jack and Carina would be dead, and it goes on and on. Yes you might be saying ‘but Star Wars has a lot of coincidence too’ and you would be right but A New Hope’s story is strong enough that you don’t see the coincidences until you go looking for them, here you can’t help but trip over them on the way to the next action set piece.
There are also some really cringy scenes, which really doesn’t help the film in any way because it reinforces the lazy storytelling. The worst offender of this is probably the wedding sequence about half way through the film. Here Jack is woken up in the middle of a wedding ceremony to discover that he is the groom and is being forced to marry an unpleasant looking woman. Besides this scene feeling like it has been ripped out of multiple films of the past, it serves no purpose in the film. It doesn’t tell us anything about Jack we don’t already know, it doesn’t show us something of Henry or Carina’s character, it does not forward the plot or reveal anything, it serves no purpose. Now in better films like Mad Max Fury Road use this kind of scene as a way of letting the audience breathe, or to release the tension, however here it just feels like they needed a bit of filler, which would have been fine it was in any way funny, but it’s not.
In the end, I really wanted to like this film, I was a fan of the original trilogy, and this was even filmed around where I live so you kind of want to see your local film industry excel, but it just didn’t do it for me. If there is to be one more, which let’s face it there will be, please can I implore you to take some time and think about the direction of the movie, the motivation of the characters, and give the story some substance which it desperately needs.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Directed by – Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg
Screenplay by – Jeff Nathanson
Story By – Jeff Nathanson & Terry Rossio
Based on – Pirates of the Caribbean by Walt Disney & Characters Created by Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Stuart Beattie & Jay Wolpert
Music by – Geoff Zanelli
Cinematography by – Paul Cameron
Edited by – Roger Barton & Leigh Folsom Boyd
Starring – Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Geoffrey Rush, David Wenham, Kevin McNally, Golshifteh Farahani, Stephen Graham & Martin Klebba, with Paul McCartney, Orlando Bloom & Keira Knightley
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: PG; NZ: M; UK: 12A; USA: PG-13