JOHN OSTRANDER: The Too-Late Review
Okay, everyone’s already seen Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. It’s disappearing from the multiplexes and probably being replaced by the latest Harry Potter. I, however, just got around to seeing it recently and have some thought to inflict… er … share with you. And maybe a thought or two about writing as it pertains in the movie, I would say here there be spoilers, arrrh, but if you had any intentions of seeing the film, you’d have already done it. Just so you know – I can’t talk about the film without revealing part of its plot and if you want to remain unspoiled, STOP READING THIS COLUMN NOW.
OTOH, if you haven’t the film. . .well, IMO, you haven’t missed a lot.
The basic facts are these – just so we have common ground. This is the third in the series of films based upon a ride at Disneyland. That’s right – not based on a comic or an old TV show like all proper summer films should be; it’s based on a ride at a bloated amusement park. The films star Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, the feyest, drunkenest, and most conniving pirate to swash a buckle; Keira Knightly and Orlando Bloom as the young lovers; Geoffrey Rush in the first and third films as Sparrow’s opponent, Barbossa; Bill Nighy as Davy Jones and there’s lots of other good actors.
All three PotC films were directed by Gore Verbinski. All three were written by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio although on the first one, Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert also worked with the other two writers on the story. Jerry Bruckheimer is the producer of all three and that, I think, is an item of some importance that figures on my reaction to the latest film.
The latter two films in the series exist because the first one was so successful, far better than any film based on an amusement park ride had any business being. It was sharp, it was funny, it had great special effects and fights, a really cool element of the supernatural, memorable characters, lots of great lines, and came to a satisfying conclusion all the way around. Its success guaranteed a sequel and, inspired by Lord of the Rings, two sequels were shot at the same time to save money and make sure all the cast was back for both. And that’s where we start to get into trouble.
The first film really stands on its own but it was decided to make the next two films really one story. One very LONG story. And it suggests, through various narrative ties, that the three films are a trilogy. They’re not. The next two films add reverses and suggests deeper mythologies and do odd things with the characters. The second film plays off the enjoyment and goodwill the first film generated; it has some great set pieces in addition to adding some new characters – notably Davy Jones – but it starts to drag and ends with our favorite character, Depps’ Captain Jack Sparrow, getting dragged to his seeming death by a giant kraken. It ends with the promise of Sparrow’s possible return in the next film. (Of course he does. Depp’s Sparrow is the reason to see the films in the first place and no one is going to forget that. Especially not the studio,)
Then came what was, presumably, the concluding chapter in the “trilogy,” At World’s End, this summer’s installment. They forgot the fun in this one. The opening is rather grim; I’d call hanging a kid grim and it sets the tone for the rest of the very long film. The world doesn’t need a “serious” pirate story. Pirates stories are about colorful characters, high adventure, blazing action on the high seas. It can even be scary. It has to be, however. Treasure Island, Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk and the first Pirates of the Carribean movie are all great examples of that.
It’s also needlessly complicated. Everyone is betraying everyone or so it seems. Characters switch sides so often that you can’t keep track even with a scorecard. Why they were changing sides and even what they were after got lost or confused in the shuffle.
It also became entangled with a plethora of villains and this also makes things very complicated. Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa goes from being the villain in the first movie, to being dead and absent in the second film until the very end, to being something of an ally and a hero in the third film. In the second PotC film, Bill Nighy’s Davy Jones is the apparent main villain although by the end he has come under the control of Tom Hollander’s Lord Cutler Beckett, representing the East India Trading Company, who is really the master villain in the third movie and, by extension, the trilogy.
Elsewhere on ComicMix, Mike Gold has talked about the need that some films – especially comic book films such as the Batman and the Spider-Man films – to shoe-horn in as many villains as possible. It’s in evidence here as well and it’s just as sloppy and unworkable as in the comic book films.
For summer blockbusters and especially pirates movies, the KISS rule (“Keep It Simple, Stupid.”) really needs to in effect. In the first PotC movie, things are pretty straightforward. Captain Jack Sparrow wants his ship, the Black Pearl, back. The governor’s daughter on an English island in the Caribbean is kidnapped by the crew and the poor but honest swordsmith that loves her wants to get her back. She was kidnapped by jack’s former crew who got slapped with a curse from stealing a cursed treasure. They think the governor’s daughter is the one who will get the curse lifted. Boiled down, that’s it. And it works just fine as the skeleton on which to hang all the fun stuff that happens.
Nothing is that straightforward in POTC: At World’s End. To start with, it takes about 40 minutes to bring Captain Jack Sparrow back from the dead (I timed it). There’s no suspense in this – we all know that he’s going to be back. He’s front and center on all the movie posters. He was in the trailers. We know he’s coming back. The movie is not going to be about trying to bring him back. So why not just get it done and over in the first fifteen minutes? (Have I mentioned this is a lonnnnng movie? Twenty-five minutes longer than the original, coming in at close to three hours.) There’s a nice gag or two but nothing that should delay us that long.
After that we get everyone going after their own goals, backstabbing and betraying – or just seeming to betray – everyone else for reasons that remain murky to me. Story elements are introduced – i.e. the sea goddess Calypso – that we are told are going to be really important and turn out to be not so much.
Worse, we get a killing off of characters to which we’ve become attached and whose deaths make the movie glum. Jonathan Pryce, who happens to be a superb actor, and who plays Governor Swann, our leading lady’s father, is figuratively and literally wasted in this film. Jack Davenport’s Commodore Norrington is a rigid naval figure also in love with Keira Knightly’s Elizabeth Swann. In the second film he becomes a pirate and reverts, and then becomes a toady in this film and also killed. Worst of all, Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner, our male romantic lead, finally marries his sweetheart in this film only to be killed and made to take Davy Jones’s place as captain of the Flying Dutchman. I heard fellow movie goers grousing about it on the way out. “What was the point of all that?” my fellow movie-goer grumbled. My feelings exactly.
I’ve come up with a word to describe a flaw I find in some films – “Bruckheimered.” It’s named for the producer of this film and its symptoms show in it. When I use the term I mean a film in which certain events have already been decided upon at the beginning and the writer(s) must justify them, finding a way to connect them the way a child might do a “Follow the Dot” puzzle. You connect the dots and, hopefully, a picture of something emerges. It’s what fellow columnist Denny O’Neil has described as the “one damned thing after another’ plot. It may not be long on coherence or even internal consistency but it should entertain. When a movie has been “Bruckheimered,” I’m usually not entertained.
I’m not saying that every film Jerry Bruckheimer does is “Bruckheimered.” Obviously, I loved the first PotC film. He also done some fine work with shows I like such as CSI. But then he does stuff like Independence Day (don’t get me started). Plot is driven by events – big, noisy, and whenever possible, explosive. Narrative clarity or logic and character coherence appears to be way down the list of what is necessary.
No, I’m not part of the decision making process of Mr. Bruckheimer’s films and so I have no first-hand knowledge of this. I just see it more often in films he’s produced. I’ve worked with other writers to know that this can happen – to have an idea for a moment or a scene and to want to put it in whether it works as part of the plot or not. The results are the same as being Bruckheimered.
The story should never be about a scene, a line, an act, or even a character. The focus should always be on what helps to tell the story in the simplest, cleanest, and most entertaining way. That’s why writers have the phrase – “kill your darlings.” The “darling” is always that bit of writing that you love so much that you’re willing to twist everything else to keep it in. I want a film to tell me a story, take me on an experience. When spectacle becomes more important than narrative, a film has been Bruckheimered.
The end of PotC: At World’s End is not even a conclusion. They appear to be setting the stage for another movie – a search for the Fountain of Youth. Ostrander Rule – if you haven’t entertained me in the movie I’m seeing, I’m not going to be up for the one you’re planning next.
A good pirate movie should leave you exhilarated, pretty close to cheering, ready to sign on again. PotC: At World’s End didn’t. And where I come from, that be a keelhaulin’ offense.
Writer/actor/playwright John Ostrander knows a thing or two about writing pirate stories. Back in the day, he wrote Bloody Bess with actor William J. Norris. The play starred Joe Mantegna and Dennis Franz and was directed by Stuart (Re-Animator) Gordon. Oh, yeah. He also writes a lot of comic books. It pays better.