SPOILER FREE REVIEW of Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017) TO FOLLOW:
I would like to begin by explaining what Pirates of the Caribbean means to me, as it is integral to the remainder of this review:
I saw the first film, The Curse of the Black Pearl for the first time in theaters when I was eight years old. Despite not understanding every intricacy with the oftentimes complex storyline (heck, I’m still uncovering hidden facets when I watch it fourteen years later), I can clearly remember loving it. It was something that me and my father shared a passion for, which is ironic, as writer and publicist Michael Singer, in his book Disney Pirates; The Definitive Collector’s Anthology, states that the relationship between parents and children remains “a subtextual tradition in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.” This certainly bled over into my own life, as both the ride and the films are a shared love between my and my own parents.
As the franchise continued, I developed a need to understand how the filmmakers accomplished the incredible visual artistry, which made me love studying movie magic and behind-the-scenes wonders. Pirates took me to other worlds, giving me a colorful cast of characters to follow along with and, subsequently, inspired me to make my own. Story-wise, it showed me that the lines between good and evil can be blurred. People are capable of change, villains can be good, and everyone needs love. As both I and my appreciation for Johnny Depp grew, his acting became the gateway to other artists and forms of cinema, thereby fostering my want to be heavily involved in creating these incredible cinematic worlds for other daydream-prone kids like me in the future.
When I think of my inspiration, it’s Pirates. It’s always been Pirates. That’s what these movies did for me.
Why then, is it that I feel the need to apologize and justify my love for them every time it comes up in conversation? The reactions I get from others are more often than not, “Wait really? Pirates? Why?” and as someone studying film seriously for a career, these reactions have caused me to doubt my own tastes in cinema, as though liking the franchise makes my analyses and opinions less valid. Why these reactions? Any number of reasons: Disney’s an easy target as the entertainment industry’s current world superpower, the movies are intended as frivolous, big budget entertainment, or my personal favorite, franchise fatigue, which is currently threatening to sink Hollywood’s Summer Blockbuster season this year.
Allow me to explain:
The first Pirates film was made entirely out of love. Love for the 1967 Disneyland attraction, love of actual 18th century nautical history and mythology, and love for truly creating something out of nothing, with a handful of small to medium-sized names who made magic together. The formula not only worked, it thrived. The second and third films continued to foster this atmosphere of love by delivering upon storylines built from the first film and seeing them through to some very unforeseeable and genuinely surprising conclusions. The fourth and fifth films were afterthoughts, made only for the sole purpose of steady, reliable income. And their stories and execution mirror that attitude, as jokes fall flat, narratives get repetitive, motivations get blurred, and everything feels stale. This in turn creates a chain reaction; Audiences become polarized or disappointed, critics lash out, and the quality of the franchise as a whole is diminished.
Maybe I put too many expectations on Dead Men Tell No Tales. After the highly criticized spin-off/sequel fourth film On Stranger Tides became the worst rated and worst received of the franchise, maybe I just needed Dead Men Tell No Tales to not only right its predecessor’s wrongs, but to boost the quality of the series collectively. It failed, and it failed hard.
If this film was meant to redeem the franchise, it wouldn’t be the shortest in the series. If this film was meant to redeem the franchise, it would have spent time with its characters, their motivations, and made us care even slightly for them. If this film was meant to redeem the franchise, it wouldn’t have rewritten its own canon, completely ignoring plot points established in the original trilogy. If this film was meant to redeem the franchise, it would have been carefully handled.
“Rushed,” is how I would describe Dead Men Tell No Tales in a word, despite its principal photography being completed over two years prior to its release. The story is rushed, the pacing is rushed, the character development is rushed, and the ending is rushed. The film backtracks on its own canon in two major regards, and fails to explain its mythology in any way that would be considered coherent. Furthermore, new characters Henry Turner, Captain Salazar, and Carina Smyth, all of whom were promised repeatedly by cast and crew to be intriguing new additions to the series, were completely forgettable and lackluster. This isn’t a problem with directing. Much like On Stranger Tides, I believe directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg (just like #4’s director Rob Marshall) were dealt a difficult hand; How do you possibly lead a franchise equally as strong as predecessor Gore Verbinski? This is the fault of an extremely calculated plot, devised to be simple, form-fitted to match a tried and true structure, and extremely concise.
The shorter run time of this movie is one of the few consistent praises critics agree upon, but I argue that what makes the former films so great is the time they take with every character and detailed explanations of their universes. Dead Men Tell No Tales shows that shorter does not mean better. Rushed is rushed.
What wasn’t rushed? What took two years to complete; the graphics. Consequently, what is the strongest part of the film? You guessed it – the graphics. What was lost from this film versus the others was that 90% of its scenes were done on controlled stages with extensive use of computer generated imagery. The first four movies, while all demonstrating incredible usage of CG effects and characters, were filmed on location or at sea. While it was sad to see this no longer be an element of the fifth film’s production, the resulting graphics were absolutely gorgeous and stunningly detailed. All joking aside about the Pirates films quite literally, “jumping the shark,” with their added CGI ghost sharks, these creatures were genuinely the most interesting design of the film, along with a glittering island, The Silent Mary and her ghostly crew, and a Ten Commandments-esque parting of the sea sequence.
What else this movie does right is its emotional hooks, which is what has always made the series stand out. Barbossa gets a fantastic character arc, really emphasizing just how far he has come from being the primary villain in 2003. And, anyone with the ability to breathe most certainly knows this by now, but the reintroduction of original characters Will and Elizabeth to the film bookends it perfectly, and in my opinion, makes the entire movie worth every moment. The problem with Dead Men Tell No Tales is that there isn’t enough of this. While these two instances are great, there’s nothing else to hold onto, and therefore, no connection to really anything else.
I know I put too many expectations on Dead Men Tell No Tales, and I’m feeling the consequences now. Without giving too much away, the ending allows for more films. And this is perhaps what makes me the most upset; Its blatant refusal to die. Some argue that they should have stopped after the first film. I and most others argue after At World’s End, uniting the trilogy from 2003-2007. But to keep it going at this point would make my beloved films into even more of a joke than they already have become to most people. Since the studios seem to toss quality by the wayside, however, let me make this earnest plea in a way they in which they would listen; Continuing these movies would result in significant financial risk. Franchise fatigue has hit these films long before it was a recognized trend. Keep it up, and you lose your source of income.
For the past six months, I decided to throw all caution to the wind, buffeting any questioning of my taste in movies with hype for the upcoming film and completely embracing my excitement for it. I inundated my friends’ newsfeeds with blog posts, links, pictures, trailers, you name it, speculated wildly about the plot to my poor roommate, didn’t rest until I finished my long-running fan fiction, and more. But every time I did, I attached an apology. “I know I’m obsessed with these movies.” “I know I’m crazy.” “Thanks for humoring me.” No longer. Despite their imperfections, I still love the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and I forever will because of who they made me. I will go see Dead Men Tell No Tales again, maybe even tonight. It is by far my least favorite of the series, but I will watch again to see if somehow this initial response is wrong or miscalculated. This was a lesson; Expect less, hope more, know when to quit, and finally, embrace what you love.
I’m tired of apologizing. I love Pirates of the Caribbean because it is an entertaining, creative, innovative, trailblazing, emotional, layered, complex feature that has made me me. They’re not perfect. Yes, they should have ended years ago. But they do matter.
All photos by author.