Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Fool Reviews Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

drink up, me hearties

Hello, everyone, and welcome to another installment of The Fool Reviews. Today, we're going to be looking at the latest installment in the well-known Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, On Stranger Tides.

Now, before we begin, I think it's important to establish that I am a big fan of the first three movies. I don't pretend that they're perfect. In fact, I consider both Dead Man's Chest and At World's End to be pretty damn terrible. But they're guilty pleasures to me, because, despite all the terribly confused mythology, awful pacing, groan-inducing attempts at humor, and the lackluster acting of Keira Knightley, there are good movies buried under there. They shine through in places, and I enjoy the hell out of those scenes. I can take the rest of the stupid for those few moments that match the sheer fun of the first film.

Which brings me to my next point. The highlight of all three of the first movies, in my opinion, was not Jack Sparrow. As the comic-relief-slash-deuteragonist of the first film, I found him engaging, but far from capable of carrying the movie on his own. No. To me, the greatest, most enduring character of the Pirates franchise is Captain Barbossa.

Look at this guy. This guy is fucking brilliant. This guy is pirate fiction incarnate. He's commanding. He's charismatic. He's an antagonist that never loses that threatening, menacing edge even when he undergoes a heel face turn. He's a magnificent bastard that basically carried the entire original trilogy. Geoffrey Rush is brilliant in this role. He's actually one of my favorite film characters of all time, and the ending of the second movie, when he comes walking out of the back of Tia Dalma's shack with his apple, had me grinning from ear to ear because I love this guy.

And yet, even though Rush is reprising his role in this movie, and Knightley has jumped ship, I did not have high hopes for On Stranger Tides. Rush is a great actor, and his character is a ton of fun to watch, but even he couldn't salvage the third installment. With the film under a new director and bringing in a mostly all-new cast, I couldn't see this being anything more than a train wreck, particularly given the setup it got at the end of the last movie.

And oh, boy, was I ever right. This is the only movie I have ever seen that actually competes with 2012 for the top spot on my personal "Most Hated Films" list. I despise this movie. 

So let's get this over with.

For those of you who don't know, At World's End concluded with Barbossa stealing the Black Pearl out from under Jack Sparrow's nose again and setting sail to find the Fountain of Youth, only to discover that Jack has stolen the central piece of the "puzzle map" that leads to it. Now, this works fine as an "And The Adventure Continues" ending, but really, this is not a good focus for a movie. For all that the third movie was terrible, it did bring an end to the plot threads introduced in its predecessors, and rounded out the series to feel like a completed trilogy. As such, On Stranger Tides feels tacked on and unnecessary. It's taking plot threads that aren't really there and trying to spin them out into another installment to cash in.

This feeling of unnecessary cashing in on the first three movies is further reinforced by the fact that Jack Sparrow is our protagonist for this movie. For all that Elizabeth Turner was a boring character, and that Will Turner became a backstabbing idiot in the later movies, they were at least sympathetic and had some meat to them. Jack was a popular character for his exploitation of the Crazy Awesome trope and his eccentric personality, but he only works as a supporting character. There's a reason that the first film had him cast as a type of mentor to Will rather than as the film's protagonist. 

Probably because he lacks Barbossa's rockin' beard.

Jack, you see, is a flat character. He has precisely two drives: to be the captain of the Black Pearl and to live forever. That's it. That's all he ever wants throughout all of the movies. In The Curse of the Black Pearl, he's trying to get the ship back from Barbossa. In the second movie, it's revealed that he basically sold his soul to the devil to become its captain. And, in the third, he tries to become immortal by taking Davy Jones' place. Other than that, he's just a raving nutbag.

That's it. That's the extent of Jack's character. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I knew from the start that On Stranger Tides was going to fail, and fail hard. Jack only works as a supporting character. He is neither round nor dynamic. He is a horrible choice for a protagonist. The only attraction that the audience has for seeing him on screen is because he's usually funny, but the second and third movies, as sequels often do, took this the wrong way. Jack is funny because his insanity is such a stark contrast to the rest of the cast. When you put him on screen too much, he becomes tiring very, very quickly.

Beyond that, in this movie, Jack's motive is not sympathetic. In the first movie, he's trying to get back what he sees as rightfully his. That's fine. That's something the audience can get behind. In the second, he's trying to avoid a fate worse than death. Again, he has the audience's sympathy. In the third, he's trying to become immortal. The audience no longer sympathizes with him, because he's not trying to protect anything or do something he sees as morally right. He's just a self-serving jackass.

So, naturally, this movie decides to focus exclusively on his efforts to become immortal. 

Star Trek to the rescue again.

Look, it's all well and good that our protagonist actually has a motive and is trying to accomplish something, but that doesn't really matter if the audience has no reason to want to see him succeed. Why do we want Jack to become immortal? He's fucking crazy! More than that, he's self-serving, backstabbing, conniving, and constantly makes terrible decisions that wreak untold destruction on everyone around him. This is basically like making an Order of the Stick spinoff where Belkar is trying to ascend to godhood.

This guy.

So from the very beginning the audience is either completely apathetic towards or genuinely rooting against our "hero". This is not a good sign. We're not even to the start of the actual movie yet, and already I'm not looking forward to this.

And it only goes downhill from there.

"How", you may ask? How could it possibly get worse than an unsympathetic, annoying, self-serving protagonist trying to achieve something that the audience doesn't actually want to see him achieve? Well, here. Let me show you. This one picture sums up the series' absolute lowest point in just a few pixels. I don't even need to say anything, I bet. I probably will anyway, because damn this pisses me off, but I don't actually need to.

Yeah. Yeah, that's right.

Fuck you, movie. Just... fuck you. Geoffrey Rush carries your entire first fucking trilogy, and this is what you do with him? You put the best damn actor in your cast in a poofy wig, effeminate makeup, a horrendous-looking trimmed beard, and motherfucking LIPSTICK?

I would have walked out of the theater at this point, had I been in a theater. Unfortunately, I was not. I was at the drive-in with my family. I had to sit through the entire rest of this pile of shit, watching my favorite character get raped by the script over and over the whole time.

This? This is not comedy. Putting a character in strange-looking stage dress is not inherently humorous. I could understand it if there was some point to it, but there isn't. There is absolutely no reason for Barbossa to be wearing any of that shit. The hat and uniform? Yes. Sure. They look snazzy. That outfit change would have established that he's a genuine threat to Sparrow again, because he has the might of the British Navy behind him. But the makeup is entirely unnecessary. It shows that they're so desperate for a laugh that they're willing to completely degrade the characters that the fans have come to know and love in order to secure it. I mean, really. Look at the above photo. Now look at the one below, for a shot of what he looked like in the first movie.

Look at this paragon of badass pirateyness and then tell me that you can look at the above photo without weeping. LOOK AT IT.

I really should stop the review right here. There really isn't much more to be said. This movie makes so little of an impression that the Barbossa-raping is the most memorable thing in it. Nothing important happens in this movie. It's one long string of slapstick sessions with Jack Sparrow and Barbossa acting like a fop. That's it. That's all there is to it.

Well, almost all. You see, the filmmakers weren't content with completely failing to understand any of the points of characterization, narrative structure, and what the fans actually liked about the characters. They had to introduce new cool things just so they could make us feel bad about those as well.

Well, two cool things. One, Edward Teach.

Okay yeah this guy is badass.

That's right. Edward Teach. Captain Edward Teach. Blackbeard himself. The Pirate. Blackbeard is piracy. Blackbeard is the single most romanticized figure in all of pirate fiction, and to anybody who actually enjoyed any books about pirates in their childhood - I myself greatly enjoyed Treasure Island - he is everything that you love about that genre on two legs. It's even better if you know about his actual life: Blackbeard was such an awesome pirate that he commanded his fleet entirely with its permission. He never had to use force to control his crews, despite the tales of him being a ruthless leader prone to shooting those who failed him. He actually spurned the use of force in all but the most dire circumstances, preferring to use fear tactics and his fearsome reputation as the captain of the Queen Anne's Revenge to get what he wanted rather than simply blasting people apart.

So yeah. I admit, despite the terrible stuff that came before and after it, I was excited to see Blackbeard featuring in this movie, particularly because he actually looks like a pirate captain. He looks like Blackbeard should look. He's intimidating. He's imposing. He is a goddamn badass to rival Barbossa in the first three films. 

So, of course, he is entirely wasted in this film.

As is the other cool thing introduced: Blackbeard is the captain of the Queen Anne's Revenge, the most feared pirate ship to ever sail the seven seas. And he is also apparently a fucking wizard, because when he draws his cutlass he can control the rigging of the ship and also summon a favorable wind to take him wherever he wants to go. He is a goddamn wizard pirate


And his ship has a fucking flamethrower on the front. Okay, yes, the flamethrower was stupid. But it was awesome stupid. Blackbeard and his ship are the one bright spot in this movie, and I almost cheered whenever they showed up on screen. They're both built up as humongous threats and genuinely intimidate the audience. Blackbeard is an intriguing character, a self-serving and ruthless villain who nonetheless tries to protect and care for his daughter. The Queen Anne's Revenge is a threatening-looking ship with rigging that can come to life and kill you, powerful cannons, and a flamethrower on the front that can torch you in seconds. This had the potential to be incredibly, amazingly cool. 

When these were first introduced, I thought that the filmmakers might actually surprise me and do one good scene in this movie: the trademark Pirates of the Caribbean epic swordfight on the pirate ship. You know, the dueling on the masts and the climbing up the rigging and the cannonballs flying and the ships exploding and everything like that. Those scenes were always awesome in the other movies, even in the third one. Especially in the third one. I admit, I loved the battle in the maelstrom. That was awesome.

But, of course, like everything else in this movie, Blackbeard is a wasted character. And that just feels like one final slap in the face to the audience, because he had the potential to be awesome, particularly with Ian McShane playing him. I spent the entire movie waiting for that one scene where Barbossa and Jack and Teach would have their three-way duel on the deck of the Queen Anne's Revenge, with Teach throwing everything he had at them with his pirate wizard powers and Jack and Barbossa putting aside their differences for just long enough to take down this seemingly-invincible foe...

...Aaaaaand of course it never happened. Teach dies in an extremely unsatisfying fashion during an incredibly boring climax which results in neither Jack nor Barbossa getting to make use of the Fountain. On top of that, Blackbeard is the only one to die, which means that absolutely nothing is accomplished in this movie. The entire thing was one long, tortuous exercise in pointlessness with no payoff. Barbossa claims the Queen Anne's Revenge and Jack regains the Black Pearl, but that's it, and neither of them set out to actually accomplish these goals. They're entirely incidental to the plot. No one is changed in this movie. No one accomplishes anything or is changed by the events. Nothing. Happens.

Well, nothing except a lot of painfully unfunny, grating slapstick from Jack, boring "plot twists" that go nowhere, the systematic destruction of everything that made Barbossa awesome, and a lot of buildup towards a climactic battle that never happens.

This movie was one of the most painfully idiotic, shameful, mind-rapingly bad things that I have ever seen in my life. I'm tempted to say that there is absolutely nothing redeeming about it, but that's not quite true. Ian McShane as Blackbeard is, as I said, the one redeeming feature of this movie. But even that gets wasted, in the end. 

Don't waste your time with this movie. Go see Muppet Treasure Island instead. 

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