ReviewsTelevision & Film

Stranger Tides: Familiar Territory

Captain Jack Sparrow is back, and this time he just might get the girl. Well…

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is a slimmed-down version of the Pirates franchise. It’s quite clear the production team decided to go in a direction opposite the overly-supernatural last two outings, and this one feels more like the first movie – you know, before the ghosts and curses and zombies and beasts of the depths and magic and giant whirlpools…

At least this one has mermaids, and a few zombies.

Johnny Depp returns as Sparrow, who finds himself in London because there’s a rumor going around that he’s in port with a ship in need of a crew. He, in fact, has no ship and is not looking for a crew, but fully intends to benefit from the schemes of his impostor – who turns out to be not quite what he expected. When he’s captured by the British, he’s confronted by Captain Hector Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), now a privateer in the employ of the British Navy, who reveals that Sparrow’s old ship, the Black Pearl was lost at sea.

Based somewhat on the 1987 book On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers, this Pirates is the first to incorporate actual historical figures (Blackbeard, George II, King Ferdinand of Spain) and weave them into the plot of a story. Another element from Powers’ book is the search for the mystical Fountain of Youth.

When a body is fished out of the water near Spain, it’s revealed that the Fountain has been found, 200 years after Ponce de León’s famous search. King Ferdinand of Spain immediately orders an expedition. While over in London, Jack Sparrow is finding his best First Mate Gibbs (and breaking him out of prison) in order to search for the Fountain himself using a map he’s had in his possession for a while.

The escape is the first big action set of the film, and at times, the pace seems a little slow, but it holds up against other Sparrow jaunts. Following a cameo by Kieth Richards, the sword fight in the tavern is the next bit, and this one bogs down. The fight choreography is clunky and stutters along through the scene, and doesn’t quite have the energy you’d expect in a Jerry Bruckheimer production.

At the end of it all, Sparrow finds himself aboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge, under the command of the infamous Blackbeard and his “zombie-fied” officers. The First Mate is Angelica (Penélope Cruz) who claims to be Blackbeard’s daughter. Of course, Sparrow and Angelica have a history – a romantic one that turned sour, and with the requisite finger-pointing, the two banter back and forth throughout the entire film. And sometimes Cruz’s accent gets in the way of that.

Now, remember, the Spanish are already en route to the Fountain…

And the British are coming. Barbosa has captured Gibbs and mounts an expedition to go after the Fountain.

Angelica entices Sparrow to help her, as the Fountain will help her father avoid the prophecy that he will be killed by a one-legged man (Barbosa). And she shows him a collection of small ships in bottles – one of them the Black Pearl (in this movie, Blackbeard has a few supernatural gifts, of course…).

So, now it’s a race between the Spanish, the British and the pirates. All headed for Whitecap Bay to capture the tear of a mermaid – called for in the recipe that involves two silver chalices and a ritual to restore years to a person who drinks from the Fountain. In an interesting twist, this Fountain gives someone life by taking it from someone else.

Naturally, we all see where this is headed.

It’s predictable, but it’s leaner than the last two pictures, and that makes it easier to sit through. But was it worth making another Pirates movie? Alasdair Wilkins over at io9 makes an interesting point: “…we live in an era where Hollywood long ago stopped asking why a film should exist, instead being merely content to shrug, mutter ‘Why not?’, and throw 150 million dollars at some reheated half-concept.”

Certainly, some people are going to enjoy Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow no matter how many times  he goes to the well. But this time around feels almost like he and Geoffrey Rush are playing it too much like caricatures of themselves. Rush especially is over the top with his portrayal of Barbosa. Is that because of the loss of the Pearl? The loss of his leg? The loss of his status as a pirate? It’s never clear, but this time around Barbosa grated on me. It didn’t feel like the same character from previous films. And Rush is really chewing the scenery this time out.

Ian McShane isn’t given much to do, which is a disappointment given his credentials. He certainly can look menacing, but so can a thousand other actors in Hollywood. Even his last confrontation with Barbosa is weak, by the numbers. We get that he’s the bad guy. And with this being part of the Pirates franchise, as the bad guy he has to have a supernatural element. His sword gives him the power to control his ship. But it’s used only enough to show that he’s just as supernatural as previous antagonists, and it’s not a useful plot element. It’s only thrown in to make him consistent.

Penélope Cruz is a nice change of pace from Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swan. Her chemistry with Depp feels natural. You believe they actually have a history, and she looks ever so good in pirate garb (especially the hat and corset…), but her accent gets in the way of some of her lines, and her performance doesn’t feel like she’s really in the moment.

That’s probably the biggest problem with On Stranger Tides: no one feels like they really believe in the story. It seems to be just another “let’s go on an adventure” for the main cast, and the drive and passion from earlier films isn’t here. Is that because Gore Verbinski didn’t direct this one? Maybe. Director Rob Marshall said that he approached the action sequences like musical numbers, and that gives them a “by the numbers” feeling.

Sam Claflin puts in a decent enough performance as Philip, the lone Christian on Blackbeard’s ship. His scenes with Astrid Berges-Frisbey are convincingly heart-felt and natural. You can believe he’s a Christian, and Claflin doesn’t make him a stereotype or a parody of Christians. Berges-Frisbey doesn’t get a lot of dialogue, but her mermaid Syrena plays a key role in the search for the Fountain, and she has a scene or two of her own where she gets to flex her acting muscles a bit.

It’s a thin plot, highly predictable, but compared to the loud bombast of the last two films, which got mired in their own mythology, it’s a nice change of pace for the franchise. It’s “back to basics”, which is probably what they needed this time around.

NOTE: Stay through the credits. You’ll be glad you did.

[Official movie site]

Jason P. Hunt

Jason P. Hunt (founder/EIC) is the author of the sci-fi novella "The Hero At the End Of His Rope". His short film "Species Felis Dominarus" was a finalist in the Sci Fi Channel's 2007 Exposure competition.

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