Monday, July 17, 2006

After the Gold Rush: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

On a sandy beach in the Caribbean, surrounded by the clearest water you've ever seen in your life, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest crystalizes, albeit briefly, into the movie it should be. There on the beach, four characters struggle for possession of a key and a treasure chest, the contents of which are far too stupid to discuss in a paragraph that's about why Pirates 2 works. Three of the four characters draw swords, and begin an elaborately choreographed fight and chase, leading them to an old mill, with a wheel that they all feel inclined to climb and which, buckling under the weight, breaks from its supports and begins to roll down, while the three men continue to parry and thrust with great aplumb. What grand stupidity! This, I thought to myself, is the kind of moment that God, Thomas Edison, and several French people invented cinema for.

A shame, then, that so much of what surrounds that nearly perfect sequence is so gosh-darn awful; as a devout fan of The Curse of the Black Pearl, it pains me to say it. The first film was a life vest of a movie, providing buoyancy in a sea of blockbuster boredom. Dead Man's Chest is a pair of cement shoes.

Everything from the first movie works again, but the problem is how little DMC truly resembles TCoTBP. The first picture was a comedy with scary elements; it was Ghostbusters on the high seas. The second picture is a horror-revenge hybrid with barely any swashbuckling whatsoever (the sequence I singled out is the one true exception). The cast from the first picture — Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, , and, of course, Johnny Depp — are all still wonderful, but the new plot, and the new villains that force it upon them, do not rise to their standard of acting excellence. In particular, Dead Man's Chest gives up a lot of ground by fielding Bill Nighy as its heavy instead of the Geoffrey Rush, though Nighy is done no favors by his ridiculous squid face makeup.

I suppose director Gore Verbinski and writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio felt obligated to provide a similar but different spin on the threat from the Black Pearl. That movie had ghost pirates, this one has monster pirates. But the ghost pirates were given an acceptable reason for existing; Dead Man's Chest offers no such explanation for sailors who look like hammer head sharks and hermit crabs. We are told that they are indebted to serve Davy Jones (that's Nighy), as enslaved members of his crew. As their servitude continues they are stripped of their humanity and, when their sentence is up they simply become part of Jones' ship. Ok, but why do they look like discarded characters from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Turtles in Time?

The movie operates in a strange little paradox. Special effects should be just that. They should be visual moments so astounding we delight in our disbelief. The ghost pirates from Black Pearl are a perfect example; so is Superman saving a falling airplane, so is Mickey Rourke looking like he just stepped off the page of a Frank Miller comic. Davy Jones and the rest of his crew aren't special. There is nothing inherently interesting about them and, frankly, they're a little repulsive. Instead of being unable to keep my eyes off them, I found myself averting my gaze when they appeared on screen too long. And how the hell am I supposed to concentrate on the dialogue in a scene (between characters with thick British accents) when one of them has a starfish growing out of his face?!?

We never learn the circumstances that made Davy Jones into a squid man or where he acquired his powers or his ship or his gigantic Kraken creature which can bother our heroes whenever the screenplay begins to drag. We never learn when or where or why or how Captain Jack Sparrow made his Faustian bargain with Jones. We never learn why Davy Jones put the object in the chest that he put in the chest, nor do we learn why this object is so desired by everyone in the film.

The lack of information in the film is indicative of its aggressive-but-airheaded approach. There are lots of action sequences and battles at sea, but the dialogue has to be shouted in brief bursts over explosions. Dead Man's Chest is long, but so was Black Pearl. But the original film built slowly and carefully; it opened with an atmospheric dream sequence, introduced its characters. Dead Man's Chest begins as if a scene is missing, with the characters running about and screaming at one another. Where the first film invited us along for an adventure on the high seas, the new Pirates is like a relative's slide show; they look like they're having fun in the pictures, but we're sure not.


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