Before we even dig into the story or performances of the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean film, pointlessly subtitled Dead Men Tell No Tales, allow me to make a public service announcement that I thought I’d never have to make again, but apparently I do. It’s actually been a while since I’ve attended a preview screening of a 3-D movie that wasn’t animated, and I’ve actually grown to prefer seeing a film for the first time in 2-D. I’m not inherently against 3-D; it doesn’t give me a headache or lessen my enjoyment of a film because I have to wear those flimsy, smudged glasses.
The problem I find—and the reason for this PSA—is that many films offered in 3-D contain a great number of sequences set during the evening or in otherwise dark environments, and when you’re forced to wear lenses that dim your vision slightly, the resulting image looks all the more murky. (That might actually be a better subtitle for this chapter of the Pirates franchise: The Murky Depths.) The bottom line is—and always will be—that 3-D doesn’t work when the image begins dark. And let me assure you, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is one murky movie on so many levels.
At this point, I just assume Johnny Depp is really drunk on screen while playing the stumbling, mumbling Capt. Jack Sparrow. He’d have to be to endure inhabiting a character as underwritten and essentially pushed to the sidelines of his own film series. He has easily become the least interesting figure in the Pirates movies, especially when put alongside far more interesting anti-heroes as returning pirate Capt. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who has become the world’s most successful pirate, and new villain Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), a ghost pirate leading a ghost crew who can never leave the water and appear as rotting-corpse apparitions, some with body parts missing (it’s actually rather ghastly, but the effects are so stunning, you almost don’t notice).
Like many on land and sea, Salazar has a grudge against Sparrow, and when his haunted ship is accidentally freed from its home among the rocks in the Devil’s Triangle, he sets sail to find him. Also seeking Jack is Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites, from Maleficent, Gods of Egypt, and The Giver), son of Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner, who has been cursed to live under the sea—a curse Henry plans to break by finding the mythic Trident of Poseidon, which is said to end all earthly curses. On his quest for the Trident, he teams up with Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario of The Maze Runner films), an astronomer (which of course means she’s deemed a witch by many) who is quite good at navigation. Sparrow manages to pull together a familiar skeleton crew and find a rickety old ship to set sail for this new treasure hunt, with yet another British officer (David Wenham) chasing him. He’s using an actual witch (the Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, who most recently brightened Paterson) to help track Sparrow, because there simply aren’t enough supernatural creatures in these movies.
And that’s your setup in a nutshell. Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, who made the Oscar-nominated Norwegian work Kon-Tiki, also set at sea, which might be the sole reason they were hired) have the almost-impossible task of breathing new life into film series that is past its expiration date. Aside from a handful of new characters, so much of Dead Men Tell No Tales feels like a hamster wheel a familiar gags—Sparrow narrowly escaping death; a succession of nameless, faceless crew members dying while the ones we recognize surviving against all odds; cannon balls blowing apart ships that somehow stay afloat; and whenever the action slows down, in come the British soldiers, because why not?
Yet for all its shortcomings, Dead Men Tell No Tales has its moments. Aside from the downright freaky, awards-worthy special effects used to create Salazar’s crew, there are also rotting shark corpses that they keep in their hull and pull out to attack their enemies once they fall into the water. Live sharks are scary, but these rotted-out versions are spectacular. There’s also an impressive first-act bank robbery that results in an entire bank being pulled by horses through a town, causing a tremendous amount of destruction. But these moments stand out because so much of the rest of the film is colorless dreck that puts more value in a Paul McCartney cameo than actual interesting leads. Thwaites and particularly Scodelario are decent actors giving nothing special to do but rush into situations fueled by emotions and zero sense so that they must be rescued.
Didn’t the Pirates of the Caribbean films used to be fun? The outlandish idea that this billion-dollars-and-counting franchise was born out of a what is essentially a themed funhouse ride made the possibilities of where Depp and the creators could take things seem endless. So why do they keep repeating themselves? But continually bringing back characters from four previous films, things now feel crowded and uninspired, which goes so against how things felt after 2003’s The Curse of the Black Pearl was released. Although the franchise has gone so off course, I’m still rooting for someone to pull together one last worthy closing chapter, if only to remind us that these movies sparked someone’s creativity at some point in history. A guy can dream, right?