One of the major unwritten laws of modern Hollywood movies is that more is always better. Why have one CGI battle scene when you can have two? Why have only two hours of movie when you can have three? Why just rely on a few big plot twists when there are so many to choose from?
Well, Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End is pretty strong evidence of why this principle is misguided. Make no mistake, this is an entertaining movie. On the whole, it hits more than it misses… but given the amount of time and money spent making the film, why isn’t it batting closer to a thousand? Let’s find out.
First, let us consider movie plot. Having watched The Curse Of The Black Pearl on DVD this weekend, I can say that one of the real beauties of the first film is the structure of the plot. Will and Elizabeth represent honor and goodness. Barbossa represents the darkest evil. Norrington and Governor Swann represent societal convention. Jack Sparrow, he most beautifully represents the chaotic wild card, playing one side against another until he gets what he wants. This is what made Johnny Depp‘s role in the first film so amazing.
Using the principle of “more is better”, what was good for Jack Sparrow in the first movie, is good for everyone in the third. All stops are pulled out; characters align and re-align constantly throughout the first two hours of the film. This creates a plot that could easily fill out two other movies, or for that matter, half a season of episodic hourly television. What is missing is pacing, dialog, and character development. The movie characters become pieces on a chessboard. The moves and gambits that they make are interesting, but nowhere near as interesting as they would have been if more time was taken to let us, the viewers, learn and care more about them. That the characters do not get lost as they weave through the movie is a testimony to the actors — Depp, Orlando Bloom, Bill Nighy, Chow Yun-Fat, Stellan Skarsgard, and Kiera Knightley chew through as much dialogue and as much scenery as they can to keep their characters going.
Next, consider the size of the special effects budget. Computer-generated imagery has really opened up a whole new world for modern film makers. As George Lucas notes, it is now possible to efficiently edit in three dimensions. It is also possible to accomplish set pieces that Ray Harryhausen could only dream of when he was making movies like Jason and The Argonauts. The Curse Of The Black Pearl used CGI with what I deem a good sense of proportion. Be it the crew of Black Pearl moving in the moonlight in a very Disney Haunted House sort of way, or be it Jack Sparrow and Barbossa moving in and out of shafts of moonlight as they fight, the effects were eye-popping without being overbearing. That they also obviously drew inspiration from various parts of a theme-park attraction, only made them even more interesting.
Here again, At World’s End pulls out every last one of the stops. Storms. Maelstroms. Supernatural figures. The Ends of The Earth. Armadas of ships. Davy Jones’ Locker. Pirate hideaways. Spectacular fight sequences. We get to see it all… but it comes up more than a little empty.
It goes by too fast. There is no build up. It lacks proportion. Like a roller coaster that is a single large climb, and a single larger fall, there is a rise you feel in your gut, but it could have been so much more if it was all better paced and better timed. A roller coaster is better when you know what is coming and have time to anticipate and react.
With all this, there are some strong elements to the film. Without giving anything away, the film does not have a textbook Disney happy ending. I believe the movie is better for this, it is certainly something that let me re-engage with the characters after two-plus hours of plotting and scheming. I also think that the performances by Depp and Geoffrey Rush are excellent and really help to anchor the film and keep it going. The underlying premise that drives the plot is also an interesting one, although I believe it is one that could have been served much better by splitting this one film into at least two others.
In all, I was entertained. Could Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End have been a much better movie? Yes. Were there still questions about the plot that went unanswered as I left the theater? Yes. Did the movie seem long at a three-hour running time? Yes. Was Curse Of The Black Pearl a better movie? Yes. None of that matters in the final analysis, however. This film is still a popcorn cruncher of the first order. See it, and prepare to be amazed.
And oh yes, make sure to stay to the end of the credits. As with the first two films in the trilogy, there is an epilogue of sorts that helps to add some dimension to the ending.