6 years after the last Pirates of the Caribbean film and 14 years after the film series first began, the question on everyone’s mind is: did anyone really ask for another Pirates movie?
And with Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge opening this week, I guess we have our answer.
Salazar’s Revenge? Wasn’t it titled Dead Men Tell No Tales?
Sometimes, the same film can be given a different name depending on the country it’s released in. The main reason is a phrase in the title loses its context outside of its country of origin. The fifth instalment of the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise is called Dead Men Tell No Tales in the US, but is known as Salazar’s Revenge here. This latter title is actually much more appropriate for the movie, as it better describes the very, very linear plot. And when it comes to the Pirates franchise, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Even at a lengthy 129 minutes, Salazar’s Revenge is the shortest of all the Pirates films, and is 8 minutes shorter than the fourth film, On Stranger Tides. This is a good thing, considering how the first 4 films of the franchise have often been criticised for being much longer than they need to be. Yet, Salazar’s Revenge still suffers from the same weaknesses as its predecessors. The entire franchise’s consistent inability to tell a complete and coherent story without deviating into one too many sub-plots is just one of the many things in this movie that will seem familiar. And some may say… too familiar.
Yo ho yo ho a formulaic pirate’s life for me…
Henry Turner is the son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), who at the end of the 3rd movie replaced Davy Jones as the accursed Captain of the Flying Dutchman. Henry spends his entire childhood learning all about the various myths and legends of the sea in the hope of freeing his father from the curse. As an adult, Henry (played by Gods of Egypt‘s Brendon Thwaites) conveniently encounters a supernaturally powered ship captain, Armando Salazar (played by Javier Bardem). Salazar spares Henry’s life as long as he finds Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) on his behalf. That’s convenient, because Henry was already looking for him. Henry needs Jack Sparrow to find the fabled Trident of Poseidon, which will break his father’s curse. But neither knows how to find it. Conveniently, they run into the one person who does know the way to the Trident. She is astronomer Carina Smythe (Skins and The Maze Runner‘s Kaya Scodelario), and she’s been looking for a ship and crew to get her to the Trident, which conveniently, Jack Sparrow has.
I won’t say more, because of spoilers, obviously, but let’s just say the list of conveniences goes on. Ultimately, what we have here is a formula that worked so well for the first film, 14 years ago. Two gorgeous young people thrown together by a quest and then have a crazy supernatural pirate adventure. Oh, and there’s Johnny Depp too.
Except… it was 14 years ago!
When recurring characters in the franchise resurface, their return is welcome. Hector Barbossa (the incomparable Geoffrey Rush) and Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin McNally) are two of three characters who have showed up in every single Pirates film. Their consistent presence is reassuring, providing a sense of continuity, stability and helping to ground the franchise. Ironically, the same can’t be said about the third character – Captain Jack Sparrow.
Honestly, the less said about Johnny Depp, the better. He brings nothing new to this movie, even after 14 years. All he does is rehash the same antics that may have worked before, just that I’m no longer in my impressionable early 20s. In fact, the only times I found him amusing was a particular incident where Sparrow’s imminent death is part of the humour, so that’s saying a lot.
So did this movie sink or swim?
What’s keeping this edition of Pirates of the Caribbean afloat? Without a doubt, there’s definitely a lot to be said about how far CGI has come since the franchise began. This is a must-watch in IMAX, not only because the entire film is shot in IMAX, but because you then get to appreciate how gorgeous it is. The special effects used for Salazar’s crew of undead look incredible, and there was good use of darkened sets for several action sequences presumably to further sell the CGI illusion. Unfortunately that meant watching it in 3D was a pity, because everything looks darker in 3D and there’s just too much going on at times that my brain couldn’t handle the visual input. Cinemas really need to bring back the IMAX 2D screenings, otherwise films like these will not be seen at their best.
Kudos, then, to directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg for not shying away from making the most of their hefty budget. And it’s no surprise there, since they also directed the 2012 critically-acclaimed, Oscar-nominated Kon-Tiki, their home country’s most expensive film to date.
The movie also boasts a fantastic soundtrack from Geoff Zanelli, a protégé of the franchise’s original lead composer Hans Zimmer who won an Emmy for his work on Spielberg’s 2005 miniseries Into the West.
As for the cast, or should I say the crew?
The very likable leads, Kaya Scodelario and Brendon Thwaites. As Carina Smythe and Henry Turner, Scodelario and Thwaites complement each other very well, quickly forming a very enjoyable partnership that makes watching them on screen a genuine pleasure. In particular, Scodelario seems to relish this adventure much more than her fellow leads. You get the sense that she’s really fighting hard to make Carina Smythe relevant to the franchise.
And for good reason – women in the Pirates franchise have had largely diminished roles and unfortunately Jeff Nathanson’s screenplay is no different. Nathanson’s resume is film after film where men dominate the main cast and women play little more than stereotypical love interests. The only redeeming quality of his latest work is that leading lady Carina Smythe is a scientist with a healthy skepticism of the supernatural, in a setting where just about every attempt to defy the laws of physics has already been made. Portraying her as an academic makes her an absolutely refreshing character in the franchise, and this also sets her apart from Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann, who unfortunately falls into the trap of having to be the Strong Female Character™ in the action franchise.
Unfortunately, because of the ham-handedness of the script, Carina gets constantly referred to as a witch, consistently reduced to her gender and appearance, and even has to suffer a boring, stereotypical accelerated Hollywood romance with the leading man. A lesser actress may not have been able to overcome that, but Scodelario seems more than capable.
There are lots of treats for long-time Pirates fans
I felt it was great to have Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley reprise their roles for this film. There’s a sense of a torch being passed and I for one am looking forward to seeing more of Carina and Henry in future films. Yet you can’t help but feel that more could have been done, especially with Elizabeth Swann, since they were little more than glorified cameos. Yes, I know Knightley was more or less done with the franchise, but I’m sure she’d have been persuaded to return proper with the right script. I’m just glad they didn’t kill her character off-screen prior to the movie.
I won’t spoil the other appearances, but needless to say there’s a lot of love for the original trilogy – the first film in particular.
Where does the Pirates franchise go from here?
The fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Salazar’s Revenge honestly isn’t great, but I feel it’s because of how beholden it is to certain characters. Depp-endent, even. If you remove the deadweight, refresh the franchise with our new protagonists, I definitely see this voyage going on for many more movies. And honestly? I think Disney knows that too – if the post-credits scene is any indicator.