As the latest, and hopefully last, film in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Dead Men Tell No Tales attempts to go back to its roots, telling a large story built around a simple premise: family. Considering the lives left upended in the wake of Captain Jack Sparrow’s adventures, co-directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki/Bandidas) use a screenplay by Jeff Nathanson (The Terminal) as a clever way to check in with familiar characters, tie-up some loose ends, and say goodbye to this world. Unfortunately, as bold a maneuver as this is, it leaves Dead Men stalled in the water, bloated and cumbersome under the weight of its endeavor.
A quick recap for those that need it:
• 2003’s The Curse of the Black Pearl – a swashbuckling surprise that introduced us to deceptively clever Jack Sparrow, blacksmith’s apprentice Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), governor’s daughter Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightly), and the cursed crew of the Black Pearl led by Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush).
• 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest – they all gather together to combat two foes: the East India Trading Company, who was hunting down pirates, and the legendary Captain Davey Jones (Bill Nighy), who wanted to kill Jack.
• 2007’s At World’s End – the final film in the initial trilogy, erupts in an enormous sea battle leaving the East India Trading Company’s fleet in ruin and Davey Jones dead. Unfortunately, this also resulted in the newly-wed Will taken from Elizabeth to become the replacement ghost captain of the Flying Dutchman, Barbossa retaking possession of the Black Pearl, and Jack heading out to find the Fountain of Youth.
• 2011’s On Stranger Tides – Jack, sans the Turners, fights the legendary pirate Blackbeard while trying to beat the English fleet, now led by Barbossa, to the mythical fountain.
• 2017’s Dead Men Tell No Tales – Will’s son Henry (Brenton Thwaites) hunts for Jack who can help him find the mythical Trident of Poseidon, which grants the possessor control over the seven seas and the ability to lift curses. Meanwhile, a crew of ghost Spanish soldiers led by Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), are on the hunt for Jack, who imprisoned them. And Barbossa? He wants the trident so he can rule the seas without any additional challengers.
No? Too much to cram into such a short space? Here lies the main problem with Dead Men Tell No Tales. So wrought with clutter is Dead Men that the exposition slows the action to a near-dead stop, treats the juvenile humor as a suitable replacement for storytelling, and has a second (yes, there are two) flashback nearly halfway through to provide backstory on Salazar – a character we’ve spent enough time with to not need further exposition. Worst of all, rather than being clever in its exploration of the past, nearly everything the main characters face is some form of regurgitation of the last four films in some bizarre notion that more of these things equals an exotic adventure. Ghost crew? Check. Characters that can’t walk on land? Check. Zombie animals? Check. Magical McGuffin? Check.
If the regurgitation of past plot points and character and/or set designs aren’t bad enough, Dead Men also continues the utter disregard for continuity that plagues the franchise. While some might argue that a film series based on a Walt Disney ride shouldn’t be held to the same standards as other films, the counter-argument is simple: by striving to create a larger, mythical world through four sequels, the requirement for consistency becomes more significant. For example, Jack’s compass is a significant tool throughout the four films following Black Pearl yet it goes from being a dingy, beaten-down device in one film to shiny hotness in the rest. Why didn’t Blackbeard heed the captain’s call in At World’s End? More specifically to Dead Men, why is Jack consistently reluctant to help Henry remove the curse from Will – someone who he obviously began to care for by the end of At World’s End? Also, why is it that Barbossa continues to age while Jack does not? Truly, the only consistency that any of the Pirates movies maintain is Jack’s crew, led by Mr. Gibbs (Kevin McNally).
Dead Men is not all terrible. In fact, the strongest part of Dead Men is the use of narrative mirroring. From the start, Henry Turner’s journey is presented in an emotionally similar fashion of Will in Black Pearl, as a son seeking redemption for his father’s choices. Doing so establishes a narrative anchor within Dead Men to the Turner/Swann saga, arguably the heart of the original trilogy. By tapping into such a natural connection to the past, it implies stakes that the audiences can care about again. Additionally, by bringing back the Turners, it moves Jack to where he belongs – the sidelines. Sure, Jack Sparrow is fun to watch, mostly because what seems like accidental luck to everyone else is the result of careful planning, but he can’t carry a film on his own. It’s clear from Black Pearl that Jack was never meant to be the center of the story, merely a mechanism for others to get what they needed. He was the perfect foil for Will’s noble hero. Placing Jack, now down on his luck (a result of Barbossa’s meddling), opposite Henry Turner, another noble hero, reestablishes the harmony of the original trilogy. As admirable as all of this is, it’s not enough to make Dead Men as engaging or enthralling.
A definite bright side comes from the casting. Depp doesn’t offer much of anything here, but it’s clear how well he knows the character. Rush’s take on Barbossa, however, continually becomes a deeper, more complex, more interesting character with each film. Newcomers Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario as Carina Smyth, and Bardem as Salazar, dig into their roles, offering new points of view on characters we thought we knew. Bardem, especially deserves credit as he makes Salazar one of the more charismatic foes in the series and steals almost every scene he’s in.
In the end, what made the Pirates series work was the combination of a strong story, interesting characters, and an emotional core that makes the daring action sequences fill with as much wonder as dread. Since the torch was passed from original trilogy director Gore Verbinski, the stories shifted away from this, preferring to highlight Jack’s buffoonery over any semblance of a real gripping tale of horrors and heroes. In Dead Men, if the trident is truly the savior of Jack, capable of granting the possessor the power to lift curses, then perhaps Jack’s final gift will be to use it to save audiences from any future stories. With the Turner Saga over and Jack left to sail away, perhaps we can agree that there are no more stories to tell.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.