Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Quick, spoiler-free review:

Better than 2 & 3 but still not as good as the first Pirates movie.

+1 shell for the mermaids (very hot) and for giving a decent depiction of religion.

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Detailed Review

I was reading someone analyzing the PotC series and they made an excellent point:

The first movie was primarily Elizabeth’s & Will’s story.  The movie started with the two of them and ended with the two of them.  Jack Sparrow was a secondary (though nearly primary) character.  However, their story and arc was concluded in the first movie.  Thus, movies 2 and 3 were failures in that they not only revisited these two “finished” characters (and tried to keep them central to a story not their own) but also tried to elevate Jack Sparrow even more.  And we get what you would expect from trying to stretch a spice into a major entree.  That’s why 2 and 3 failed.  The PotC series would have worked best had they designed it in a James Bond-esque format where each movie is mostly stand alone.  We’re introduced to a character (or two) who’s life Jack Sparrow blows into and has a profound effect on before leaving for the next adventure.

Pirates 4 was almost a step in that direction, except they still wanted to make Jack Sparrow a main character and thus elevate him to main character status.  This is one of the weaker parts of the film.  Because the story still treats him like a support character.  For much of the movie, we see Jack reacting to events, and often getting entangled in things beyond his control (much like movie 1).  But this doesn’t work well for a central protagonist.  When we first run into Jack, he has no goal.  He just happens to learn about someone impersonating him and then gets kidnapped and then is forced to go from set piece to another via threats and coercion.

Blackbeard and his daughter are the closest we have to active protagonists, but at the end of the film they finish largely as they begun.  Neither has a character arc, or learns anything, or really improves as a person.  Barbosa returns and demonstrates something of a goal he’s working towards but is largely useless and – again – has no real character arc.  Though I love the actor & character, he really should have been cut from this film.  The only people who go through an arc as best we can tell are the missionary and the mermaid.  The larger problem with all of these characters is that we don’t run into them till anywhere from a quarter to halfway through the movie.  (Compared to Will & Elizabeth who we saw at the very beginning of 1.)

This movie definitely needed more rewrites.  The Missionary and the Mermaid should have been introduced earlier and had more prominent roles.  It would have suited for us to meet the missionary on Blackbeard’s ship (because he figures a ship full of pirates is where he’s needed most – also seeking transport to the new world) where he runs into Jack Sparrow who is seeking for a way to rescue his beloved Black Pearl from Balckbeard’s collection.  By movie’s end Jack gains some greater spiritual awareness (though he’s not converted, just… perhaps less hostile to the thought of God), while the Missionary goes to the depths of the ocean to marry his beloved mermaid and perhaps save the souls of the merfolk (and teach them a new way of living that involves less death).  Of course, that latter part I like to believe was what happened to the missionary anyway.

That’s enough about characters, what about the plot?

Repeat after me: you have a limit on complexity depending on your medium.  If you only have a couple of hours of movie at your disposal, don’t bother adding more complexity than it can handle.  What do I mean by complexity?

Well most movies (especially the pirate ones), have 2 main sources of complexity: motivation (why characters want to do what they do) and mechanism (why/how things are happening the way they are).  Adding “more steps” for the characters to go through to accomplish their goal adds mechanism complexity to a story.  Motivation complexity is added by 1) additional characters, 2) questionable truths (i.e. is a character lying?), 3) having a motivation that’s not fairly common to humans in general.

To give you context, let’s look at Pirates 1:

The mechanism was quite simple: get all cursed gold back into chest, with appropriate blood.  “Returning what you stole” is a pretty universal human understanding and “paying extra/interest” in something as grim as blood touches a rather primitive part of our brains.  We grasp it intuitively.

The motivations in PotC 1 were very complex.  We not only had a plethora of characters each with their own motivation, but Barbossa and his crew had a very exotic motivation (everlasting life at a price of no satisfaction) while Jack had ever changing motivations that kept us guessing.

PotC 2 & 3 of course had the problem of over complicating both mechanism and motivation until none of it really “stuck” with the audience and it all felt… hollow.

Or consider the Indiana Jones movies.  The 1 and 3 have generally simple motivations and so they add complexity with things like the steps needed to find the ark/holy grail.  They even reduce complexity by having every added character having the same motivation.  Then there was Indy 4… which was not only complicated in the plot steps, but had a wealth of characters possessing not only their own motivations but also lying, adding more layers with characters lying.

So how did Pirates 4 do?

They did do something right in largely keeping motivations simple.  Barbossa wants revenge.  Penelope Cruz wants family time.  Blackbeard wants eternal youth (a rather popular human desire).  Jack wants… well we’re not sure what Jack Sparrow wants.  Nor the missionary or mermaid (well, I think the missionary wants to serve God, the mermaid… wants a husband?).  They also don’t bother as much with lies and deception (though there is some).  Unfortunately, all together the motivations add up to a bit more complexity than the movie can handle considering…

They really wanted to make the mechanism complex.  They made up a complex ritual needed to “work” the fountain of youth.  How… how to explain how this fails…

How does anyone know the ritual?  At least in 1 the cursed gold was artifical.  It was created by man so it would make sense that some Aztec out  there passed down the secret to breaking the curse – assuming they just didn’t etch the instructions on the side of the box the gold was taken from.  As far as we can tel, the fountain of youth is a naturally occurring phenomena.  How did people figure out that this was the fountain of youth?  How did they figure out how it worked?  What happened if you did it wrong?

And then, they had the ritual require 2 silver goblets from Ponce de Leon.  You know, the guy who searched for the fountain of youth.  Think about that a moment: to work the fountain of youth, you needed special goblets form the guy who was searching for the fountain of youth.  For a moment I thought (like my buddy) that perhaps these were just two native american goblets or something that were named after the one who found them (Ponce de Leon) except the goblets had 2 words written on them IN SPANISH!  And these two Spanish words had to be uttered to reach the fountain of youth in the first place.  The only explanation I can think of is that Ponce de Leon CREATED the fountain of youth… but that makes even less sense.

Then you have the catch that it doesn’t really grant youth so much as transfers life from one person to another, and you need a mermaid’s tear.  The more you think about it, the less sense it makes.

But thankfully the movie is entertaining enough that one can overlook this (a little).  Still, let’s hope that for Pirates 5, Hollywood finally gets – it – right.

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