Directed By: Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg
Written By: Jeff Nathanson
Starring: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Geoffrey Rush
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a series of animated contradictions. Rushed yet stagnant, overstuffed yet vacuous, colourful yet drab, riddled with plot and yet completely uneventful.
In the beginning, a young boy named Henry Turner hurls himself into the ocean, weights fixed to his boots as he attempts to board the spectral Flying Dutchman, captained by his father Will (Orlando Bloom). Will, you may recall, is forever bound to the ship following the events of At World’s End. Henry is successful, and he informs his father of a plan to liberate him from the Dutchman, a plan revolving around the mythical Trident of Poseidon, a treasure capable of eradicating all the sea’s curses. Will denies the existence of any such Trident, but Henry vows he will save his father, declaring he will acquire the helping hand of Jack Sparrow if need be.
We then skip forward 9 years. Henry (now played by young Aussie star Brenton Thwaites), is slaving away on a British Royal Navy warship that is in pursuit of a pirate vessel. The chase leads the warship into “The Devil’s Triangle”, a cursed portion of sea occupied by the undead inhabitants of the Silent Mary, a Spanish ship captained by Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem) who devoted his life to hunting pirates. Henry is an aficionado of the sea’s curses, and thus he warns his fellow crewmembers of the dangers of the Triangle, only to be labelled a mutineer and locked in the ship’s cellar. Of course, Henry’s concerns are validated. The zombie like Salazar and his undead cronies board the British warship and kill all in sight, all except Henry who Salazar instead tasks with delivering a vow of revenge to Sparrow, a man with whom Salazar has a score to settle. It is only now, remarkably, after two encounters with the supernatural, multiple bouts of exposition, the lapsing of a decade, and one mass murder, that we reach the opening title card.
Post title card we meet Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) a bold and self-sufficient young lady with a penchant for science; a keen brain on all things horology and astronomy which leads to her being labelled a witch. Carina too is in search of the Trident, and she teams with Henry. Only she can decipher “the map that no man can read” via her knowledge of the stars, a map which apparently will lead her to the mystical treasure.
Henry and Carina unite with Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp bringing his once Oscar nominated creation to the screen yet again), this following an attempted bank heist by Sparrow and his crew in which they literally heist an entire bank to no reward, which leads to Jack being abandoned by his crew, which leads to Sparrow being arrested, which leads to Jack’s crew re-joining him, which leads to the film’s obligatory execution escape scene. Somewhere along the line it is contrivedly shoe-horned into the screenplay that Jack’s magical compass, when betrayed by its owner, brings about that which the owner fears most. This in turn allows Salazar and his crew to leave the Devil’s Triangle and sail the seas, which they do to great havoc.
Whilst this is all going on Geoffrey Rush reprises his role as Captain Barbossa. He volunteers his services to Salazar and promises to help him track Sparrow in exchange for Salazar not destroying Barbossa’s fleet. Barbossa has his own plans however. Salazar’s history with Jack is explained, the much un-needed origin of Jack’s surname is explained, there are more mass-slaughters, more rules regarding the limitations of Salazar and his crew, more mass-murders still, there is something to do with another pirate to whom Jack is indebted who lives with his crew on an island, and the British Navy pursues and fights everyone. All this summation to say that Dead Men Tell No Tales is a film so bloated with plot that all it can ever do is spin its wheels tirelessly in an attempt to shift from expositional slab to expositional slab, all without the hope of ever gaining any real traction.
Roger Ebert once criticised the dialogue in cinema as being entirely action driven, where things are said not because they are interesting or insightful in their own right, but because they must further the plot and bring about a predictable result. No film in recent memory better typifies this thought than the fifth instalment in the Pirates of the Caribbean saga. Jeff Nathanson’s screenplay is so tin-eared and devoid of colour that it is left with little alternative but to busy itself with superfluous plot threads and rules, shifting monotonously from gear to gear in a fashion that brings this franchise a little too close to its theme park ride origins. It is a film so full of plot and “events” that it not only threatens to burst at the seams, but rather explodes and spews forth its innards in the form of an utterly cacophonous, dispassionate, awkwardly paced two hour bi-product of corporate movie making.
Johnny Depp as Captain Jack offers a performance that’s not so much self-parody as it is a lazy recreation of what a drunken uncle might cheaply imitate the character as being—the type of performance one observes through the slivers between the fingers of the hand that is fruitlessly trying to shield their eyes from the cringeyness. There is only so far Mr. Depp may have gone with the performance however. What in 2003 was an engaging oddity— a rascal with a heart of gold, a man with fears and insecurities and a cunningness that far exceeded that which was suggested by his veneer—is in 2017 written as a drunken oaf with no discernible charm or intellect, a man whose sole function has developed into blurting out desperate attempts at comedy that often border on being crass.
Ironically, one of the only performances that registers with a pulse is that of Bardem as the undead Salazar, the Spaniard sinking his teeth into his role with that same unhinged glee that has made him such a compelling villain since 2007’s No Country for Old Men. Scodelario as Carina too is noteworthy, the young actress instilling such a commanding presence and confidence into her character that it leaves one wondering why it isn’t she that takes centre stage, rather than Depp’s tired Sparrow routine. It might have been redundant even if she was granted more centrality, each character is doomed to be suffocated by exposition.
It must be said that Dead Men Tell No Tales isn’t without a sort of superficial merit. The Norwegian tandem of Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg (both co-directors), conjure sporadically arresting visuals—sights such as a group of zombie sharks in frantic pursuit of Jack and Henry, or a guillotine that in the aforementioned execution scene repeatedly comes within inches of decapitating Sparrow as centrifugal force pushes and pulls the blade towards the pirate’s neck.
Gore Verbinski (the director of the original Pirate’s trilogy), for a brief moment managed to divorce his material from the inherent cynicism of a theme park ride inspired movie. Any legitimate storytelling worth has long since perished in pursuit of an easy dollar. Now the series is in a state much like that of its villain Salazar: still moving, still active—but utterly lifeless where it counts.