Moriarty Sets Sail With PIRATES 3: AT WORLD’S END!
Published at: May 24, 2007, 7:51 a.m. CST by Moriarty
I think one of the reasons that I would recommend all three of the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN FILMS is because they have continued to surprise me since the very beginning. Each of them is very different. Each has its own vibe. And in the end, if the worst you can say about a trilogy is that it is overly ambitious, that seems like a good thing to me.
The very first scene of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL sets in motion the events that reach their climax in the very last scene of the third film in the series, opening this weekend, and I would definitely recommend that anyone who is going to see the movie this weekend should start by watching the first two films again.
And if that sounds like a chore to you, then perhaps AT WORLD’S END isn’t for you.
I’ve seen this third film twice now, and one of the reasons I wanted to get a second look at it before I wrote a review is because screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio have intentionally built a dizzyingly silly and fascinatingly dense mythology, a world in which people double-cross everyone around them as frequently as most of us draw breath. It’s also a world where the supernatural is almost mundane, where bizarre creatures sail the seas alongside soldiers and pirates and no one bats an eye. It’s a world I can honestly say feels unique to this series so far, and that’s a rare thing these days. Do I think PIRATES 3 is a perfect film? Nope. But do I think it delivers on the promises that the first two films have been making? For the most part, absolutely.
The first surprise in this film is that it’s darker than either of the others. The opening scene establishes one of the meanings of the title right away as we see row after row of pirates being hanged by the East Indian Trading Company under the watchful eye of Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander). When the last row is brought up to the gallows, one of the pirates appears to be about eight years old. He begins a mournful song, a commemoration of the ending of the age of pirates, the end of this world that we’ve been enjoying over the course of these films. That song is more than just a lament, though, as we see when everyone waiting to be hanged joins in. It’s a summons... a call to action for every free pirate left in this shrinking world.
And then they hang the eight-year-old. In a Disney movie. Seriously. Eight year olds, dude.
That summons echoes into the next scene, which I discussed in my report from the editing room of the film. Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightley), Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) and the crew of the Black Pearl (returning cast members Lee Arenberg, Mackenzie Crook, Kevin McNally, and David Bailie) all gather in Singapore, where they attempt to negotiate a crew and a ship out of Sao Feng (Chow Yun Fat), while also stealing some crucial navigational charts that he possesses. Even as they threaten and cajole one another, the East Indian Trading Company closes in on them. That’s a pervasive feeling throughout the entire film. When we first see The Flying Dutchman, still captained by Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), it’s basically being used as the blunt instrument with which Beckett is crushing every sign of piracy on the seas. If Jack Sparrow is the character that everyone flipped for in the first film, then it’s Davy Jones that finally won me over completely to the series. Not only does he represent a pinnacle in character animation for ILM, but Nighy’s work demonstrates just how potent this sort of cutting-edge mocap work can be when an actor truly commits to the process. Jones is a fascinating monster, but he has a soul, and in this film, we probe deeper into what made him into the beast he is. In fact, many of the ideas that were introduced in DEAD MAN’S CHEST are resolved here, but many go unexplored as well. It’s strange to say that a film with a three-hour running time feels rushed, but the script is basically an embarrassment of riches. I understand the urge to make these movies back-to-back, and I’m sure in the end, it’s the only way an endeavor like this is affordable. But after seeing the MATRIX trilogy and this one, I think this sort of series is better served by taking the time to craft each chapter in the series individually. Just a little more time to shape this script could have resulted in Elliott and Rossio having to make some hard choices about what to focus on, and that little extra focus could have helped. There are certain ideas that were introduced that never quite resolve here, like the history between Beckett and Sparrow or the ultimate nature of Calypso, the ocean goddess whose love damned Davy Jones in the first place.
What I’ve noticed is that, like the MATRIX films, these movies are set up to reward repeat viewings. I don’t find them remotely confusing, except in the ways they’re meant to be confusing. When you have pirates who are making deal after deal after back-stabbing deal, setting up one double-cross after another, I think Elliott and Rossio know full well that the audience is going to end up dizzy from all of it, just as the characters onscreen do. This film plays darker than the first two films in the series, but that doesn’t mean it abandons the almost Pythonesque joy of the absurd that has marked the series so far. The humor in this film is more like the sly wit of the first movie and less like the cartoonish abandon of the second. There was really only one thread that I felt botched the humor, and that involves two Redcoats who find themselves desperate to switch sides during the film’s climactic battle. They could have easily ended up on the cutting room floor without anyone noticing their loss, and with so much going on involving the characters we do care about, it just seems like fluff when we’re more interested in genuine payoff.
And, yes, the ending of this film is gigantic, the sort of spectacle that seems to only be possible in this new digital age, on a staggering scale. Here’s where Verbinski proves himself to be one of the more able orchestrators of mayhem working today. He manages to make everything feel frenetic, but there’s an impressive visual clarity to the way he stages things. Even with eight or nine major characters and a host of supporting players all involved in the final sequence, I never lost track of anyone. I never felt like I was unclear about what was going on or where people were. And he doesn’t just stage things in an understandable way... he also finds all the small moments of visual humor, and he remembers to make things iconic, larger-than-life. Verbinski knows that he has to delivers sights you’ve never seen before, and he does, one after another. It’s impressive work, and having seen how well he can handle a small drama like THE WEATHER MAN or an oddball dark comedy like MOUSE HUNT, this simply confirms him as one of the more interesting guys in the mainstream today. In a way, PIRATES 3 made me sad that Terry Gilliam’s undeniable genius makes him so prickly and impossible to work with. If he were just a few degrees less brilliant, then maybe we’d be enjoying his work on a canvass this vast instead of watching him flounder from failed project to failed project, frustrated, held back.
The film’s conclusion is perhaps the most canny move it makes. It resolves the story of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann in an unexpected way that gives the characters soul I’m not sure they ever had until this film, and it resolves the Jack Sparrow story in a way that is perfectly fitting and fun. Sparrow is not the lead of these films. He’s the textbook definition of a supporting character. He doesn’t change or grow or learn in these films, and he’s not supposed to. Jack Sparrow is the yardstick by which Will and Elizabeth measure their own heroism or failures, and he rubs off on them quite a bit. They both change dramatically by the time the credits roll, and they find themselves in a place that beautifully pays off that first scene in the first film. Make sure you stay till the very end of the credits, too. Every film in this series has featured a brief moment after the credits, but for the first time, it’s no joke. Instead, this film offers up a heartbreaking coda that I found quite moving. There are certainly ways that there could be more movies with these characters made in the future, but there don’t need to be. If this is the last we see of Will and Jack and Elizabeth and the rest, then we’ve left them in the exact right places. And the fact that the film closes as well as it does counts for quite a bit with me. It seems like so many blockbusters these days shit the bed when it comes to the endings, but PIRATES 3 gets that as right as it gets anything. And even a review as long as this one doesn’t really get into the myriad pleasures here. I haven’t even touched on Jack the monkey or the frozen toe or Sparrow’s hallucinatory scenes with himself or the true face of Davy Jones or Captain Teague (a scene-stealing Keith Richards, so good I’d watch a whole movie about his character) or the rest of the batshit crazy Pirate Lords. As far as I’m concerned, this is the first movie so far this summer to really live up to expectations, and I’m confident that audiences that have enjoyed the series so far are going to enjoy this as a worthy final chapter for the time being.
I’ve got an interview coming soon with the writers of this series, and it’s one of my favorite interviews I’ve done in a while. I’m still transcribing it, and it ventures into spoiler territory, so I’m going to hold off until the movie’s open and you’ve had a chance to see it. In the meantime, I’ve got at least four more articles for you before I leave town on Memorial Day, and with my birthday coming up this weekend, it’s going to be busy here at the Labs.