Arr! Ahoy, mateys! Okay, I’ll stop that now. It might not be International Talk Like A Pirate Day yet, but pretty soon there’s a new (and possibly final) Pirates of the Caribbean film coming out and I wanted to share my thoughts on the story of some of Captain Jack Sparrow’s adventures, especially as I’ve decided to re-watch the films in the lead-up to the release of the fifth one, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – a title that seems somewhat contradictory to the actual events of the story (given how many walking and talking undead seem to pop up every other film), but that’s a topic for another day.
Now you might be wondering why in the blazes I’m starting off with Dead Man’s Chest (2006), the second in the saga, rather than Curse of the Black Pearl (2003). The reason is two-fold: 1) very simply, I hadn’t thought of the idea of writing a few blog posts about this when I re-watched the first one a week ago, and 2) more importantly, I realised that I didn’t need to discuss the first one. Why? Because I feel like almost everything has been said of that film that needed to be said. If you want my thoughts on it, I’ll sum it up really quick: the first Pirates of the Caribbean, while not without its issues, is a very solid, very entertaining adventure film, and the Pirates-saga is still riding on its coattails, to some degree. The reason for this is, I think, mainly because screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio (whose advice was some of the first I’d ever read on writing) knew exactly what the audience wanted before they did and delivered it: a fun, high-stakes, high-seas adventure with pirates. Just think about the film:
- It has the utterly crazy, yet loveable rogue in the form of Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp).
- It has a romance between the handsome young blacksmith that turns a bit pirate (Orlanda Bloom) and the charming, but secretly tomboyish noble lady (Keira Knightley).
- The villains are a group of undead pirates on their ship, the Black Pearl, led by the dastardly Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who is intensely entertaining in his evil.
- There is adventure, there is swashbuckling, there’s ships, there’s sword-fights, there’s an ancient treasure and a curse that lies upon it, there’s a mysterious island and a magic compass, etc.
Do you see what I’m saying? Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio seemed to literally take everything we associate with this type of story and everything you’d want for a fun, entertaining, magical adventure film about pirates and turned it into a coherent, elegant narrative. Couple this with Johnny Depp’s legendary performance (and generally good work of all actors involved), the great sets and costumes, great CGI (still somewhat ground-breaking at the time), the directing and the rousing score and it’s completely understandable why this was such a huge success. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl is not exactly a masterpiece, but it doesn’t need to be: it only strives to create an entertaining, whirlwind adventure and at that, it succeeds marvellously.
The second film, Dead Man’s Chest, however, is typically met with more mixed reactions. Some consider it better than the first, many consider it less so, but still better than the third and fourth. I consider myself in the former camp, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t see its flaws. As I was re-watching it again last night, I got a clearer sense of what worked and what didn’t about the film and why Dead Man’s Chest can simultaneously seem better and worse than Curse of the Black Pearl sometimes. So without further ado, let’s delve right in, shall we? I’m going to take a look at it point by point.
For starters, I noticed that the story of Dead Man’s Chest has pacing problems: while the start of the film provides two nice mysteries to keep us interested (one is Lord Cutler Beckett’s arrest of Will and Elizabeth and his play to use them to obtain Jack Sparrow’s compass; the other is Jack’s search for the titular Dead Man’s Chest), the story still takes a long time to get going. It takes a full 45 minutes (nearly half of most movies!) before Act I is finished (when Will and Jack are finally re-united and escape from the island) and we truly start getting to the heart of the matter. The reason for this is obvious, but it’s still a flaw: the actual tale (which is that of Davey Jones, Jack’s desire to get out from under the deal he once made with him and the involvement of Will and Elizabeth in it) is spread out over two films, Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End. The writers feel like they have the time to have Will and Jack gallivanting about, because they have two films anyway – but this still does a disservice to the story. Because what purpose did that whole section with the cannibals serve? It’s entertaining, I grant you, but because it’s unrelated to the story, it still feels like a waste and stretches out the story meaninglessly in the long run. What would’ve been a far more interesting and appropriate alternative would be if:
- Will locates Jack rather quickly, following the trail of destruction that Jack leaves as he’s being chased by Jones and the Kraken;
- Jack manipulates Will into helping him infiltrate the Flying Dutchman and steal the key to the chest by revealing that Will’s father is still trapped there and getting the contents of the Dead Man’s Chest is the only way to potentially set him free from Jones;
- The mission goes awry, Will is captured by Jones and Jack strikes a deal with Jones for an alternative to settle their debt, but it’s actually a ploy designed to give Jack enough time to find the chest.
All of this is a suitable Act I and can probably be done within the space of about 30 minutes, leaving another 90 for Act II and III. Act II can focus entirely on Jack meeting up with Elizabeth and searching for the Dead Man’s Chest, while Will later escapes the Dutchman with the key and joins them to find it. This way, Act III has all the time in the world for the confrontation with Jones that follows and the climax. It works better and probably shaves about 20 to 30 minutes off the run-time.
The pacing issues lead me to a general point of criticism with Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, but really, it applies to almost all sequels where two films are used to tell one story (another example of this are The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions): if you’re not careful, the story will feel incomplete. Now, part of that is obviously intentional, because the writers and producers hope that, by ending on a cliffhanger, viewers will want to see the next one to find out how it ends. Unfortunately, we usually don’t enjoy films this way and I think it goes back to the heart of storytelling: it is an emotional journey, meant to be complete (with a beginning, middle and end) and it doesn’t satisfy us if we only get half. It’s like, instead of cooking a separate, delicious meal for each day, you only get half of both of them across two. It feels weird and just doesn’t work. There are some films that do it right, such as The Empire Strikes Back from Star Wars: it absolutely ends in a manner that makes you eager to know how the saga will continue, but also delivers a full, complete journey for each of the characters. Dead Man’s Chest, sadly, is not that. ALL the issues that are raised throughout the film (Jack’s troubles with Davey Jones, Will’s father trapped on the Flying Dutchman, Will and Elizabeth’s relationship, Elizabeth’s desire to be free as manifested in her attraction to Jack, Cutler Beckett’s schemes, etc.) are left open-ended: there is not a single plot-thread that is really resolved, except maybe Norrington bartering Jones’ heart with Beckett to regain his former place in society. With nothing resolved, the entire story feels like it’s been cut in half and fails to satisfy us. It shows in the entire structure: usually, the middle of a film (or about 2/3rds or 3/4ths into it) has a central, powerful moment in which something very relevant happens, there’s an important development, a character gains a profound insight or changes in some way, etc. In Dead Man’s Chest, around this time, Will faces the Kraken… And while there are important developments before that point (Will meets his father again, comes to terms with his father leaving him and swears he will free him from Jones), the encounter itself is not super relevant, even if the scene is pretty spectacular. And it makes sense that the middle of this film is unsatisfactory, because the actual middle (the middle of the entire story that’s being told across two films) is found at the end, which incidentally is the most powerful moment so far.
…And now watch me contradict myself immediately! Because for all my bitching about the story being incomplete and ending on cliffhangers – I also realised that the cliffhangers are probably the best damn thing about Dead Man’s Chest! Basically, while the story feels incomplete and fails to satisfy, the cliffhangers are actually done well enough to make them the most enthralling moments of the film. Look at how everything ends:
- Elizabeth finally pulls a very pirate-like move, betraying Jack by chaining him to the ship and leaving him to die to the Kraken to save herself, Will and the rest of the crew.
- Jack, while managing to escape the chains, doesn’t attempt to flee, but faces his last moments boldly, as he and the Black Pearl are torn apart by the Kraken;
- Davey Jones watches Jack go down with his ship and considers their outstanding debt finally settled – only to scream with anger upon realising that his heart is missing from the chest.
- Jones’ heart is revealed to be in the possession of Norrington, who has no problem making a deal with the devil (Beckett) in order to be pardonned.
- Will, Elizabeth and the crew, having failed to settle the matter with Jones and feeling lost without Jack and the Pearl, are suddenly given a chance to bring them back – with the help of Barbossa, who we saw die at the end of the first film!
What I said before still stands: none of the plot-threads we’re following are actually complete. We’re still pretty much going forward with what we were doing before. Nothing is resolved. Yet each of these cliffhangers is written, shot, acted and scored to absolute perfection. For all of the movie’s little mistakes so far, each of these moments is a bullseye, one after another.
And that’s why it’s easy to see for me why this film, among the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, tends to be one of the more divisive, with people uncertain whether it’s really better or worse than the first one. The story that was started isn’t done yet and we leave it, knowing that the sequel has a lot of potential for success – or for failure. And on that note, I end my analysis for this film. Sometime next week, we’ll get into the film that had to deliver on what Dead Man’s Chest set up, At World’s End.