Okay, make it stop. This amusement-park ride has gone on long enough.
I adored the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy: they were smart, fun popcorn flicks that worked as clever updates on the classic Hollywood swashbuckler. I tolerated 2011’s On Stranger Tides because it still had hints of what made the original trilogy great.
No such luck here. With this, the uncalled-for fifth chapter in the franchise, Pirates has officially outstayed its welcome. Dead Men Tell No Tales is a cacophony of CGI spectacle that assails the senses but forgets to give us a reason to care about the people caught in the middle of it. It is pandemonium, and incredibly boring. It is full of the supernatural, but it has no magic.
POTC 5 does avoid one of the signature problems of blockbusters of recent vintage, in that so few of them seem interested in crafting something new for our eyes to behold when it comes to tossing people and vehicles and buildings around in ways that are meant to be exciting. A lot of the action we witness here isn’t like anything we’ve seen before... yet almost none of it actually entertains, like a joke with a great setup and an unfunny punchline. One early sequence involves a bank robbery by Jack Sparrow and his crew that goes very badly wrong, and it should be absolutely hilarious. But it falls completely flat. It’s loud and kinetic and crashy, but it has no pizzazz whatsoever. Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg aren’t only new to the Pirates series, they’re new to big-budget FX extravaganzas, and it shows.
But lackluster action takes a backseat, problemwise, to lackluster characters. One big flaw of On Stranger Tides is that Jack Sparrow was missing the Bones and Spock to his Kirk, the Ron and Hermione to his Harry, which he’d previously had in Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner and Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swan. A bigger flaw in POTC 5 is that the new sidekicks Jack (Johnny Depp) gets saddled with are incredibly dull both separately and together. Brenton Thwaites, as Will’s son Henry, and Kaya Scodelario, as woman of science Carina, share one expression between them — a slack-jawed, dead-eyed befuddlement — some cringeworthy banter, a painful lack of chemistry, and one of the least convincing onscreen romances ever.
POTC 5 cannot escape another problem of the 2010s blockbuster: too much plot. Screenwriters Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rossio seem to think that more is better, but it’s just more, and in this case, the story’s attempt to find footing is confusing, convoluted, and crammed with too many characters. Jack, Henry, and Carina are all seeking a mythical object called the Trident of Poseidon, which is said to break all curses of the sea. Henry needs it to free his father, cursed in POTC 3 to endless service on the Flying Dutchman. Jack needs it because pirate hunter Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) – whom Jack long-ago condemned to a sort of zombie-sailorhood — has vowed revenge. And Carina needs it because... well, that’s never entirely clear, but it has something to do with “Galileo’s diary,” which she inherited from her unknown scientist father.
(It doesn’t seem as if Galileo could have had anything to do with the book, and as labrythine as the plot is, it fails to account for the diary’s presence here.) And Jack’s old frenemy Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is also hanging around, for completely unnecessary reasons until a ridiculously contrived reason for him to be present pops up, so he has to be shoehorned into the story.
As torturous as the writing is, it’s also lazy, with abuse passing as wit and coincidence as fate. Worse, it doesn’t even seem to appreciate the balancing act that the previous films managed to pull off, in making pirates romantic and heroic and making us forget that in reality, pirates are cowardly brutish criminals. For here, it’s really difficult to accept Salazar as a villain: he is portrayed here as an honorable Spanish naval captain whose mission was to clear the seas of the scourge of pirates. And it’s really difficult here to accept Jack as someone we should feel any sympathy for: Jack is cruel to his friends, comes across as stupid rather than cunning, and lacks all the crafty charm he once had. We should be rooting for Salazar, and mostly I was.