‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales’ sinks under the weight of its own story

By Douglas Davidson

May 26, 2017

As the latest, and hopefully last, film in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Dead Men Tell No Tales attempts to go back to its roots, telling a large story built around a simple premise: family. Considering the lives left upended in the wake of Captain Jack Sparrow’s adventures, co-directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki/Bandidas) use a screenplay by Jeff Nathanson (The Terminal) as a clever way to check in with familiar characters, tie-up some loose ends, and say goodbye to this world. Unfortunately, as bold a maneuver as this is, it leaves Dead Men stalled in the water, bloated and cumbersome under the weight of its endeavor.

Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) Walt Disney Pictures

After four plot-packed movies, 2017’s Dead Men Tell No Tales does indeed have a lot of tale to tell. Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), son of Will and Elizabeth from 2003’s The Curse of the Black Pearl hunts for Jack (Johnny Depp) who can help him find the mythical Trident of Poseidon, which according to prison escapee Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) grants the possessor control over the seven seas and the ability to lift curses. Meanwhile, a crew of ghost Spanish soldiers led by Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), are on the hunt for Jack, who imprisoned them. And Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), original captain of the Black Pearl, then privateer for the British fleet? He wants the trident so he can rule the seas without any additional challengers.

Savvy?

No? Too much to cram into such a short space? Here lies the main problem with Dead Men Tell No Tales. So wrought with clutter is Dead Men that the exposition slows the action to a near-dead stop, treats the juvenile humor as a suitable replacement for storytelling, and has a second yes, there are two) flashback nearly halfway through to provide backstory on Salazar – a character we’ve spent enough time with to not need further exposition. Worst of all, rather than being clever in its exploration of the past, nearly everything the main characters face is some form of regurgitation of the last four films in some bizarre notion that more of these things equals an exotic adventure. Ghost crew? Check. Characters that can’t walk on land? Check. Zombie animals? Check. Magical McGuffin? Check.

Captain Salazar courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

The strongest part of Dead Men is the use of narrative mirroring. From the start, Henry Turner’s journey is presented in an emotionally similar fashion of Will in Black Pearl, as a son seeking redemption for his father’s choices. Doing so establishes a narrative anchor within Dead Men to the Turner/Swann saga, arguably the heart of the original trilogy. By tapping into such a natural connection to the past, it implies stakes that the audiences can care about again. Additionally, by bringing back the Turners, it moves Jack to where he belongs – the sidelines. Sure, Jack Sparrow is fun to watch, mostly because what seems like accidental luck to everyone else is the result of careful planning, but he can’t carry a film on his own. It’s clear from Black Pearl, Jack was never meant to be the center of the story, merely a mechanism for others to get what they needed. He was the perfect foil for Will’s noble hero. Placing Jack, now down on his luck (a result of Barbossa’s meddling), opposite Henry Turner, another noble hero, reestablishes the harmony of the original trilogy. As admirable as all of this is, it’s not enough to make Dead Men as engaging or enthralling.  

A definite bright side comes from the casting. Depp doesn’t offer much of anything new here, but it’s clear how well he knows the character. Rush’s take on Barbossa, however, continually becomes a deeper, more complex, more interesting character with each film. Newcomers Thwaites, Scodelario, and Bardem dig into their roles, offering new points of view on characters we thought we knew. Bardem especially deserves credit as he makes Salazar one of the more charismatic foes in the series and steals almost every scene he’s in.

Geoffrey Rush as Captain Hector Barbossa. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

In the end, what made the Pirates series work was the combination of a strong story, interesting characters, and an emotional core that makes the daring action sequences fill with as much wonder as dread. Since the torch was passed from original trilogy director Gore Verbinski, the stories shifted away from this, preferring to highlight Jack’s buffoonery over any semblance of a real gripping tale of horrors and heroes. In Dead Men, if the trident is truly the savior of Jack, capable of granting the possessor the power to lift curses, then perhaps Jack’s final gift will be to use it to save audiences from any future stories. With the Turner Saga over and Jack left to sail away, perhaps we can agree that there are no more stories to tell.

Star rating: 2.5 out of 5 

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