31 May 2011

The Tides Aren't Really All That Stranger This Time Around

Warning: Here there be spoilers!  
     I think most people will go to see Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides some time this summer. It's the big summer movie that's out right now and the previous three movies were huge box office (if not critical) successes. However, while the first Pirates movie was original, interesting, and entertaining, after being dragged through the indiscernible muddle that was the sequels, I (and I know that I must not be alone in this) have had considerable trouble drumming up excitement for a new installment. However, a group of my friends decided to go and I had a little extra babysitting money so, I went. And it was okay.
     Which is really all you could expect of it. As the fourth addition to a series that I would argue ran out of clever/original material with the second movie, I don't think anyone is expecting it to be Citizen Cane. It at least has a cohesive, self-contained plot (which cannot be said of 2 and 3) which, while not enormously original, is entertaining enough. Aside from a few clever scenes (the mermaids are genius, even if they were mainly inserted in the film as an excuse to have lots of half-naked bodies slithering across the screen, and one scene where Jack escapes capture in a very innovative way involving a palm tree and rope), there's nothing here that we haven't seen--and that hasn't been done better-- in the previous three films.
     The one way that On Stranger Tides did stand out was in its spiritual content, something on which none of the previous Pirates movies had focused so extensively. The new character that they added (I suppose mainly as a Will Turner replacement) of a young missionary on board Blackbeard's ship was fascinating. I was dissapointed in his storyline though; I thought it was going to be a pretty sharp, beautiful allegory. When the pirates capture a mermaid (because they need her tears to unlock the fountain of life...I told you the plot was easier to follow than that of 2 or 3. That doesn't mean it's a piece of cake), they're all cruel to her except for the missionary. When her tank breaks, the captain tells her to walk or die, but she is unable to walk. The missionary picks her up, and she says to him, "I didn't ask for your help," and he responds, "No, but you need it." Which is, really, an amazing picture of God and us-- we would never on our own come to Him for help, but he helps us anyway. However, after showing compassion to her (and I hoped so very much that her character would be redeemed), their storyline ends when she drags him to the bottom of the sea and drowns him. Bummer.
     Another striking example of the heightened spiritual awareness of this film occurs when Jack and the rest finally do reach the Fountain of Youth. Before any can drink it, the Spanish king comes and destroys it, saying, "Why do you seek here what only God can give?" (eternal life).
     So it had its few good parts and its very few thought provoking parts. But all-in-all, it's just a summer popcorn movie-- and it doesn't really pretend to be anything else. Which I respect. In originality it is totally lacking, not ripping off its precursors alone (I think they may have actually used footage from the Will/Jack Blacksmith Shop Duel scene in the original instead of going to all the trouble of shooting new footage for the Penelope Cruz/Jack Sparrow duel {inter-parenthetical-comment-parenthetical-comment: Yes, I've already forgotten what Penelope Cruz's character was named. No, I don't care to look it up.}) but also ripping off other movies (notably, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The last scene of Pirates is the exact same as the last scene of Crusade, if you replace the Holy Grail with the Fountain of Youth. And Henry Jones Sr. with Blackbeard. And Harrison Ford with Johnny Depp, which you should never, ever do.)
      And finally, (and I think we were leading up to this with 2 and 3), Jack Sparrow just does not work as the sole, main character. A protagonist is supposed to be someone we can identify with, and in the original Pirates we had that with Will Turner (and, to a lesser extent, Elizabeth). He was young, impressionable, amazed by all the piratey/supernatural goings-on, yet still courageous and willing to face it. In other words, he was a normal person. Jack Sparrow is a great character, but he is most definitely not normal. And when he is the protagonist that we're supposed to relate to, there's a problem there. Of course, he's become normal to us because 2 and 3 went so over the top crazy with supernatural beings, krakens, giant goddessess--he was the most normal thing around for a while, and that's a problem. The Pirates movies topped themselves out a long time ago, and in the process cheapened a great character-- made someone delighfully abnormal normal.
     And Jack's not the only one they've done it to, they've done it with the whole tone of their movies. In the original Pirates, we weren't sure what genre exactly to expect: it started out as a period romance, turned into a period drama, launched into an action film, dipped briefly into thriller territory...it was its own genre, but by the 2nd and 3rd movies, it knew it was its own genre and so did we, and we knew what to expect in that genre. So what made the first one so interesting, that element of surprise and shock that we feel when Elizabeth stabs Barbossa and he pulls the knife out, unharmed, is completely missing when in every battle fifteen soldiers are killed and come immediately back to life with no explanation (seriously. In the fourth one, at one point they stab a guy and he just pulls the blade out and keeps fighting. No explanation).
    So, while it's a fun movie, On Stranger Tides is predictable and not any sort of cinematic milestone. It kind of knows that, though, and doesn't try to hard to make you think otherwise. So it's a fun movie to see once, just like 2 and 3. However, it's not gonna go down as a classic, which I genuinely think the first one might ("classic" in the Indiana Jones/Jurassic Park sense, not the Gone with the Wind sense. So we're clear).