May 26, 2007

At World's End

The opening sequence of Pirates of the Carribean: At World's End had me convinced that it would be the best one yet. It was a little strange and mysterious, but the pieces clicked together with an efficient precision. All of the characters we love pop back up again (well, except the one that died last film) It plays like the beginning of Return of the Jedi, only prettier, funnier, and more tightly edited.

And then we cut to Jack Sparrow. He was the best thing about the first two films, so it's incredibly disappointing that he's the lead weight that drags down this one. The film literally stalls as we find him trapped in Davey Jones's locker. The scene feels like it was ripped from another movie, dragging on forever with the focus entirely on the special effects at the exclusion of everything else. With the aid of ILM's incredible computer artists, director Gore Verbinski has spent millions to retread the same sort of cheap sight gags that bogged down the Superman sequels.

When our heroes do finally retrieve Jack and escape death's clutches, I thought for sure the film would pick up, but no. At World's End takes plot threads which were introduced with elegant simplicity in Dead Man's Chest and piled on subplots, twists and conspiracies until I stopped caring. Tom Hollander's Lord Beckett, a sniveling fool in the original film and a distant threat in the second, proves to be an overbearing presence here. He's not a character like Darth Vader that we love to hate. I just plain hated him — him and the way he bogged down characters I liked in treacheries I didn't care about. Allegiances flip flop and realign at such a dizzying speed that the script supervisor must have gotten whip lash. After each character changed allegiance at least twice, I stopped caring.

Despite a plot bogged down in unsatisfying revelations, the film certainly has qualities to admire. Verbinski and his team capture moments of true visual poetry, revealing dream-like events and transformations that put Terry Gilliam to shame. Except for one heavy-handed speech by Elizabeth Swann, the humour remains largely intact: for every sight gag that falls flat there's at least two that hit the mark. Swann and the heroic but previously bland Will Turner draw themselves are finally permitted to suffer humiliations in the vein of the ones Jack has become so known for. Will has at last crafted a credible pirate out of his pretty boy exterior. And Elizabeth, carefully wrapped in short silk Asian robes throughout, has never looked more stunning. Their final scenes together imbue what has been a rather static and perfunctory relationship with real depth and nuance.

The climactic battle might also be one of the greatest action action sequences ever shot. Each beat is perfectly realized, fantastically absurd and terribly dramatic. The duel between Jack and Davey Jones, in particular, is like Peter Pan on steroids. With a better build-up that hadn't sapped me of my energy and investment, I would have undoubtedly enjoyed it. Instead, I was wondering how long before it was over and I could go home.

There is no question that Jack, Elizabeth, Will and the crew will have a place among the greatest film characters of all time. Together, the three films are a thrilling reminder of how potent the adventure genre can be when unchained from the twin burdens of historical realism and cultural sensitivity. All the elements for a great film were here. The plot just wouldn't get out of the way. (**)


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