REVIEW: Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (2017)

Oscar completes his tour of the Caribbean with the latest instalment. Is it as bad as the cynics made out? 

For many, at least one of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels was the breaking point for their patience with the franchise. For me, Salazar’s Revenge (also known in the States as Dead Men Tell No Tales) is that film. There will be no soap-box style defence from me this time – I am with the general consensus.

Nine years after the events of At World’s End, and five after the events of On Stranger Tides, a young British sailor named Henry (Brenton Thwaites) works on a Royal Navy warship in search of Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). Ignoring Henry’s warnings that the approaching island is the Devil’s Triangle, the Navy ship sails into the Triangle in pursuit of a pirate ship. They come across a shipwreck that quickly comes to life with ghost sailors, lead by Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), who slaughter the captain and the marines. Henry is confronted by Salazar, who sees a “Wanted” poster for Captain Jack Sparrow in Henry’s keeping. He allows Henry to live so he can deliver a message to Jack.

Meanwhile on the island of Saint Martin, a young woman named Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) has been sentenced to death for witchcraft because of her knowledge of Astronomy and Horology. She escapes and runs into Jack, who is attempting to rob a bank with his crew. When the robbery fails, Jack’s crew desert him when realising he has become even more of a wash-out, and he goes into town to trade his prized compass for a drink, setting Salazar free from the Devil’s Triangle. Meanwhile, Carina and Henry meet up and learn of their respective desires to find the Trident of Poseidon. She is captured again and sentenced to hang, while Jack has been captured and sentenced to a beheading. Together with Jack’s crew, Henry helps them escape and they sail away on Jack’s ship, the Dying Gull, using the stars and Marina’s findings to navigate their way to Poseidon’s Trident.

The acting is a considerable step down from even the fourth film. Depp acts like a drunken oaf. All. The. Time. And it gets old fast, with next to no sense of wit, intelligence or variance in the performance whatsoever; the Jack I once knew is nowhere to be found here. Geoffrey Rush is back as Barbossa, and even though there is a sense that Rush is tiring of the role, he is still a pleasure to watch. Bardem is over-the-top as expected, working with what he has as a fairly one-dimensional villain, but his best acting is during the scenes when his character is still human. Thwaites is very bland and uninteresting, lacking even Bloom’s earnestness and silent strength. Scodelario tries to put in a lot of snark and personality as Carina, but is saddled with too much argumentative dialogue bordering on the point of arrogance. Kevin McNally as the once-wily Gibbs is starting to show signs of slowing down. Other side characters are one-dimensional, too, whether it’s a wasted David Wenham as ruthless Navy Officer Scarfield, Stephen Graham as Scrum the pirate, or Golshifteh Farahani as Shansa the witch.

The sets have some charm to them, reminiscent of the Disneyland ride, but rarely gel well with the CGI landscapes, which at times look almost like something out of an animated film, or even Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. A lot of the greenscreen work looks really obvious, and whether they’re on an island or a ship, they almost never feel like they’re there, especially since they did it all practically on Curse of the Black Pearl. Despite looking like a cross between Severus Snape and Tim Burton’s Penguin, I did find Salazar intimidating and creepy, and the CGI on him is better than in any of the trailers with the level of detail presented. Being a ghost, he doesn’t have the same fidelity to physics as Davy Jones, thus lacking a sense of presence. The best shots of Salazar and his ghost crew are mostly at night. If the last few sequels relied on CGI to carry their action scenes, then this one definitely takes the cake for the ludicrous use of it. We get a few sparks of creativity such as undead sharks and seagulls, but not much. The parting of the sea during the climax, as seen in the trailers, was incredibly overdone in terms of both scale and effects overload. It’s clear that they put so much money into that climax and Salazar’s crew that they were stretched thin in certain areas that needed to be polished up.

The flashback to how Salazar was cursed by the young Jack is awesome; that scene had the Sparrow I wanted to see – charismatic, brave, witty, and very much like Peter Pan. The de-aging effects actually looked pretty convincing, and they carefully shoot his scenes so that the illusion doesn’t break too soon (until we see his mouth move that is, having a very animated look that doesn’t feel right). Still, credit for making that scene work.

It’s a very well-shot and vibrant movie with striking colours, but it feels a little too clean at times, as though we were in a different world than the previous four films. The tone I get is more “family comedy” rather than “adventure.” The action sequences are played more for laughs rather than excitement and suspense. Some of these sequences are creative in their direction and presentation, but many feel like watered down versions of Gore Verbinski’s confident direction. The opening with the train of horses tugging an entire building at incredible speed was the moment where I mentally checked-out, because it was such an obvious breach in physics and willing suspension of disbelief. Then there’s a sequence with a guillotine nearly chopping off Jack’s head. I’ll admit I laughed a few times, but at that point, I was not taking it seriously and the movie basically became a cartoon version of the franchise. 

Even the score was a very paint-by-numbers affair. I got a few smiles out of hearing the familiar themes by Hans Zimmer, but I couldn’t pick out any memorable new themes from composer and Zimmer protege Geoff Zanelli. I don’t want to hate on the guy, but I kept thinking to myself, “You have to do better than this, dude.” Even On Stranger Tides left me aspects of the score to enjoy separately from the movie.

The script by Jeff Nathanson (gone are franchise writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio) is easily the film’s other major failing. The pacing really drags at times, despite being shorter than the first three movies. The exposition and character setup is clunky and heavily reliant on the dreaded “tell don’t show” mantra of bad screenwriting. They try their hardest to bring in a new cast by tying them intrinsically to the old, but that’s where the effort ends, and you’re stuck with simplistic motivations and no depth at all. Even though all these characters have reasons to be on this quest, there isn’t much in the way of stakes, and there is no sense of urgency. Even the presence of the Royal Navy as an attempt to drive up the tension feels superfluous and fails to be relevant in any way. We’re told Carina is wrongfully persecuted for being a witch, but at the same time, there is also an actual witch whose origins and fate is completely unknown. Why isn’t she being persecuted?! Why does Scarfield heed her warnings when he should be killing her?! There is also a twist for Carina’s backstory, but there is zero build up towards it and the after effects of it makes the decisions of the involved characters feel hollow.

They also try way too hard to push the comedy, with almost every non-expository bit being an exchange of one-liners, puns and double entendres, and most of them are very broad and fall flat. At first, the witch joke is somewhat funny, but it kept being recycled over and over again to the point of exasperation. Among the lamer jokes is a cameo from Paul McCartney as “Uncle Jack”, a relative of Sparrow; they have a familiar exchange and then nothing else after that. We don’t even see Keith Richards! And speaking of never appearing again, the witch played by Farahani also disappears from the film! The one scene I just despise is the wedding scene; it’s grotesquely unfunny and cringe-inducing and could have easily been written out to make the film less painful.

Jack Sparrow really is past his prime, both in the world of the movie and our own. He used to be the most cunning guy in the room despite looking like a drunken fool, but now he’s just a buffoon. This pirate used to be a man to be feared, rather than blithely stumbling into success. For the first time, he actually bothered me deeply because he’s become a caricature of his old self.  He’s whiny, he doesn’t contribute to the solution in any meaningful way, and his comedic timing is sporadically hit and miss. Anything potentially interesting like Jack’s lack of success and alcoholism (that could be somewhat meta and relatable to real life) is never addressed in film; we never get the sense that he wants to be the heroic pirate he used to be.

I really liked seeing Barbossa and felt that he was integrated well, and his role in the film had some emotional resonance. The cast still has good chemistry and there is the sense of familiarity between old friends (or foes), such as the scenes between Jack and Barbossa. There is an interesting visual symmetry in Barbossa’s journey, in how he is introduced versus how he is at the end of the film, which actually did give his involvement a lot of heart. Really, it should have been more focused on him, I feel. It was nice to see the Black Pearl back on the high seas, and having what remains of the old crew together one last time.

But there is another ailment that’s plaguing this film: a dearth of originality. We have a man with a hateful vendetta against all pirates (like Beckett), who is now tied to a supernatural ship and cannot set foot on land (like Davy Jones), has an undead crew (like Barbossa and his cursed pirates), and our two young leads are basically diet Will and Elizabeth with none of the charm. Continuity has pretty much set sail at this point, with plot elements introduced in the previous films that are contradicted or outright challenged by this film. This is the first time I literally could not follow the plot. Jack trades his compass away and that frees Salazar. For the life of me, I cannot tell you how or why the Devil’s Triangle turned Salazar and his crew into ghosts, or why trading away the compass set them free from any of that. I could follow all of the plots to the sequels, but here I’m struggling to make any rhyme or reason of it.

This was when I decided enough was enough. I had my fun while it lasted, and I tried to give this movie every chance to win me over, but now the time really has come to bid farewell to this swashbuckling franchise. What little I did enjoy about it was a byproduct of turning off my brain and separating it from the Pirates franchise that I love. Let it be said that I would rather watch The Lone Ranger than this particular pirate adventure ever again.

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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