A three-hour Disney film with a body count? Oscar enters dangerous waters for the end of the world.
Who made it?: Gore Verbinski (Director), Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio (Writers), Jerry Bruckheimer (Producer), Walt Disney Pictures.
Who’s in it?: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Jack Davenport, Bill Nighy, Jonathan Pryce. Chow Yun-Fat.
Tagline: “At the End of the World, the Adventure Begins.”
IMDb rating: 7.1/10.
“I wash my hands of this weirdness.”
That’s probably what many people thought after seeing At World’s End, because it is by far the most out-there of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Despite enjoying it in the cinema at the time, I distanced myself from it over time because it was so far removed from even the second film to fully enjoy. With that said, there are still aspects about it I enjoy and even respect, but not enough to say it is worth recommending all the way through.
As the new governor of Port Royal, Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) executes anyone associated with piracy by mass hangings and ordering Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) to destroy all pirate ships in the Caribbean. A row of condemned prisoners sing “Hoist the Colours” to compel the nine Pirate Lords to convene at Shipwreck Cove to hold the Brethren Court. Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) was one of the Pirate Lords and never named a successor before being taken to Davy Jones’ Locker. Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris), and the remaining crew of the Black Pearl join forces with a resurrected Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) to rescue Jack. Traveling to Singapore, the crew meet Captain Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat), who owns navigational charts to the Locker, but resents the idea of bringing Jack back from the Locker and quickly shows a leery interest in Elizabeth. Before the crew escapes during an attack from Beckett’s soldiers, Will strikes a bargain with Feng to give him Jack so that he, in turn, can use the Pearl to rescue his father Bootstrap Bill from the Flying Dutchman. The crew travels to the Locker and rescues the marooned Jack but find themselves trapped.
While nobody gives a bad performance, most of them don’t feel the same as before. Depp’s turn as Jack is certainly amusing if more acerbic and inane than previous iterations, still working well off the other actors, but not having as many subtle scenes. Bloom’s performance is a bit of a step down here, not having as much meaty material. Knightley was well-suited to her roles in the previous films, even as a swashbuckling fighter, but as a pirate leader to inspire a whole fleet? I don’t feel it! Leave it to Rush to be easily the most fun character in the film, nailing the comedy better than his fellow pirates and selling the particularly absurd logic and dialogue. As before, Nighy walks the line of a hammy nemesis with a sympathetic past impressively, in contrast to Hollander’s cold and calculating “straight-man” villain. Yun Fat is well-cast as the sinister Sao Feng, if disappointingly used. McNally is fun as ever as Mr. Gibbs, as are Arenberg and Crook in their familiar double act. Among the characters who get the short end of the stick, Jonathan Pryce is really tragic in his few scenes as Governor Swann, same with Stellan Skarsgard as Bootstrap Bill, and Jack Davenport has one last moment of nobility. Oh, and Keith Richards finally appears as Jack’s father, Captain Teague, and while he’s basically playing himself, he is fun to watch.
As usual, the look and design of the familiar and new locations is excellent, such as Singapore with its rickety wooden houses and foggy water, or Shipwreck Cove with its weird hodgepodge of pirate ships. The effects work on Jones and his crew is as good as it was in the last film, and the maelstrom battle is highly memorable and epic. The phrase “shoot the money” has never been more appropriate in a film’s context. The over-the-top action and sight gags are still entertaining, even accepting that fidelity to physics is mostly damned. As before, the pyrotechnics are creatively-shot and feel epic in scope, especially the duel between Jack and Jones aboard the Dutchman. For all the cutaways from the implied death and gore, the impact still isn’t lessened because the implication is still there, and certain character deaths do get pretty damn dark.
Wolszki’s cinematography certainly reflects the bleaker tone of the film, draining much of the colour and light from the previous entries, with the scenes in Davy Jones’ Locker being so desaturated that they manage to sell the otherworldly aspect a bit too heavily. The bleak, murky green aesthetic gets really old and unpleasant after a while. With that said, many individual visuals are completely sublime, such as a ship sailing through glacier-filled waters, or across waters so calm that the stars are reflected perfectly in them, as though they were sailing across the cosmos themselves. And there are several that are just plain bizarre, like the Pearl stranded in the desert and hauled across the terrain by thousands of convincing-looking CGI crabs, or being rocked back and forth until submerged upside down. Also, when Calypso is released, she’s a giant Naomie Harris who transforms into a crab tsunami… yet another weird-ass visual.
Zimmer’s score is another strong, bombastic one, and definitely the best thing in this film, selling the “end of days” tone the narrative is going for. The Singapore music is also reminiscent of his later music for Kung Fu Panda. The new heroic themes in “Up is Down” and “What Shall We Die For” are inspiring pieces that greatly elevate the battle scenes, which were pretty epic themselves. A particular standout is “Parlay”, where Zimmer channels his inner Ennio Morricone, as the leaders of both the pirates and the British fleet meet on a sand bar.
After the nice and shiny Disney castle logo, our first shot in this film is a hanging noose. In one scene, the movie plunges into a pessimistic territory that it is not really able to recover from, featuring visual references to the Holocaust and a child being hanged. Ditto for Elizabeth being forced to remove her garments by the Singapore guard, again very unpleasant and haunting. Not to use the Star Wars analogy flippantly, but if Dead Man’s Chest had been the darkest chapter in the franchise, then this wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) have been so grim and dark; it was completely unsuited to start what should be a lighthearted adventure romp. It builds up an air of pretentiousness because it’s clearly trying to be a much grander affair than the first film. The ending of the second implied the heroes voyaging beyond death to save their friend, but the third cheapens that by saying that Jack is needed for the “piece of eight” he carries as a Pirate Lord to free Calypso. This inconsistency between movies detracts from what should be an incredible quest, and only shoehorns in more made-up lore that only raises unwarranted questions.
If poor pacing was a problem in Dead Man’s Chest, then it REALLY becomes a problem in this film; the non-essential scenes in the Locker alone have lingering unpleasantness and a sense of despair. Among all the sturm und drang, the complicated relationship between Will and Elizabeth only pushes the audience even further away. With the heroes and villains making backhanded deals and alliances all the time, it gets difficult to find anyone to root for, but at least Barbossa knows where he stands.
For such a long film, there are many missed opportunities. Sao Feng is a potentially interesting character, though his death is underwhelming and it’s difficult to feel sorry for him after the way he acted around Elizabeth. Conceptually, the idea of pirates from other nationalities is an interesting idea, but it dissolves quickly as it gets dragged into politics. By the time the climax hits, it’s down to the Black Pearl, the Flying Dutchman and the Endeavor, and the fleets of both sides are rendered irrelevant! The filmmakers could have at least had them attack the enemy ships in the background. I really wanted to see Elizabeth chart her own course after the battle, as befitting her desire for adventure, but we don’t see that. She might have lost Will, but it would have been good to know that she still had her freedom. What we as get for Davy Jones’ Locker is what I imagine to be the inside of Johnny Depp’s mind; a lot of empty oceans and a massive desert populated by rock crabs and Jack Sparrow doppelgangers.
I won’t deny there is a certain level of disappointment in having the Kraken be killed off-screen after an impressive display in the second film. However, it works into the wider theme of the fantastical dying out. The Kraken represented the mystery and wonder of the past, and Beckett represents the industrialised modern world, and now the old world fades into myth and legend. As Jack himself put it, “The world’s still the same, there’s just less in it.” In the first, they pushed the angle of pirates as a people who wanted to be free from dictatorship, and Beckett’s order implies tyranny rather than order and peace. With Beckett masterminding the main plot here, it gives Davy Jones additional scenes to show moments of humanity and the possibility that he still loves Calypso. Despite his civilised appearance, Beckett is more a monster than Jones because of his total lack of empathy.
For my part, I love how Jack just casually talks to his imaginary little “Shoulder Jacks.” It’s a clever spin on the “Angel and Devil” trope and demonstrates that his morality is derived from a sense of freedom, keeping with his character. If stabbing the heart of Davy Jones means sailing the seas for eternity, he’ll take it, but if it means ferrying dead souls to the afterlife, then no chance! Despite all his tomfoolery, Jack does have a plan, and his gambit paid off in the end by fooling both Jones and Beckett. While it sadly isn’t in the movie, there is a vital character-building scene between Jack and Beckett that should have made it. I normally don’t talk about deleted scenes, but there is one that really would have added to Sparrow’s character and worldview, where we learn that he freed some slaves from Beckett. “People aren’t cargo, mate.” Jack and Barbossa’s relationship is kinda heartwarming in a way, too, as seen when the two have a heart-to-heart when they find the Kraken has been beached.
It’s during the finale that I really start to enjoy the film, and it’s ironic that by the time the battle ensues, I kinda start caring about Will and Liz’s relationship again, because it feels more in keeping with the spirit of their romance in contrast to the miserable bits that preceded it. Speaking personally, I do crack a few smiles during the “wedding” scene, as Will, Elizabeth and Barbossa square off against enemy sailors and Jones’ crew. Zimmer’s core certainly helps to that degree; the reemergence of the Dutchman and destruction of Beckett’s ship in slow-motion is GLORIOUS.
So, as you can tell, I’m going back and forth on this film like Jack rocking the Black Pearl. It’s hard to enjoy it as fully as I want to because those darker elements and higher stakes are contrasted with goofier scenes and other stranger things. Gore Verbinski described this as “the pirate movie to end all pirate movies”, and it sure as hell could have been, in both the good and bad sense of the world. This is very much a film with an identity crisis; too bleak and pretentious to be a masterpiece of its genre, and yet so grand and creative that I can’t commit myself to hating it. I certainly understand where its detractors are coming from, but I was glad to find a few gems worth the digging.
- The most expensive film ever made (at the time), not adjusted for inflation. The budget ran to 300 million dollars. That’s more than the budget of all three Lord of the Rings films combined.
- Filming started without a finished script.
- Johnny Depp thoroughly enjoyed working with his co-star Geoffrey Rush in the first film, and was pleased to get more screentime alongside him: “We were like a couple of old ladies with knitting needles!”
- When the screen goes black, as the crew fall over World’s End, the ghostly music and voices heard are directly from the Disneyland ride. Most noticeable is Paul Frees’ voice of the skull and crossbones, that infamously warns passengers, “Dead men tell no tales!”
- First movie in the franchise to portray that common pirate stereotype, the eye patch.