There's no point in even trying to write a pan for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, not after Ali Arikan used his walk-out as an excuse to vent his splenetic fury on the society that would allow it to happen. I sympathize with objections to the piece that cite its lack of hard facts, but then the article openly states it is not a review (and couldn't be, since he walked out) and reads more like an account of the proverbial last straw. Those raising hell over his piece, however, must not have seen the movie, because even if Arikan wanted to discuss the film, I don't see how he could. The fourth installment of this bloated, long-since tired franchise barely qualifies as a movie. In a literal sense, of course, its production value is enormous, worth some $150-250 million depending on the estimate (and that's not even counting the marketing, which has been so overwhelming and seemingly endless I begin to wonder if ads for the movie came with the first pressing of the Gutenberg Bible). Artistically, however, Rob Marshall's insipid, scattershot behemoth is nothing more than a ludicrously expensive cash-in and a woefully safe bet on the presumption that Americans will never ask for anything better.
Through its own ineptitude and transparent avarice, On Stranger Tides ultimately condescends so thoroughly to its audience it's all the more troubling and saddening that so many will cheer it. Marshall, one of the least talented directors to be a star director in Hollywood, pieces together such a disjunctive movie it betrays its apathy on the assumption that the people who see it will be too attention-deficit to care about scenes simply starting and stopping without care for flow or continuity. What am I saying? You need a story to be able to adhere to it.
Picking up where the finale of At World's End left off, On Stranger Tides shows Capt. Jack Sparrow searching for the Fountain of Youth, though why anyone blessed with the perennially young face of Johnny Depp would risk his life for a few more years of looks is something of a mystery. Without his compatriots from the previous films—save the boozy proselytizer Gibbs—Jack simply exists for his own gain, lacking the foils that bring out his humanity. This may only be more true when an old flame, Angelica (Penélope Cruz), enters the film recruiting sailors for her father, Blackbeard (Ian McShane). Yeah, that one.
Jack Sparrow's greatest asset and greatest weakness as a character has always been a moral ambiguity that actually simplifies rather than complicates him. He will act according to his own selfish desire, even in cases that he aids others. The morality of the Pirates films always fell to Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan, whose dealings with Jack managed to complicate and enhance them even as the dear captain remained his two-dimensional self, if he did not in fact become even more of a caricature. The palpable friction he had with Keira Knightley gives way to empty scenes of innuendo between Depp and Cruz, neither of whom has ever seemed less sexy. Cruz is there to be eye candy and knows it, and the look of boredom on her face throughout suggests that even the person who speaks English as a second language found the writing to be stilted and obvious. For the majority of the film, On Stranger Tides has no one to represent an actual human being with motivation and purpose, and when the person with an actual stake in the fight against Blackbeard is revealed, it's the one character more solidified in his simplistic franchise role than Sparrow.
Thus, the film immediately breaks apart, splintering into vignettes by a director known for his musical work. Marshall even has the audacity to frame some sequences as if bits in a musical, including an obvious interlude between Jack and Angelica on the deck of Blackbeard's ship with Stephen Graham in the background playing Spanish guitar. But Marshall could never even find a line of consistency for his musicals, leaving this swashbuckling epic high and dry from the start.
The musical-esque excesses extend to the acting and dialogue of the film, which is so broad that the rousing wit of the first Pirates cannot be seen for the loud punchlines and hammy acting. With Depp on autopilot, Geoffrey Rush hobbles up with a fresh wooden leg to teeter and preen his way through Barbossa's new gig as a privateer hired by the Crown to essentially perform his old job for the state. To offset Rush's dip into absurdity, he gets placed with ludicrous cutouts, most notably Richard Griffiths' borderline obscene take on King George II, in which every line is so over-pronounced that he bypasses parody for travesty. Sam Claffin plays a missionary held captive on Blackbeard's ship, where he constantly tries to entreat the good within the supernaturally evil pirate and even falls in love with a dangerous mermaid—an almost hilarious attempt to put romance back into the film by finding some garish midpoint between Will and Elizabeth's relationship and that of Bella Swan and Edward Cullen (A sexy missionary! A beast from the lowest pit! Can it work?!). Taken with the highly Catholic Spanish fleet also in pursuit of the Fountain of Youth only so more bodies can be added to the climactic showdown, the missionary's constant, perfunctory invocation of his faith marked one of the few times I have ever felt sorry for God.
On Stranger Tides is the fifth Disney film to use 7.1 surround sound, and the mixers appear to have used this setup to make the dialogue as stacked and incomprehensible as possible. Everyone's so busy being manic and loud that lines disappear in deafening roars of mass hackdom, which is actually a blessing when the film quiets down just enough for you to hear a line or two. These moments are infrequent, as Hans Zimmer's crashing, reckless score cascades over the entire film, making even the less action-packed moments so bombastic I left the theater with ringing ears.
And woe betide those who see this movie in 3D. Marshall filmed a great many sequences at night or in dimly lit areas, making even the 2D print so murky that large action sequences can be glimpsed in only a few of the fractals of Marshall's hectic, sloppy editing. I would have thought Marshall might have been able to pull off at least something approximating a good sword fight: it's all choreography, after all, and that's how Marshall got his start in show business. I wonder how he'd feel if someone came in and spasmodically jerked around the intricate moves he'd worked out with performers. The final fight between British privateers, the royal Spanish fleet and Blackbeard's crew is so messy, stiff and pointless that even Jack Sparrow calls attention to the ridiculousness of it, only to be drowned out like the peppered voices of sanity in the audience of this film who will find themselves overwhelmed by the bewildering support shown to it by masses who ignore the nagging sense of logic tugging at them in order to see a fight, any fight, no matter how meaningless.
As ever, On Stranger Tides will benefit from an audience without passion or care who will nevertheless defend it as if they made it so they can justify to themselves a total lack of standards. When I read Arikan's piece for Slant, I keyed in on his anguish and zeal over the state of Hollywood fluff and how people, even those supposedly arch critics, will forgive a bad, stupid, insulting film because it came out between the months of May and August and cost a lot of money. Nothing in this film feels complete; nothing in this film even has a spark of inspiration. There aren't even inventive setpieces; as bad as Dead Man's Chest and At World's End were, at least Gore Verbinski used his budgets to try out some wild sequences to offset his writer's scripts. Now he's off making a unique, imaginative film like Rango while everyone here lines up for another go in the slop trough. When Jack proudly shows the map to the Fountain of Youth at the start, Depp may as well have unfurled the paycheck he received for this movie. That's all anyone here seems to care about, anyway. So why will people once again absolve it with that most useless of benedictions, "It does what it says on the tin?" It doesn't: rewatching the first Pirates film for the dozenth time will offer more fresh, unexpected moments than this predictable farce.
If there is any bright side to On Stranger Tides, it's that Rob Marshall is only desecrating a franchise already worn down by its desperate attempts to outdo itself in convolution and tedium rather than ruining something potentially worth seeing. His take on Memoirs of a Geisha was nearly as inflated and obvious as this, but it tore down a gentle, nuanced story in the process. Giving a hack hundreds of millions of dollars piddle away this wanton incompetence with a murky, haphazard piece of tripe, though, does not exactly seem a step in the right direction. Besides, I hear he's returning to dramatic fare soon. So scratch that; everyone loses.