Friday, July 07, 2006

Byarrrrrrrring: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

(My chickens. If you want Emmy commentary, wait a day. I'm percolating something.)

I can already feel myself (and most of the critical community) going out on a limb with this one, but Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is a big, bloated mess of a movie, which overstays its welcome by a considerable degree. Everything that made the first movie so fun is here in enormous quantities, as though Jerry Bruckheimer went and shopped for plot devices at Costco. But because the story neglects to give us characters to latch on to (instead, grafting one of its character's plot arcs on to Han Solo's from The Empire Strikes Back), it becomes an exercise in meaningless action.

Don't get me wrong. There's a lot to admire in this movie. The action sequences are well constructed (especially a three-way sword fight that also meshes with various other action-y moments in some fairly interesting ways), and there are quite a few funny lines. What's more, Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow is a character for the ages, tossing off yet another ridiculously fun performance. And Bill Nighy matches him, note for note (behind a digital squid mask, no less). And the visual effects are some of the best you've ever seen. Disney spent a lot of money on this movie, and every penny is up there on screen. Plus, Davy Jones crew of weird, sea-creature/human hybrids is always fun to look at in that silly/grotesque way.

Unfortunately, when they blew up the first Pirates (a surprising summer confection), they blew up everything that was wrong with it too. While Keira Knightley has improved as an actress since the first film and generates some real heat here with her romantic interest(s), Orlando Bloom is still a dull, dull choice for a lead. The storyline with Bloom and his father, played by Stellan Skaarsgard, feels like a weighty attempt to give the story some heft, but it just falls flat because Bloom can't carry the task of making us feel he's REALLY glad to see his dad again.

Plus, every character is brought back from the first Pirates film. This is surely a film made for the devoted who adopted the first as their religion. If you go in without having seen the first film recently, be warned. Still, I haven't seen the first one since 2003, and I did all right. I didn't recognize everyone, but I was able to figure out what predetermined role they filled in the summer blockbuster template and go from there (Hey! It's Mr. Exposition! And there's C-3PO and R2-D2!). If you HAVEN'T seen part one, and you're keen on this, rent the first one. You'll thank yourself in the morning.

Now. On to the story. My biggest problem with the film.

There have been complaints that this story is hard to follow. It's not. Not really. You don't need a flowchart or a scorecard or anything to keep up with what's going on. It's not like War & Peace or anything. But there is an inordinate amount of plot and not enough character in this film. It feels like an attempt to disguise how much the writers are treading water (yes, this is a middle movie) by piling on meaningless plot twist after meaningless plot twist. It's tempting to say that this is a popcorn movie, not a film noir, but I think that's barking up the wrong tree.

The problem here is that the filmmakers assume we care about the characters already, so they give us no compelling reason to care about them beyond the idea that they're the main characters. Furthermore, they're inconsistent, doing things not because they want to do them, but because the plot demands it of them (a frequent plot-twist-heavy-film complaint).

I like the way the film starts in medias res, at a ruined wedding in the middle of a torrential downpour (even if I kept expecting Slash to step out of the chapel and start playing a bitchin' guitar solo). I love that they trust us to catch up here.

But. . .then they expect us to catch up too much.

I don't mind fan wanking (the process of fans drawing conclusions about things that don't seem to make sense in a genre piece), but if you have to fan wank the central plot device of a film like this, you're in trouble.

You see, everyone in this film wants a chest, filled with the heart of Davy Jones. If they can get their hands on this chest they can. . .well. . .

Here's where it gets interesting. We believe that Jack Sparrow wants the chest. He's in hoc to Jones. We believe that Orlando wants the chest. He's looking to free his father from Jones' purgatory. But why does the man who starts the whole plot in motion, the man who runs the East India Trading Company want the chest in the first place?

He claims he wants it to control the power of the sea.

And here's the thing. We're NEVER told how, exactly, this would work. Presumably the big boss knows, but he's not telling. Honestly, I've seen lots of great theories on how this works. I came up with one myself while watching. BUT IT TOOK ME OUT OF THE MOVIE. And when your main goal is to be a confection-y thrill, that's not a good thing.

ALL of this plot feels like needless busywork for the audience. We spend so much time concentrating on the plot that we feel as if we're being distracted from something. And we are. We're being distracted by just how little we buy into the characters' motivations. And by just how little we don't care about any character that's not Sparrow, Keira or Davy Jones.

Now, I could talk about how the characters do things to service the plot rather than the other way around, but that would get in to spoiler territory. If there's enough interest, I'll post a spoiler review later this weekend.

But let's look at a scene that sets all of this up in a nutshell.

Orlando challenges Davy Jones to a dice game to win a key that Jack needs to open the chest from Davy. At the last second, Orlando's dad enters the game to protect his son. They play along and play along and we suddenly become aware that we have NO IDEA how this game is played, much less how exactly the bidding will work and how, exactly, there can be only one loser, instead of only one winner. We're able to piece most of this together (the game isn't incredibly complicated), but it's more work for us, more of an attempt to make us play catch-up. ALL we need is ONE line of dialogue to set up how the game works beyond "It's a game of deception!"

The worst thing about all of the plot twists is that almost all of them negate everything that went before (except for the ones leading up to the action sequence described above). It makes you feel cheated for investing SO MUCH in the movie, only to have the rug pulled out from under you.

It's an elaborate show of distracting us, this movie. And there's a crass, cliffhanger ending that piles on a twist that's pretty obvious thanks to a throwaway shot in an earlier sequence. It also really hurts that the film ends just as the story starts to get going.

And I haven't even mentioned how it takes an hour for the story to get going, thanks to a weird desire to throw what amounts to an animated short into the start of the movie.

I won't complain about the film's length. Or its plot holes (both are things many reviewers are complaining about). I think that length in a film is relative. If the film is good, it flies by. If not, it crawls by. Pirates splits the difference. And I don't think that plot holes matter in a film unless they confront you as you watch it (I'll write more about this some other time).

I'll still see Pirates 3. But it will feel like more of an obligation than a delight. This could have been such a fun franchise, but they've significantly overplayed their hands here.

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