Pirates of the Caribbean debuted atop a cresting wave, but after a hat trick of subpar sequels, this rickety franchise is all but shipwrecked. The fourth installment, On Stranger Tides, cements a downward spiral of diminishing creativity with Captain Jack Sparrow's most shallow adventure yet. Gone is director Gore Verbinski, whose surrealist sensibilities were the saving grace of Dead Man's Chest and At World's End. His leftfield replacement is Rob Marshall, the man behind the Academy Award-winning musical, Chicago.
Action is obviously not Marshall's forte, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to have expected better choreography. Marred by shapeless large-scale skirmishes, On Stranger Tides lacks the series' signature spunk. To that effect, personality walked the plank prior to the opening titles.
Granted, the characters of the Pirates universe have always been archetypes enlivened by smart performances, but even the novelty of Johnny Depp as our ne'er-do-well antihero is wearing itself thin. Likewise, Geoffrey Rush trotting out his Barbossa doesn't deliver the same impact four times over. Other familiar faces appear throughout this overlong narrative, but On Stranger Tides is better defined by its absentees and new recruits.
Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley are the most obvious examples. Axing their dull relationship is no great loss, nor is the omission of squid-faced antagonist Davy Jones. Pity their replacements are less interesting still. An aloof Penélope Cruz might be the most boring woman on the seven seas, and her romance with Sparrow is dead in the water. Don't even get me started on the courtship of the cleric and the mermaid, which sounds like the setup to a bad joke. Deadwood's Ian McShane turns in a compelling interpretation of the legendary pirate Black Beard, but is criminally underused.
Weaving a tale that involves three factions pulling anchor to find Ponce de Leon's fabled fountain of youth, On Stranger Tides plays out like the world's most expensive snail race. And the audience ain't getting any younger. No epic is as simple as point A to B, but Pirates revels in getting sidetracked. Silly business like voodoo dolls, mermaid tears, and magic compasses needlessly postpone the endgame; "It's not the destination so much as the journey," Sparrow quips. I'd be inclined to agree if either were any fun.
Of course it wouldn't be a Pirates of the Caribbean movie without CGI sea creatures and mystical trinkets, but both serve merely to inflate the plot — it's like catching a glimpse of the director backstage gesturing stretch, stretch! Or perhaps it's proof of weak characterization that the inanimate objects prove just as interesting as our heroes.
With a gray-brown pallet and precious few postcards to remember it by, On Stranger Tides is inconsequential even by popcorn standards. The franchise has become increasingly inaccessible, and while this fourth installment stands better alone than At World's End, there is little incentive for viewers not yet familiar with the wily charms of Jack Sparrow to care. Accordingly, attendance for the Pirates films continues to drop, though the 90 million Marshall raked in over opening weekend is nothing to sneeze at. Word is a fifth installment is already in the works.
Realistically, Pirates won't stop until Disney runs it aground or Depp says no — and like any good captain with a multi-million dollar check in hand, he's going down with the ship.