PotC4 not a complete shipwreck, but could have been so much more.
Almost nothing remains of Tim Powers' gorgeous historical fantasy, On Stranger Tides, in the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie. ("Suggested by," is the way the book is acknowledged in the credits.) Still, incoming director Rob Marshall's film is a more seaworthy vessel than the leaky old rustbucket that was PotC 3: At World's End. Johnny Depp's reeling and raucous Captain Jack Sparrow is front and center, providing droll commentary and having a blast. Penelope Cruz is on board in fine swashbuckling form as Angelica, daughter and first mate of legendary pirate Blackbeard—played with dark, ferocious brio by Ian McShane. And Geoffrey Rush is back, stomping around on a peg leg in a powdered wig as pirate Barbarossa-turned-privateer for King George.
There are a lot fewer undead pirate crews than is usual in the franchise (surprising, since they feature so prominently in Powers' book), and believe me, those rotting, eyeball-popping skeletons are not missed. And the action is more focused: everyone is searching for the Fountain of Youth. But, as usual, it's in the storyline that the movie starts to lose steam.
Longtime scriptwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio don't so much craft a narrative plot as string a bunch of gigantic comedy set-pieces together (most of which involve Captain Jack extricating himself from some tight situation). These can be amusing; it's always fun to see Depp swinging across the screen on a rope, or launching himself out of a palm tree as if it were a giant slingshot. But when it comes to the basics of plot construction, like character motivation, the writers remain clueless.
As in the book, the Fountain doesn't restore youth; it's a magical place where death can be defeated—temporarily—if a supplicant performs a ritual by which he can steal the extra years of a designated victim. Or something. Unlike the book, immortality doesn't seem to be part of the deal, and so the writers are overtaxed trying to explain why everybody is all afire to go there. Blackbeard has heard a prophecy that he'll be killed within a fortnight, and so wants to be prepared. Angelica apparently wants to buy her father a few extra years in order to save his soul—she's Spanish, see, and the Spanish are shown to be a nation of religious zealots who are also searching for the "pagan" Fountain in order to destroy it.
Still with me? Barbossa is sailing to the Fountain because he has a grudge against Blackbeard and wants a showdown. And Jack Sparrow? Well, um, he was once in possession of a map to the Fountain, so he's shanghaied aboard Blackbeard's ship to guide them there. Otherwise, he seems to have no particular interest in the Fountain, as either a power source or a potential profit-making venture. Indeed, Jack has no motivation of any kind except saving his own skin from one scene to the next, and this is where the film (and the series) fails its audience. Jack Sparrow never has any desires, none of the compulsions to do or achieve or win anything that creates plot. He's just along for the ride, making witty remarks, and although he's an entertaining companion, you'd think that after nearly a dozen hours of screen time in four movies, the writers could have developed a more complex character for Depp to play.
Disappointing too is his pairing with the fiery Angelica. Sure, they argue and swordfight, but they're never allowed to graduate into a grown-up relationship. They once had a tempestuous affair (notice how all of Jack Sparrow's notorious affairs are in the past, so the writers never have to show us any mushy stuff), but now she's just another character with an angle for Jack to be wary of. Seriously, would it kill this franchise to let Jack Sparrow have an onscreen relationship with a real woman? It wouldn't have to be X-rated; a bit of fun, sexy, camaraderie from two people who obviously enjoy each other would be so refreshing. But, no; the PotC franchise might let its heroines dress in trousers and wield swords, but it continues to shy away from the dramatic possibilities of introducing a complicated grown-up woman into the mix. They're still Wendys among the overgrown Lost Boys of the PotC world.
Still, Cruz and Depp have some fun with their banter. (Trading insults, Jack finally blurts, "You walk like a girl!" Angelica ripostes, "You should know!") There's a lyrical eeriness to a sequence involving mermaids surrounding a boatload of men—until they turn into bloodthirsty sirens, with vampire teeth, yet. And even though it's never explained where Blackbeard gets his magical powers, we get some cool scenes of his ship reefing up its own sails and live, slithering ropes that suspend a bunch of would-be mutineers at odd angles in the rigging.
Locations (mostly in Hawaii) are ravishing, and everyone seems to be having a hell of a good time. (Including Keith Richards in his obligatory cameo as Jack's father, asking sardonically, "Do I look like I've been to the Fountain of Youth?") As always, we just wish there was a bit less empty razzmatazz, and a little more there there.
Remember the scene at the end of the very first PotC, when Captain Jack is finally restored to his ship, the Black Pearl? Standing at the helm, gazing out over an infinite sea, he commands his eager crew, "Fetch me that horizon." That's the kind of stirring moment, full of the promise of adventure, that we long for more of in this series.