Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

I didn't loathe 2006's "Dead Man Chest." It was a serviceable sequel, mighty with visual energy, but sluggish in storytelling urgency. Trouble is, the preceding film, 2003's "Curse of the Black Pearl," felt like a breezy journey on a lonesome country road -- that was a beauty of it. The sequel resembled an L.A. freeway at rush hour with all the subplots crashing into each other, waiting for the third film to clear up the congestion. "At World's End" (IMDb listing) is finally here and, well … if you enjoyed the unreasonably knotted adventures of Jack Sparrow before, this new film won't disappoint.

Heading off to Singapore to capture the attention of pirate lord Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat), a posse of pirates, led by Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), Will (Orlando Bloom), and Barbossa (a lovingly over-the-top Geoffrey Rush), hope to book passage to Davy Jones' Locker to retrieve Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, doing what he's here to do) from insanity. With the East India Trading Company hot on their tail, along with Jones (a sublime Bill Nighy) and his crustacean cronies, the team takes to the far edges of the globe to assemble a plan to fight back. Over the course of their adventure, rivalries blossom, allegiances are broken, romance is questioned, ships are blasted into pieces, and death is waiting beyond the horizon.

I don't know if it was ego, ambition, or stupidity, but the "Caribbean" team made a conscious decision when they embarked on "Chest" and "End" to turn their scallywag creation into a 10-cent riff on "Lord of the Rings." "Black Pearl" featured its fair share of swift turns and traps, but it's a drug store comic book compared to the biblical depth of the two sequels. It's a burden that has tainted the experience for me, turning a creation once so graceful and appealing into a dreary stint of summer school.

"End" is massive. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski want the audience to feel as though a trilogy is coming to an end, so they've loaded up the widescreen cannons and settled in for cinematic war. The price for this mammoth special effects festival? Two hours of boredom. "End" goes out on a note of fierce action and operatic death so spectacular you'll hardly believe your eyes, but before the picture can get there, there's a whole mess of a story that needs an absurd amount of clarification.

The mess, of course, was kicked off in "Chest." The first sequel took great pride in shaking up the narrative snow globe, trusting audiences would respond to a gentle dialing down of swashbuckle and a hasty elevation of complication. "Chest" wasn't impossible to follow, but it felt like it, putting the viewer through such a punishing display of tail-chasing and myth-making that it should've come with a road map and scratch paper.

"End" picks up the story exactly where it left off, furthering the pursuit of the East India Trading Company to eradicate all pirates, Will and Elizabeth's communication failure, Jack's death and rebirth, and the return of Barbossa. Believe me, that's more than enough to justify the nearly three-hour running time allotted to this alleged final act. But the production isn't happy trying to nail down a small set of plot threads to satisfaction; they want heaping spoonfuls of uncertainty and swells of chest-huffing tragedy to add more perplexity.

As if there wasn't enough going on already in the film, "End" pushes the story into far more problematic plot threads: romantic entanglements concerning Davy Jones and the voodoo princess Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris), the troublesome madness of Jack (resulting in some awful, meandering scenes with multiple and sometimes miniature Jacks), Elizabeth's newfound pirate power, and dumbfounding portraits of fantasy make-em-ups that lock a firm sleeper hold on the imagination. Cleave some of this out, and "End" would've been easier to digest. Spread it over 170 minutes, and it becomes numbing and infuriating. Perhaps on Jack's next adventure he could sail to the end of the world to locate a more judicious editor.

"End" also makes an unfortunate error in tonal judgment by sailing into darker waters. While I thought the flights of fancy in "Chest" whiffed mightily, I found myself wishing I was right back in that film with its runaway water wheels and cartoon cannibals. "End" takes on an air of self-importance and squeezes the humor right out of the whole creation, building a heavier mood to better approach the smothering magnitude Verbinski is aiming for. Without fun, the whole "Pirates" idea seems downright meaningless as summer entertainment and the straight-face does nothing to make this story engage the senses. Couple that with such a ridiculous length and the film feels more like a social obligation than a rollicking good time.

However lacking the drama is, the technical side of the film cannot be topped. Setting new standards in special effects filmmaking, "End" is a visual three-scoop ice cream cone, boundless in its determination to put the O in "WOW." Since the series has firmly rejected the pop sensibility of "Black Pearl" for epic roar, "End" delivers the towering goods in the sea world production design, the exhaustive and nonstop CGI, and intricate character make-up. To Verbinski's credit, no matter how monotone the story gets, there's always something to please the eye.

As mentioned before, "End" concludes on a gargantuan note, pitting the pirates against enemies, themselves, and a roundhouse punch of stormy seas, violent creatures, and 50-foot-tall ladies. Disney is extremely paranoid about us heathen press giving away the surprises contained within "End," and I will abide by their rules, but I will mention that the end juggernaut of payoffs has the effect of both suffocation and relief, which is a strange sensation to end a trilogy on. And when I write "end a trilogy," to this film it means, "still leave plenty of doors wide open for future sequels." All this huffing and wheezing to tie a bow on this godforsaken story and we're still not finished? Not when people still eagerly line up for these overstuffed sequels.

"Black Pearl" surprised me with its vast expression of high-seas fun, and I was genuinely amazed that a Disney theme park ride could translate to a movie. "Chest" took that promise and buried it under layers of unreasonable complications to heavily mythologize an emaciated concept; a production so frightened by the prospect of filming two sequels, they overcompensated to a point of asphyxiation. "At World's End" shows a similar lack of restraint and any drip of delight that this franchise once held in its yo-ho heart has dried up. Go and be wowed by the special effects and the pleasantly hammy acting â€"- they are truly wonderful. Just don't be surprised if the whole enterprise brings on a serious case of the yawns.

Filmfodder Grade: C-

"'End' also makes an unfortunate error in tonal judgment by sailing into darker waters."

I've seldom been in such complete, detailed agreement with a movie review, and I'm compelled to especially highlight this. I took a nine-year-old to this film. Yes, I knew the rating, but I've also seen the first two (and so has he, for that matter) and figured I was on safe ground.

The opening scenes are grim and disturbing--the kind of thing I expect to kick off an Eastwood western, not a Disney movie. I looked over at the 9YO in the midst of them and he'd pulled himself into a semi-fetal crouch as he gazed up at the screen in dread revulsion. This was hardly the last such moment in the movie, either.

It's also true that the young'n was completely lost by the whirligig plotting. I've never fielded so many "I don't get its" during the course of a movie.

Last I checked, these were supposed to be family films. This one isn't, at least not to the extent that anyone under thirteen has been pretty much cut out of the target audience zone. This was very disappointing.

-- Posted by: Deep Cover at May 29, 2007 12:35 PM