In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, whenever a person runs into the legendary Captain Jack Sparrow they’ve heard so much about, their reaction is always, “What happened to you?” Wanted posters for Sparrow that used to offer hundreds for his capture have now been crossed out, the asking price now only a single pound. Sparrow has no ship, no money, and barely any crew – just his occasional rum and his ability to somehow win over the ladies. To be fair, Sparrow and Johnny Depp’s portrayal haven’t changed all that much, but the schtick has grown so exhausted, it’s hard to imagine what made Sparrow charming in the first place. The fifth film in the franchise, Dead Men Tell No Tales isn’t just a slog in this franchise, it somehow takes the viewer back to the original to question what the hell we ever saw in these films in the first place.
In many ways, this installment is very much Pirates: The New Class, at the film claims to be the end of the franchise, yet sets up for a younger crew to take over the swashbuckling. Dead Men Tell No Tales follows Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), who wants to break his father’s curse that has left him covered in barnacles at the bottom of the sea. The only way to do this is to find the legendary Sparrow and search for the trident of Poseidon, a MacGuffin that will break every curse in the entire ocean. Strange that despite all the curses this franchises has seen, this is the first we’re hearing of this.
Among the new cast is Carina (Kaya Sccodelario), an astrologist who owns a ruby-studded journal featuring the only known map to the elusive trident. Since she is the only one that can read the map and the stars, she joins Henry and Sparrow to find the curse-breaking trident. If that weren’t enough, this new crew is being hunted by Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his undead ship; they were left for dead by Sparrow and are now searching for Captain Jack, destroying every ship along their way. Need more plot? One-legged Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) is forced by Salazar to hunt down Sparrow, one can assume, simply to fill out Rush’s contractual obligation to the series.
While Pirates has never been able to recapture the light-hearted adventuring fun of the original, Pirates has attempted two varied approaches to making this a continual franchise. The first and stronger approach – which the original and the fourth film On Stranger Tides tried – is turning Pirates into a sort of serialized, self-contained series. The other approach, which the second, third and this installment fall for, is to create a bloated, overwhelming mythology, filled with unnecessary characters and MacGuffins, constantly changing allegiances and confusing motivations. Through this style, Dead Men Tell No Tales doesn’t really care if you can tell what is actually going on, it just wants to distract its audience from realizing they have no idea what is going on.
Taking once compelling films and turning them into confusing dreck seems to be the M.O. of writer Jeff Nathanson, who formerly worked on Speed 2: Cruise Control and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (to be fair, he also wrote the excellent Catch Me If You Can). It’s as if Nathanson was given a summary of the franchises worst tendencies and went from there. Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, the directing duo behind Kon-Tiki, offers some fresh blood for the franchise, but continues the tradition of nonsensical action and boring visuals.
Nathanson, Rønning, and Sandberg all seem to have thrown all their ideas in and half-assed all of them. The first hour of the film is little more than Henry, Carina, and Sparrow saving each other from various predicaments. This also presents some of the more exciting action set pieces, such as Sparrow’s crew attempting to rob a bank, and a botched beheading for Sparrow. These moments inject a reminder at how fun these films can be. But the second half devolves into trident lore, mythical sea beasts, maps that no one can read, and other ridiculous plot contrivances that attempt to build this world, but instead constantly exhaust.
The most apt question Dead Men Tell No Tales asks is “what happened to you?,” or more so, “why should we still care?” Is there anyone who still finds these films captivating, exciting, or funny? Was there a need to explain what happened between Will Turner or Elizabeth Swann, or to keep up with the inebriated stumbling of Sparrow? At this point the damage is done, yet Dead Men Tell No Tales tries so desperately to keep interest in these films going, to the point that it seems to think everyone wanted to know the origin of those dumb beads Sparrow wears in his hair.
When Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl came out fourteen years ago, audiences wondered if a film based on a theme park ride could be worthwhile. But like any amusement park ride, the more you ride, the less thrilling it becomes. Instead you’re just strapped in for the known motions, sick to your stomach while hoping there might be some new tricks hidden on the fifth go-around. Dead Men Tell No Tales has this ride grinding its wheels to nothing, desperately in need to be taken out of its mystery, and leaving us wondering if we ever truly enjoyed the ride.