Rob Marshall’s philosophy for shooting action sequences seems to be roughly equivalent to his approach to musical numbers: give ’em as little as possible. Just as the danceless “dance” sequences that polluted the director’s Nine were assembled a posteriori in the editing room, thus obviating the need for choreography, the numerous fight scenes in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides feel cobbled together from hundreds of disparate snippets. No scorched-earth Greengrassian postmodernist, Marshall imbues his sword fights and chase scenes with a semblance of visual coherence, but he’s careful not to linger on any single bit of action long enough for viewers to register the significance of the image they’ve just witnessed.
It’s an enervating approach that marks the film as more exhausting than enthralling, and its m.o. of nonstop clatter is one that Marshall applies to almost every aspect of the production. Everything is pitched so high in terms of loud exclamations, dramatic music, and frenetic activity that one would reasonably expect the film to be a compendium of juicy thrills, but the uniformity of tone instead renders the whole thing uniformly dull. When the characters aren’t fighting each other, they’re making solemn threats or, in the case of Johnny Depp’s Captain Sparrow and Penélope Cruz’s Angelica, exchanging caustic but flirtatious barbs, all of which is about as sexy as watching Richard Griffiths frump it up as a boorish, overweight King George II.
This fourth installment in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, the 18th-century-set On Stranger Tides has as its central narrative the search for the Fountain of Youth and the accompanying paraphernalia that allow its powers to be harnessed. In its overly convoluted plotting, three groups of explorers set out to follow the trail of the late Ponce de León. While Sparrow flits between the parties of gone-straight buccaneer Barbossa’s (Geoffrey Rush) British contingent and that of the unrepentant pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and his daughter (and Sparrow’s love interest) Angelica, the Spanish set off to stake their own claim for the fountain.
After the overlong setup (which admittedly contains the film’s best action sequence, the only one to successfully incorporate a measure of humor into the staging), it’s off to sea for a series of set pieces that have a distinct time-marking quality, riding out the duration until the three groups finally arrive at their destination. There are no shortage of film-padding subplots devised by screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, ranging from the dull to the ridiculous (a romance between a missionary and mermaid has to represent some kind of new low for screen amour) and some half-baked discussion about faith toward which the movie can’t be bothered to develop a coherent attitude, but mostly the filmmakers rely on a rather perfunctory use of 3D to endow the whole thing with an (ironically) surface-deep patina of thrills. But give or take a sword or two being thrust at the audience or a barrel rolling toward the viewer and the stereoscopic process serves mostly to extend the foreground image while leaving the background flat. Its use of 3D as uninspired as its staging, plotting, and characters (and its weak stabs at humor), On Stranger Tides proves its title to be a patently false bit of advertising. There’s nothing strange—or in any way extraordinary—about this dim-witted bore.