Given its origins as a theme park ride, it’s apt that Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy has experienced a trajectory not unlike that of a rollercoaster: an initial high, followed by repeated plummets to nauseating lows. At World’s End completes the story begun by last year’s Dead Man’s Chest, and features all the cacophonous action and paper-thin drama that helped sabotage its deflating predecessor. Aesthetically speaking, there’s virtually nothing differentiating these films, as both boast Gore Verbinski’s spatially incoherent battle scenes, Dolby-customized sonic bombast, and lavish special effects so lacking in fine detail that they’re deliberately shrouded in murky darkness. Yo Ho Ugh, it’s merely more of the same, and I do mean more; at a whopping 168 minutes, so much happens in At World’s End that it’s nigh impossible to keep up with all the various machinations and conflicting motivations crammed into Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio’s script. Such overkill, however, is simply a tool of distraction aimed at diverting attention away from the fact that the film’s existence is driven not by overarching narrative demands (there’s barely enough substantive material to warrant even a 90-minute runtime), but by an insatiable corporate bottom line.
Previously on Pirates: Smash, bang, boom, and other loud, meaningless hijinks led fey rascal Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to be imprisoned in Davy Jones’s locker, and insipid lovebirds Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) to team up with newly resurrected Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) to help rescue Jack so he, in turn, could aid their quest to defeat squid-faced Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and his new master, East India Trading Company bigwig Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander). That mouthful of a synopsis pales in comparison to the one necessitated by At World’s End, whose myriad convoluted storylines involve most principal characters making promises to their mates, then engineering duplicitous back-room arrangements with their enemies (to further their own selfish ends), and then coming around and doing the right thing in the end because, well, it makes for a happier, safer, less morally complicated ending. Countless cross-purposes are simultaneously at work and yet, throughout, amount to naught, with the resultant plot muddle—made up of thinly sketched characters who are chiefly defined by their relationship to each other, and whose issues are dealt with in bite-size portions to make room for distended combat sequences—stinking like a pile of discarded corpses.
The film’s primary thread concerns the historic convening of the Brethren Court (made up of the nine pirate lords, two of whom are Sparrow and Barbossa), providing At World’s End with an opportunity to indulge in outlandish stereotypes (among them: the screaming Japanese pirate queen, the stuffy French pirate fop, and Chow Yun-Fat sporting a Fu Manchu as Singapore’s stilted English-spouting Captain Sao Feng). Crass, to be sure, but no less laughably objectionable than the script’s underlying clash between British capitalism (“It’s just good business,” is Cutler’s be-all excuse for treachery) and pirate “honor,” a concept Verbinski and company don’t even bother trying to explain. In essence, we’re meant to root for Jack and his plundering cohorts purely because they’re the funny and/or hot ones. It’s a strategy that might have been more tenable were it not for Bloom’s enervating blandness, Knightley’s counterfeit badass posturing and Braveheart-ish “Freedom!” speech (as well as her comical ability to keep her tanned face smudge-free), and the unavoidable sense that what was once unique and inspired about Depp’s Sparrow has, at this point, become calculated and dull, his prancing and lisping and flailing about emitting the odor of a stale routine.
Absent rhythm or even basic narrative uniformity, the film careens clumsily, occasionally hitting upon a quirky moment—such as Jack’s hallucinatory escapades in Davy Jones’s locker and in the Flying Dutchman’s brig—but mainly propping up its watery scenarios with recycled imagery (including three shots of boats bursting out of the ocean), pedestrian swordfights, and a dreary cameo from Keith Richards as the elder Sparrow. From beating aortas and heart-shaped lockets to enchanted compasses and cipher-laden maps, talismanic crap abounds, yet because the film’s mythology carries no weight, these trinkets’ supposed momentous value is nil; they’re just so much costume jewelry. Meanwhile, limp romantic dilemmas are reconciled during a climactic showdown in which two battleships chase each other around a whirlpool in some bizarre (and immensely tedious) version of Pirate NASCAR. Explaining to Davy Jones that his supernatural era is coming to a close, destined to be replaced by regimented European modernity, Cutler opines, “The immaterial has become the immaterial.” By the faux-bittersweet conclusion of At World’s End—a spectacle composed of intangible CG, superficial performances, and twists and turns that are vapidly resolved—it’s clear that the statement also pertains to this empty vessel of a Hollywood blockbuster franchise.