Given all that surrounds the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, it is hard to believe these movies could be smart films, let alone films this smart. Not only that, the films are hard to believe, period. One’s natural impulse is to resist. And there’s a lot to resist. They’re bloody pirate movies, for one. For another, it’s a bloody fantastical pirate movie franchise inspired by a theme park ride and brought to light by Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer. In the third film, At World’s End, there is a lot of exposition in the scenes driven by dialogue-as-interrogation and it barrels at the viewer without pause, leading many to think the film is incomprehensible, and dismissible. At first, I resisted, too.
The primary problem that dooms the Pirates sequels in the eyes of most critics is one rooted in their release dates and their commercial genre designation, not their status as pirate genre movies, or their status simply as movies—that is, movies to be read. A similar fate befell both Dead Man’s Chest and Michael Mann’s Miami Vice last summer. What I found in revisiting the films was that they were not uniquely summer blockbusters, but that they were films, plain and simple. Outside the seasonal anticipation brought on by marketing bombardments, I loosened my resistance and let the films show me their logic, and I allowed myself to feel the thrill of their bombastic blockbuster thunder, as well as their hard-lined visual and generic play. This is not to say I whole-heartedly disliked either film initially, nor was I plain dumbfounded. I simply could not properly articulate my resistance. First, I ignored it. But then, curious as I am, I sought and found their logic. And, at last, I had fun.
At a very basic level, like Irvin Kirshner’s The Empire Strikes Back and James Cameron’s Aliens, Gore Verbinski’s two Pirates sequels disrupt everything (the worlds, the narratives, the structures) the first film (in each trilogy) rightly set up at the outset. The Caribbean world of Verbinski’s trilogy is, after the first film, one of constant shuffling, of tangential narrative ruptures: the world of the film, like the world we audience members live in, is chaotic. Of course, this Caribbean world is not the world we live in. In our world, there are no giant mythological squids or sea goddesses, but there are, however, pirates—and daily acts of piracy. And there are social dictums, social pacts, that we appropriate and reconstitute on an individual basis, to live with ourselves, to live with the world. The main thrust of this trilogy is that reckoning: How will we live in the world when our autonomous freedom is continually challenged?
At the end of the first film, the world was set right and the answer seemed clear: Jonathan Pryce’s Governor Weatherby Swann says, at the close, “Perhaps on the rare occasion pursuing the right course demands an act of piracy—piracy itself can be the right course?” The sequels only complicate this claim(-as-question). Piracy, in the whole of the trilogy, becomes synonymous with freedom. Except, it is a freedom bound to the sea. There remains a bondage. Piracy is by rights unlawful, yet it may in fact be a more righteous life in these films’ mythology. It is a life of freedom, of free will to voyage across a limitless plane, but it is a life kept in check by specific mythic codes that the plane of the sea and her goddess Calypso will allow. There are rules, or laws, but they are more like myths—“more like guidelines,” as we are told in the first film (but even this lax “guidelines” stance is called into check in the sequels when the manifest Codex tome is brought to bear late in At World’s End). The primary disruption of the remainder of the trilogy is the manifest exhibition and explanation of those codes and myths that govern a pirate’s life, that is, a life at sea.
The sea appears a utopia here, a setting that affords its passengers seemingly limitless boundaries: the horizon stretches ever onward. Yet, this utopia is one not even a pirate can claim dominion over. It is a plane to be sailed across, not penetrated or bent to one’s will. This is Davy Jones’ failure. Davy Jones (Bill Nighy’s eyes, somehow, register emotions poignant and furious under the weight of facial CGI prosthetics) attempted to reject his bondage, his duty, to the sea (to ferry the dead to the beyond) and was subsequently mutated into a tentacle-faced monster who claimed, falsely and delusionally, in Dead Man’s Chest, “I am the sea.” He not only claims dominion over the sea, he fully claims the sea as his, and as him. By carving out his heart and binding himself to his boat, he has bound himself to the sea, not claimed it.
In At World’s End, this bondage and this excavation’s origin is revealed. Jones was in love with the sea goddess Calypso and agreed to his ferrying duty to maintain his love of her, and his love of the sea, forever. This eternal love, however, cost him more than his heart could bear. When he arrived at their planned reunion after ten years of upholding his post, primed for his lover, she was not there, in human form, to share the day. So he rejected his heart and his post, and turned cruel. In rejecting his heart, he presumed he would assume control over that which his heart was tied to: the sea. Yet, after confronting Calypso in The Black Pearl’s brig (in the middle section of At World’s End), he admits, “My heart will always belong to you.” For, as she says, “Would you love me if I were anything but as I am?” Calypso is the sea as Davy Jones is tied to the sea. In the climactic battle he snarls, “My freedom was sealed long ago.” He rejected not just his heart, he rejected the pirate inside and the pirate life lived outside, in the world, on the sea: a life intended to be led and sailed through all time, forever, past the ocean’s end to the ethereal, utopian beyond.
At World’s End’s title lets us know that this oceanic utopia is finite, or, perhaps, that the precipice is a navigable space. The “end” of the title references not just the end of the world (the ocean, the utopia), but also the end of life and the end of the trilogy. And in the world of Pirates of the Caribbean, all three of these elements are ably transgressed, within the reason of the code. Davy Jones failed the code. At World’s End shows how one might perform this able transgression, and live on. Firstly, the premise of this third film’s first act is a means to up-end the death of Johnny Depp’s iconic Captain Jack Sparrow. Captain Barbossa (the ever growling and charming Geoffrey Rush), who appeared dead at the end of the first film only to be revived at the close of the second film, leads Will Turner (ever-fey Orlando Bloom) and Elisabeth Swann (ever-fierce Keira Knightley) into Davy Jones’ Locker—that is, a land of the dead—to rescue the lost Captain Jack and return him to the sea—that is, the land of the living.
Death is surmountable here, given the proper smarts and will and courage to play with and by the code. The final movement from the Locker back to the sea is a literal inversion of the world’s end, that plane of the sea. The Black Pearl appears lost, possibly adrift forever in the Locker, until Witty Jack solves their existential riddle in the land of the dead: “Up is down.” He must flip the boat, turn the plane of the Locker’s sky into the plane of the Caribbean’s sea: he must up-end the world. The sunset, from the proper perspective, that is from underneath, is a sunrise. After flipping the boat into the water, with the upside down and the downside up, the sea rushes past the deck, equalizing the space again—righting the world’s end, the sea’s plane, and exposing the Locker’s sunset as the Caribbean’s sunrise. Like Jack’s newfound lease on life, the day is beginning anew, on the sea.
By the close of At Worlds End, each of these primary heroic characters has once more begun anew and claimed his or her freedom of choice as a pirate, as one bound to the code of the sea. For our no-way lovers Will and Elisabeth this is the rudest denial: they live on, as does their love, yet their union is denied save for a single-day re-union anniversary every ten years. We are led to believe they will succeed where Davy Jones and his mistress Calypso failed because Will honors his promises and his debts alike—and he accepts his bondage to this code, to his place as a pirate, and as a captain of a pirate vessel bound, first and foremost, to the sea and to the beyond. He will not neglect his duty. In honoring this duty, he will honor his love of, for, and with Elisabeth. His freedom—like his love, his piracy and his utopia—is complicated, and bounded, despite its apparent endless horizons. For Captain Jack, this is a similar conundrum: he is free to sail the seas at his leisure again, yet his boat, The Black Pearl, is gone, stolen once more by Captain Barbossa, as it was in the beginning of the series. And so, Jack, too, ends this trilogy as he began it: in a dinghy. Yet he is ruled by none other than himself and the sea.
I know what you’re thinking. Really, I do. It’s a summer movie. A summer movie should be fun and easy to grasp. And here I have to agree. But it’s more complicated than that. For one, we are dealing with sequels. In that I have claimed the second and third Pirates films as good sequels, I should also like to claim that any good sequel disrupts and up-ends its predecessor, as well as its preceding film’s logic. It is for this reason the Pirates sequels are so routinely railed against: they sure-handedly undo the first film’s utopian logic. They complicate that film’s utopia just as the trilogy, on the whole, complicates the utopia of the sea, and one’s freedom upon it, and within the world.
The first film, The Curse of The Black Pearl, had a complicated story in its own right, but its structure was sound and its ending was a tidy, fun resolution. The sequels are anything but tidy, as many critics have pointed out. What these critics miss is how the sequels re-appropriate the first film’s signature tropes to re-cast and re-write the trilogy’s narrative, and the pirate genre in general. From the start of the second film, the resolution of the first is put in check: the marriage that seemed so imminent at the close of The Curse of the Black Pearl is literally arrested and barred from happening in Dead Man’s Chest’s opening sequence. At the start of At World’s End, Dead Man’s Chest’s thrilling dénouement revelation of the revived Barbossa is flipped into a hanging sequence: pirates are being sent to death, not brought back from the dead. Then, to actually pick up the thread of rescuing Captain Jack from Davy Jones’ Locker, the crew has to surrender themselves and their lives to the great plunge into death, over the world’s end.
During the climax of At World’s End, the sea opens into a seemingly bottomless (endless) vortex created by Calypso. The Flying Dutchman and The Black Pearl proceed to enter the swirl, to battle to the death. Aboard The Dutchman, a timid East India Trading Company stooge alerts Davy Jones to this danger. Jones, all raged excitement, grabs the wheel from the stooge and spews, “What? Afraid to get wet?” To really watch these films for what they are, one has to risk getting wet. That is, diving in and playing with the images—submitting to the fun. And this should be fun. It’s a bloody pirate movie.
House Next Door contributor Ryland Walker Knight is the infrequent publisher of the blog Vinyl Is Heavy.