Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest Remains High Point of Series 15 Years Later

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was one of those amazing lightning-in-a-bottle, must-see motion picture experiences that took the world by storm ala Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy*. No matter how old you were in 2003, chances are at some point you found yourself seated in a dark cinema cheering on Johnny Depp’s now-legendary Jack Sparrow as he battled ghost pirates, searched for treasure, engaged in exciting ship battles, stormed exotic locales, and drank himself stupid in Disney-Jerry Bruckheimer’s surprisingly entertaining (though bloated) adaptation of the popular Disneyland attraction.

Naturally, the Mouse House saw fit to cash in on this lucrative tentpole and greenlit back-to-back sequels, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, which would see the return of the main cast, including Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, and Geoffrey Rush, among others, as well as director Gore Verbinski.

As it turns out, audiences were more than thrilled to visit them salty waters for more pirate-y fun. Dead Man’s Chest released on July 7, 2006, to a then astonishing $136M opening weekend and became the fastest film to cross the billion-dollar mark when it did so in just 63 days. All told, the sequel amassed a staggering $423M in North America and $642M abroad for a $1.06 billion-dollar total.

Yeah, it was huge.

Critics mostly hated it (just 53% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and the audience reaction was mixed at best (72% audience rating on RT based on 250,000 reviews), which obviously impacted the not-quite-as-successful follow up At World’s End ($960M worldwide total), released one year later. And while I get the disdain for the sluggish but still entertaining final chapter, which was burdened with wrapping up any number of key franchise storylines, I have never for the life of me understood the hate for Dead Man’s Chest, which remains one of the more ambitious blockbuster sequels of the modern age.

Here’s why I dig it.

The Visuals

For starters, Dead Man’s Chest is glorious to behold. Everything from the exotic locales — the crew shot on location in Palos Verdes, St. Vincent, Dominica, the Bahamas, and the Grand Bahama Island, leading to some truly gorgeous visuals — to the Oscar-winning special FX (that somehow still look better than most modern blockbusters) are a feast for the eyes. Check out some of the shots in the clip below, which highlights the gorgeous scenery utilized for the cannibal island sequence.

I’ve always loved this location as well and vow to visit it one day.

In terms of FX, there are so many awesome moments it’s hard to choose one that truly stands out. Still, I’ll go with the incredible Davy Jones character, played with delectable evil by the great Bill Nighy and rendered almost entirely via ILM. Outside of Gollum, James Cameron’s Na’vi, or Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, has there ever been as convincing a CGI character put to the silver screen?

The Kraken

As much as I enjoyed Curse of the Black Pearl, it never satisfied my craving for big, dumb, summer blockbuster action. The story felt small and seemed to meander back and forth between a few separate locations.

Dead Man’s Chest opens its world by introducing exotic locations, interesting new characters, and a number of ideas based on pirates lore, namely its not-so-secret weapon: the monstrous Kraken. To this day — and this might have more to do with the aforementioned FX work — I still can’t get over the remarkable sequence in which the giant squid takes down a ship while Orlando Bloom’s stunt double leaps from the sails like a Douglas Fairbanks. Where does one even begin working on a sequence like this?

The Kraken also shows up during the wild climax before unceremoniously getting the ax in-between films – one of At World’s End’s more head-scratching blunders.

Hans Zimmer

Film score fans will take note of composer Hans Zimmer’s organ-centric theme for the Kraken, just one of many exciting pieces of music sprinkled throughout Dead Man’s Chest. Sure, At World’s End is probably the better soundtrack overall if only because of that sweeping love theme, but Dead Man’s Chest is the one I return to most for its swashbuckling action cues and rock-heavy ballads. Classical purists may balk at the extended use of electronics and bombastic rhythms, but make no mistake, this is Zimmer in top blockbuster Zimmer form.

As an aside, I had the amazing opportunity to see Hans Zimmer perform in Las Vegas a few years back (part of his world tour you can watch on the Hans Zimmer: Live in Prague DVD). Pirates was on the docket and practically stole the show … I mean, along with Man of Steel, The Dark Knight, Inception, man, this guy has done some incredible stuff!

Jack Sparrow

As much as I enjoy Depp’s performance in Curse of the Black Pearl, I actually think he’s better in Dead Man’s Chest, even if he mostly does the same shtick. After a great intro during which he blasts a crow off of his coffin (!), Depp goes for broke and doesn’t hold back. He’s charismatic, cunning, and delightfully batty — Captain Jack Sparrow truly remains one of blockbuster cinema’s most unforgettable characters.

The Final Battle

Dead Man’s Chest admittedly drags in parts. The story is complete nonsense and there are far too many characters doing far too many things; and yet, one could argue that’s part of the film’s rugged charm. Even so, by the time Jack, Will, Elizabeth, Davy Jones, Norrington, and the rest of the lot converge on Isla Cruces for an extended climax, during which Verbinski unleashes a hail of special FX, battles, and fight sequences, you’re having so much fun you’ll completely forget all those questions you had about the convoluted plot.

Look, I’m not championing Dead Man’s Chest as some classic piece of cinema. At 150 minutes, the film is far too long, especially when paired with Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio’s perplexing (but somehow serviceable) screenplay. Characters spend an absurd amount of time delivering clunky exposition that mostly serves to set up the “final” chapter, and, yeah, Elizabeth’s decision to selfishly sacrifice Jack to save herself still rings hollow.

Yet, for me, Dead Man’s Chest stands out amidst the onslaught of Disney’s Pirates movies due to its sheer ambition, wild action, stunning FX, and thrilling adventure. Sure, it makes for a bumpy ride, but out of the three original Pirates films, Dead Man’s Chest feels the most committed to its insane premise.

Fifteen years, two additional sequels, and one Amber Heard lawsuit later, I haven’t changed my mind.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, I salute you.

*No, the Pirates franchise doesn’t hold a candle to any of these films but cannot be denied its enormous mark on pop culture.