Cannes Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is not essential viewing. The plot has a few twists and turns, but the scripts have always been rather imaginative, it’s the films that got too big for their own good. In that sense, this fourth installment is more in line with the first film in the franchise in that it isn’t as over-the-top when it comes to CG effects and open sea whirlpools. However, it’s right in line with the previous two sequels in that it is more about a treasure hunt amidst massive sets and the introduction of characters you aren’t given a chance to care one lick about considering you never get to know anything about them outside of the path that led them to becoming part of this particular story.

All of this is to say On Stranger Tides is a tolerable, ho-hum adventure film with very little character chemistry, but enough going on that you’re never so bored you want to walk out. Though, speaking of walking, this film has a lot of it. And while we walk, we talk. We talk about where we are going and why we are going there. When we stop, we try and decide which way we are going to walk and then we walk some more. Throw in a few sword fights, a cove of vampire mermaids, a couple of Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) witticisms and you have your movie. Really, all I am saying is On Stranger Tides is the movie you are probably expecting.

As the end of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End alluded to, this time we’re on the hunt for the Fountain of Youth and there’s a race to be the first to get there. The Spanish have been tipped off to its whereabouts, the British have heard the same rumors and have, for some reason, sought Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) to get it for them and the infamous Blackbeard (the perfectly cast Ian McShane) and his hard-to-figure daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz) are also joining the hunt and have captured Jack Sparrow to help them.

Of course, there are backstabs, double crosses and ulterior motives for just about everyone involved. Even those whom you think you know why they’re searching for the Fountain prove to have a surprise in store. Unfortunately, these surprises aren’t “exciting” as much as they are plot twists meant to hide the fact there isn’t much to this film outside of the treasure hunt at its core.

Returning screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio do their best to make up for the absence of a love story (nope, no Keira Knightley or Orlando Bloom) by adding a throwaway back-story to Jack and Angelica and then wedge in a romantic aside between a Bible thumper named Philip (Sam Claflin) and a lovely mermaid named Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). None of this moved me in any way. None of these characters are fleshed out to the point you even care. Philip is a non-entity in the grand scheme of things and the mermaid is just there because she’s needed for the ritual that must be performed at the Fountain. To make her a love interest is just an added plot point that’s not needed.

As for Angelica, I mean absolutely no offense to Penelope Cruz, but nearly every time she’s cast in an English speaking role everything that’s great about her work in all of Pedro Almodovar’s films and Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona goes away. She turns into just another pretty face. Cruz is a massive talent in her native language, but when it comes to English she’s wooden and still searching for inflection.

Then there’s Depp as Jack Sparrow, a role I feel he can roll out of bed, apply massive amounts of black mascara and perform without a second thought at this point. I say this because that’s pretty much how it seems here, but none of this is Depp’s fault. The screenplay does him no favors advancing the mystique of Jack Sparrow. When he’s not reciting standard lines to forward the narrative, he’s uttering tired one-liners that only serve to remind you how interesting and fun he was when you first met him in 2003.

This all sounds quite negative when in fact On Stranger Tides isn’t entirely lost at sea. It’s a franchise that seems to have simply found a steady course and even a change in director can’t faze the franchise as Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine) brings nothing in the way of a personal stamp that would make you think this wasn’t just a dialed-back and bored Gore Verbinski effort. Outside of what sounded like a few key changes from Hans Zimmer’s score, this film fits right in with the rest of them. If this were a primetime TV show this would simply be episode four, though the first film remains the only one worth playing during Sweeps Week.

Yet, since this is a feature film and not a TV show we rightly hold it to a higher standard, which is where it begins to grow tiresome with feelings of “been there, done that.” Sparrow hadn’t even sought the Fountain of Youth in previous installments, but somehow it seems as if he had already found it and we are now watching a repeat.

When it comes down to it all, you’re either going to see this film or you’re not. At this point I don’t think there is any convincing you one way or another. Whether you’re a Pirates fan or not, this film will not change your mind. But if you’re looking for an installment to dial things back a bit from the overweight monster the franchise had become, this is it. Perhaps had the two previous sequels not been made this one would play a little better, but it is now quite clear the screenwriters have run out of ideas to make Sparrow any more interesting and his adventures are now just as ho-hum.