The franchise has never recovered from the departure of director Gore Verbinski.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) surprised a lot of people. Few were predicting that a high seas adventure, based on a theme park ride, with zombie pirates and a quirky sidekick named Jack Sparrow would actually work. But a 79 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, more than $650 million at the worldwide box office, and an Oscar nomination for Johnny Depp proved otherwise.
Since then, however, the magical formula that made that first film sail so successfully seems to have eluded the franchise. Though the pics continue rake in millions of dollars, critic and audience members alike seem to leave each subsequent film less and less satisfied.
Even so, I would argue that two of those sequels clearly rise above the others — Dead Man’s Chest (2006) and At World’s End (2007), the second and third installments in this now five-part series. And that marked superiority really has to do with one, key ingredient: Gore Verbinski. The director behind the first three Pirate films not only succeeded in ways that those responsible for On Stranger Tides (2011) and the new Dead Men Tell No Tales could not, he also outdid many modern blockbuster helmers in a variety of areas.
To be clear, both sequels are narratively a mess. After the success of the original, the studio rushed to have their scripts written and it shows; they’re bloated and convoluted. At the same time, those same descriptors could be ascribed to half the blockbusters released in the last 10 years — The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Ghostbusters II, Independence Day: Resurgence and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
What then elevates Verbinski’s Pirates films are their immaculate realities, memorable action sequences and dynamic emotional journeys.
“Immaculate Reality” was a cinematic term primarily used by Akira Kurosawa and later George Lucas to describe the worlds that they fabricated within their films. No matter how far removed in time or location, they ensured that their audience would accept those places as real through the depth, breath, detail and cohesion of their production design, costumes, locations, sound effects and music.
You watch any of Verbinski’s films — from Pirates of the Caribbean to The Ring to A Cure for Wellness — and you see “immaculate realities” comparable to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Lucas’ Star Wars. Each of the Pirates locations overflow with production design detail and cinematic atmosphere that suck the viewer into them and communicate their grit and filth as well as their beauty and romance. Tia Dalma’s (Naomie Harris) up-river residence is drowned in deep greens and blues and sprinkled with golden fire flies. Davy Jones’ (Bill Nighy) captain’s quarters are dominated by an iconically massive frothing pipe organ. And Isla Cruces’ beaches and jungles boast the whitest sand, the clearest water and the lushest foliage. Every corner of these films feel real, lived in and one of a kind.
As forgettable as the plot is between them, the bone cage chase, Jack’s pole-vaulting shenanigans, the waterwheel sword fight and the maelstrom ship-to-ship battle still stick out in people’s minds 11 years later.
As both On Stranger Tides and Dead Men Tell No Tales’ action sequences prove, it’s not easy juggling a dozen different moving pieces — combats, ships, weapons, props, motivations, geography, etc. — in a coherent way, much less one that’s unique and fresh.
Finally, Verbinski knows what this franchise is based upon — a theme park ride — and consequently ensures that the emotional journeys of each of his Pirates films are as varied and dynamic as a rollercoaster. The slow upward climb of an exposition scene is followed by the exciting downward plunge of rousing action sequence. And the lightness and fun of certain characters is balanced with the intensity and drama of others. The director is crafting fun, popcorn flicks, yes, but also films about pirates — greedy and murderous criminals. And the comic shenanigans of characters like Pintel (Lee Arenberg) and Ragetti (Mackenzie Crook) allow for much more terrifying characters like Davy Jones, who mercilessly orders the slitting of an unarmed man’s throat in his introductory scene. More than that, though, by keeping Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner and Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swan as his noble and identifiable leads in his films, Verbinski allows Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow to maintain some of his appropriately more villainous attributes. It’s astonishing watching the latter Pirates films and finding such a great character reduced to a grating clown who has lost all semblance of depth or reality.
In the end, all of the Pirates sequels fall short of greatness, each of their plots more tangled than the Kraken’s tentacles. Even so, Verbinski entries do escape the doldrums of mediocrity and blandness because of that filmmaker’s cinematic eye, wonderfully bizarre style and “rollercoaster-ride storytelling.”