Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
Dir. Gore Verbinski
Premiered May 19, 2007
“Can’t Jack Sparrow just go looking for some treasure?”
2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was not supposed to be a success. In the waning years of Michael Eisner’s influence at Disney, the company decided to experiment by making three films, each based on a classic attraction at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. The first, 2002’s The Country Bears, was ridiculed by critics, in large part for the very audacity of trying to adapt a film from a theme part attraction, and Disney was so certain that Pirates of the Caribbean would be similarly received that the initiative’s third film, Haunted Mansion, was effectively retooled as a preemptive apology.
However, Disney had delegated more responsibility than usual to the producers of these films, which proved advantageous when Pirates producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski released exactly what such a movie should have been: a cracking adventure with laughs, family-friendly scares, and a newly iconic character in Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). It was the fourth-biggest film of 2003 and critics adored it. So when it came to making a sequel, the formula should have been obvious: send Captain Jack bumbling through another spooky high adventure. And that’s technically what they did; unfortunately they were hobbled by a relatively new Hollywood convention.
By 1989, three of the 80s’ biggest film franchises, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Mad Max, had all concluded after the release of their respective third installments. That same year, Back to the Future demonstrated its intention to make no more than three films by producing and releasing both of its sequels back-to-back. Except for the odd Lethal Weapon or long-running legacy franchise like James Bond, the trilogy instantly became an industry standard. It’s possible that studios, still relatively new to the ubiquity of sequels, were intimidated by the possibility of working on so many properties indefinitely. Maybe they thought the finality of a third film would oblige people to see it. In the case of The Lord of the Rings, it was just common sense. And despite being adapted from a seven-book series, it was not at all certain that the third Harry Potter movie, Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, wouldn’t be the last.
However, 2007 would see the trilogy model finally wear out its welcome, thanks in large part to the bad examples set by both Spider-Man 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.
By consigning Pirates of the Caribbean to the trilogy model, Disney compelled what could and should have been an episodic series to retroactively conform to an overarching three-act structure; giving the entirety of the Pirates franchise a sense of coherence that was deeply unsuited to its premise. The first movie ends with Jack unwittingly helping local hero Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) fulfill his character arc and live happily ever after with his darling Elizabeth (Keira Knightley). Having defeated the bad guys and retaken his beloved ship the Black Pearl, Jack is free to find a new adventure.
But because this is now a trilogy, he can’t– instead, in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, poor Will has to come back and discover his father– what is it with sequels and fathers?– enslaved by the grim reaper of the sea, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). By the end of the film, Jones has summoned the mythical kraken to devour Jack, leading Will and Elizabeth on a quest to resurrect him with the help of Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), the similarly resuscitated baddie of the first movie (I can’t blame them for this; Geoffrey Rush as a pirate is too delightful to pass up).
By ending its second film on such a cliffhanger, Pirates demonstrates another pitfall of trilogies. Having adopted the model of Back to the Future by producing both sequels concurrently, we are left with one movie that stands alone and two movies that interlink with each other so thoroughly that they can’t be enjoyed separately. And because the third film absolutely must be the last, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End feels a need to be far more portentous than the first installment ever was, opening with a questionably relevant scene of a child being hanged, and continuing accordingly with a confusing, often surreal plot utterly convinced of its own significance.
Which makes it really hard to explain, but here goes nothing…
Apparently Jack wasn’t just any pirate, but the Caribbean’s Pirate Lord– a level of authority wildly out of keeping with his character, but whatever– and his death without having chosen a successor has thrown the pirate community all over the goddamn world into chaos just as Davey Jones has teamed up with the East India Company to produce the first complete world map and wipe out piracy for good.
In yet another reversal of established character, it is Elizabeth who assumes control of Jack’s ship, the Black Pearl. Through a complicated series of agreements with another Pirate Lord (Chow Yun-Fat), the Pearl’s crew rescue Jack from Davey Jones’ Locker, a non-metaphorical Dali-esque purgatory where Johnny Depp can do endless schtick. As it turns out, nobody really wants Jack around, but they are approaching an arbitrary ten-year interval wherein Will’s father (Stellan Skarsgård) can be freed from Jones’ service, and apparently only Jack can convince all the world’s pirates to join forces and make war against Jones and the Company.
Holy shit, it’s Return of the Jedi. I just realized that. It’s Return of the Jedi, but without any pacing, character consistency, or sense of direction. Also, the Greek nymph Calypso (Naomie Harris) factors in there somewhere.
If you’ve only seen the first two films and are completely lost, you’ve nothing to be ashamed of– the worldbuilding here is overextensive and incomprehensible. If you’re confused as to why the movie would ask us to cheer not for the characters we’ve been following but for the institution of piracy itself, you absolutely should be. And if you’ve only seen the first movie and think all of this sounds completely up-its-own-ass, you’re absolutely right: this isn’t fun, it’s a public exhibition of mental gymnastics, so concerned with wrapping everything up in a cohesive ‘mythos’ that it forgets to make sense or, God forbid, entertain.
How Did It Do?
Budgeted at $300 million, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End was the most expensive movie ever made at the time of its release. It still turned a profit, approaching $1 billion in worldwide revenue to become the biggest movie of the year. It also got nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Makeup and Best Visual Effects, but won neither.
It’s odd that, like Spider-Man 3, such a successful film would help bring an unexpectedly swift end to Hollywood’s trilogy fixation. However, unlike Spider-Man 3, critics were never blinded by At World’s End’s visual flair: it earned a 45% rating on RottenTomatoes, with critics decrying the film’s incoherence, heartlessness, misplaced darkness, Depp’s descent into self-parody, and most notably the clarity with which it exposed the failings of trilogies themselves, hence the quote at the start of this review.
In a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, the film ends with the possibility of yet another sequel, as Barbossa steals the Black Pearl and Jack goes on a quest to find the Fountain of Youth. And with the taboo against fourth movies shattered in the 2010s, the saga continued with On Stranger Tides. But that’s a story for another year.
Next Time: Sicko