Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a toddler’s birthday party of a movie: Everything is happening but nothing means anything. The movie has no more of a soul than do the dozens of undead pirates seeking revenge against Captain Jack Sparrow.
I’d hoped that, during the six-year break since the fourth, regrettable entry (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), the seafaring franchise would have taken a few deep breaths and reconsidered how to get back to the feel of the delightful first film, one of the finest and funniest adventure movies of the early 2000s. Instead, two new directors have come aboard — the Norwegians Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, who made the superb Thor Heyerdahl adventure Kon-Tiki in 2012 — and kept on in the same direction, i.e., the wrong one. Somewhere along the line, after the undead, rotting pirates, led by the new villain the Spanish Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), sent undead, rotting birds and undead, rotting sharks to attack their enemies, then used their entire ship as a sort of crocodile to leap out of the water and slam another ship to bits, I became suspicious that there were no rules or limits to anything the ghost sailors do except that everything must look cool.
So the whole movie went. Ever been to one of those all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants? It’s the same principle here. You don’t get to complain about the quality if what you’ve signed up for is quantity, a great heaping plate of snazzy digital effects. Pirates 5 joins many other recent films, such as last year’s Alice through the Looking Glass and X-Men: Apocalypse, in that it seems to have been engineered by the VFX team, with the sad scriveners desperately scrambling to string together some connective tissue between the immense but emotionally null action scenes.
Seeking to cut the average age of the cast, the series this time introduces twentysomething new hero Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), who is seeking to save his father Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) from purgatory on the ghost ship The Flying Dutchman by finding the supernaturally potent Trident of Poseidon, which will release all curses. He joins forces with a feisty young lady, Carina (Kaya Scodelario), whose mastery of astronomy, naturally, earns her denunciation as a witch. (A sign posted on a shop signals, to those within the movie, “No Dogs No Women,” but its real purpose is to signal to the audience, “Please note that we’re woke feminists here.”) Casting matters, and the makers of the film have badly bungled these two key additions. Scodelario, who plays virtually the entire film with an angry scowl creasing her forehead, is brittle and tiresome, while Thwaites is boy-band-bland. Neither of them induces the audience to much care what happens to them, much less get swept up in the dark dangers unfurling all around.
After Captain Jack (Johnny Depp) tries to rob a bank in a typically Looney Tunes scene by dragging the entire building through the streets of St. Martin behind a team of horses, he and the alleged witch Carina escape execution at the same time in an even more madcap sequence. The entire guillotine in which Sparrow’s neck is locked spins around madly on its platform like the hands of a clock, the blade falling near his neck on each revolution, then falling away again.
The scene is a rare moment of actual high spirits amid the VFX overload, and it’s preceded by the best bit in the entire movie, one that involves no effects but makeup. On his way to the scaffold, Jack pauses for a bit of heckling by a fellow condemned man, and for 30 seconds we are in an entirely different film, much more fun and endearing. Why, that’s Paul McCartney as Uncle Jack, a witty casting coup to follow Keith Richards’s cameo as Sparrow’s dad in a previous installment. Under heavy mascara and whiskers, Paul is done up like a pirate, jabbering hilarious insults and making a lark of it. May he return to co-star in Pirates of the Caribbean: Simply Having a Wonderful Charybdis Time.
In a lengthy flashback, we learn all about Captain Jack’s feud with Captain Salazar over a magical compass, and also the rather dull story of why he is named after a bird, but the scene mainly exists as an excuse to deploy the hottest new digital gimmick — age-erasing software that gives us a Depp in his early twenties just as we saw a young Tony Stark in Captain America: Civil War and a young Princess Leia in Rogue One. In similar fashion, the climax in which a gem causes an island to split open so that everyone plummets into a chasm between two walls of water is as visually dazzling as it is senseless. Only in the closing few minutes of the movie do the filmmakers remember to make a couple of gestures in the direction of emotional resonance, but the effort is transparently half-hearted. You might as well pretend to show your love on Mother’s Day by presenting Mama with a wilted jumble of carnations you picked up at the gas station on the way back from the bar.