I’ve never been able to take pirates seriously. I blame Peter Pan. Neverland-centric adventures were the only context in which I encountered pirates during my land-locked childhood. Seeing them perpetually made fools of by a pack of flying children (who may or may not have been vampires, led by one of the darkest Dark Princes since Dracula…and his house-fairy) did not endear pirates to me, and tales of so-called “adventure” on the Early Modern Era’s high seas always struck me as horror stories by another name.
If you’ve read them, you know what I’m talking about: there are parts of Moby Dick fit to make even the hardest hardcore Saw fan curl up into a ball of tears and barf (which is why Moby Dick‘s screen adaptions usually omit those parts). Really-real life accounts of long sea voyages during that First Great Age of Colonialism are all about misery, deprivation and discomfort. I swear, before the invention of mass media, people could not shut the fuck up about their toothaches. Or “the scurvy.” And if it wasn’t “the scurvy” it was “the pox.” If it wasn’t “the pox” it was “consumption.” And if it wasn’t “consumption…”
You get the idea. Hopefully, by now, you’ll also have some idea as to why most Pirate Movies are fanciful romps, set in highly-romanticized alternate universes where grown ass men can spend their whole lives at sea but still come ashore with perfect teeth. Men like Douglas Fairbanks, or Erol Flynn. Or Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Or Burt Lancaster. By the time my mother was in grade school, pirate movies had at least grown the balls to cast unattractive dudes as sea dogs – like Robert Newton. Or Yul Brenner. But that didn’t last. The year I was born was also the year Pirates of Penzance came out, thrilling absolutely no one and proving not a goddamn thing had changed since the Silent Era.
Except for everything, of course. Before 2003, people based pirate movies on historical legends about actual pirates, or the shelves full of books that grew up around and/or embellished and/or ripped-off such legends. But in 2003, we got the first pirate movie based on a Disney theme park ride, staring the man who’d go on to win People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive award, wherein the villains (and the Odious Comic Relief lower class folk) were allowed to have bad teeth. And the world was forever changed for the worse.
Not that anyone knew it at the time. Empire Magazine’s critic, Alan Morrison (a fusion of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison created by the Brundle family’s telepod technology) called it “without a doubt, the best blockbuster of the summer,” a claim I doubted on principal at the time. And so, this will be the first time I’ve watched any Pirates of the Caribbean movie in its entirety. Come with me now, on a journey, as we try to answer one simple question: Was Summer 2003 really that bad? Or was Alan Morrison on crack?
No, I thought, before I looked some things up to refresh my memory. Can’t be. I’m just the only one who recognizes Ang Lee’s Hulk for the kick-ass movie it was, is, and ever-shall remain. My opinion of X2 cools each time I watch it, but it wasn’t awful. Not like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Or Bad Boys 2. Or Tomb Raider 2. Or Charlies Angels 2. Or 2 Fast 2 Furious. Or what the cynical (re: correct) among us derisively called The Matrix 2, because even they expected it to be a whole movie, instead of the half-a-movie, padded out way past the point of butt-numbingly absurdity, that we all paid for, twice, god-fuckin’-son-of-a…
Okay, I take it back. Turns out 2003 sucked so hard, I repressed my own memories it. No wonder I like Hulk so much. Sorry I doubted you, Alan. No wonder a tide of praise buoyed Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl to heights no one at Disney imagined it could reach, eventually raising the “pirate movie” itself, as a sub-genre concept, up from the watery grave Cutthroat Island made back in the 90s. Unlike all those other…things…I mentioned in the last paragraph, this movie’s greatest strength is that it’s just boring. It did not, at any time, make me contemplate throwing the Doomsday Switch, but it does speak to another sad truth I occasionally repress: the people I share this planet with prefer dull, predictable shit. “As opposed to…what? The stinky kind you like, right?” Hell yes. Exactly. If you’re going to be shit, you could at least do me the courtesy of stinking a place up, encouraging some manner of reaction.
Instead, after a brief prologue where we see exactly how the other one hundred and thirty minutes are going to go, we meet Elizabeth Swann (Keira “Jules” Knightley), daughter of the Royal Governor of Jamaica (Jonathan “Elliot Carver” Pryce), and her future Love Interest, Will Turner (Orland “Legolas” Bloom). We’re in Port Royal, Jamaica, so it’s sometime between the passage of anti-piracy laws in 1687, and the 1692 earthquake that pretty much sank Port Royal into the sea. Unless this film doesn’t give a fuck about history, which, considering it’s a film about pirate ghosts (or should that be “ghost pirates?”) is entirely possible. A little later on, the non-ghost pirate, Mr. Gibbs (Kevin “God help me, this is my most famous role” McNally) will offer a toast that could be the ethos of this movie, or movies produced by Jerry Bruckheimer in general: “Take what you want; give nothing back!”
This movie certainly gave me nothing. From their first scene, it’s painfully obvious where Elizabeth and Will will fetch up. She’s a high-class girl, beating off good suitors with a stick. (Oo-oo…very poor choice of words…) He’s a blacksmith’s apprentice she pulled from the sea as a child. Propriety would never allow them to get together… unless wacky circumstances arise…
Enter Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny “Inspector Abberline” Depp), cruising past the skeletons on Gallows Bluff. He’ll be the Random Element who whisks our Boring, Normal, Point-of-View characters off into uncharted territory, Where There Be Monsters. He’s positioned as both the best and worst pirate ev-ahr, you guys, depending on what the narrative demands at any moment. (Beat of inept comedy here; bit of action/adventure daring-do over there…) And I’m sorry, but I can’t see the appeal of any of it. He only “steals the show” (Morrison’s phrase) because the show is so light-weight it can be carried off by one man. Casually. Under his arm. Even when that man’s sleepwalking.
Don’t hand me that “but he’s funny!” excuse. I know my Depp. I’ve been watching (original recipe) Nightmare on Elm Street on a semi-annual basis since age nine, and my mom’s a Depp fangirl from back in the day. I can tell when he showed up ready to work and I can tell when he switched on the autopilot and did not give a flying fuck about anything around him. Gilbert Grape. Ed Wood. Don Juan DeMarco. William Blake. Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. These roles required Depp unleash his full, undiluted power. Captain Jack Sparrow is not one of those roles. It’d be like using the Death Star to kill termites.
So he kept the otherworldly forces of his talent on the choke chain, and we are all poorer for it. Jesus Christ on a rubber crutch. Depp spends the entire 1990s breaking his fucking back, trying to escape the “teen idol” stigma and prove he’s got serious acting chops…but this – this collage of tics and of lazy mugging – this is what finally nets him an Oscar nomination? Fuck me – how do you even carry on after something like that? Definitive proof that your decade of hard work went completely unappreciated. Dude deserved to win just for showing such internal fortitude and not opening his own wrists the moment he heard that news…
Since Port Royal was a town literally built on piracy, this movie’s a-historic view of the practice (and how the British Navy dealt with it) is initially distracting for those who know their history. You don’t become the commercial and economic heart of your region through virtuous behavior, even now. Back in the seventeenth century, you do it by raiding other country’s ships on their way home, since it’s not “piracy” if you do it to other people. Then it’s called “privateering.” Hell, if you’re the commander of a Port Royal fort and you catch some joker coming off the docks with an East India Company “pirate” brand, why hang him? Waste of a valuable resource out here, on the frontier, where Empires are maintained on shoestring budgets, with bailing twine and spit. So you give that motherfucker a ship and a letter, saying he can raid all the ships he finds as long as they’re Spanish, Dutch or French, and he gives you a cut of the booty.
The crown will get its cut regardless – and it’ll be pretty big because, once word starts to get around, your new pirate friend is going to spend the rest of his life in English ports. If he’s smart. Get a few hundred, or a few thousand, of these sea dogs in the same place and you’re all set. Sit back, watch the local economy boom, and take all the credit when some high mucky-muck sails your way from London.
That’s how Port Royal became Port Royal and your town did not. It was so rich, you had to use money to buy stuff. Like, really-real, coin money. Minted and everything. None of that “barter” shit for Port Royal, baby. They were an outpost of civilization. So, with typical, civilized hypocrisy, they started hanging pirates in the 1680s…
Oh, I’m sorry. Were we talking about a shitty Disney movie everyone was way too soft on when it first came out? The ambient levels of Suck between March and August, 2003, are no excuse. It’s my fault, too. I should’ve warned you all at the time. But, seriously – “predictable” doesn’t even begin to cover it. I saw Adult Elizabeth lift the glowing, skull-headed pendant which will be our Act One MacGuffin out of a drawer and thought, “Oh – okay. There’s a cursed ship of undead pirates coming to get that little trinket back, because it’ll do…something. Lift their curse, probably. And everybody else is going to get swept up in The Adventure for their own, tedious reasons.” And so it goes…on…and on…
Guess the problem is, Johnny Depp isn’t my type. Too male. But Keira Knightley isn’t, either – no matter how many times the film shows her in nightclothes. Too bland. Besides, it’s the 1690s – dudes showed their legs off back then, not dames. So I’ve got nothing to look at. Most of the move is Depp, acting like a sun-stroke victim. Who is also gifted with a low grade version of the Scarlet Witch’s probability manipulation powers, allowing him to survive increasingly elaborate, set-piece action scenes. Like his escape from the Redcoats, early on. Or his sword fight in Will’s shop. Or his escape from the ghost pirates (pirate ghosts?) later on. Or…everything, really. I’ll give action in this movie – all of it – one thing: it’s all well-photographed. Clear…but far from concise. As time goes on and I grow wearier, I remember I’m watching un film de Gore Verbinski, the man who directed Mousehunt. As far as Gore’s concerned, no action scene is complete until it’s a Rube Goldberg device that exploits every possible piece of the set for at least one physical or comedic beat.
In this, it’s a step up from the screenwriter’s previous period piece, The Mark of Zorro…but I’d argue that’s a bad thing, since those action set-piece moments already verged on the completely absurd, because: Zorro. At the same time, the action in this film is a never reaches over-the-top, tone-breaking levels of excess, so I can’t even begin to laugh at it. I can only suffer through it until the plot starts back up. It’s like someone took plugged all the worst parts of Stephen Sommers Mummy movies into a Tesla coil.
Be that as it may, Jack Sparrow is the former Captain of the titular Black Pearl, his ship taken in a mutiny led by his former friend, now-Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey “The best thing about this movie” Rush). Barbossa led the Black Pearl‘s crew to a chest of Aztec gold, and so they are now cursed by “heathen gods” to walk the earth in perpetual undeath. They can’t die, but they can’t eat, drink or feel anything either. So imagine a whole crew of starving, dehydrated Highlanders who’ve all suffered through the Rangeveritz Technique that gave Darkman his rage-induced super-strength. This is the best idea in the film – the kind of genuinely fucked-up idea someone should sneak into every “kids” movie. The CGI used to pull it off already showed its age when it was new, but I can see why everyone loved those parts: they’re the closest this film gets to its source material. And at least I have a reason to sit up and pay attention when I’m checking the color-timing of a zombie rib-cage. Until I think of Tombs of the Blind Dead and how I really should be watching that instead of this…no, wait. Actually, I should be watching the third Undead Templar movie, Ghost Galleon.
Ah-well. When Elizabeth falls into the sea with that Act One MacGuffin around her neck, signaling the Pearl, we also get a full-scale pirate attack on Port Royal. I suppose that’s something. Elizabeth gets herself kidnapped trying to spare the town a complete rape-n-pillage via the Parley Clause of the mentioned-only-to-be-ignored Pirate’s Code (don’t ask – since the film doesn’t care, neither should you). This forces Cap’n Jack and Will the Blacksmith to team up and rescue the Governor’s Daughter before the Barbossa and his crew use Elizabeth’s blood to appease those “heathen gods” they mentioned…and ya know what? When I put it like that, it almost sounds interesting. No wonder this movie has such a good reputation.
Of course, it isn’t really Elizabeth’s blood they need – it’s Will’s, because his father was pirate back in the day. Cap’n Jack knew him. Good guy, apparently. A little later, we find out the crew of the Black Pearl tied him to a cannon somewhere out in the Atlantic and told him he could walk home. He kept bellyaching about Barbossa’s mutiny, so…Whether this was before or after they were cursed is left vague, since we only hear about it second hand from the Black Pearl‘s Odious Comic Relief, and they’re not detail-oriented. Personally, I’m wondering if “Bootstrap” Bill Turner spent the intervening ten years hanging out at the bottom of the ocean, getting nibbled on by fish, Jason Voorhees-style. And if so, did he drown once the curse was lifted? Or did the pressure crush him before that happened?
Why do I have the mental energy to wonder about these things? Because I’m bored. A piece of my soul floated off their for a moment and started its own lines of inquiry. Because I knew how the rest of this was going to play out in less than five minutes, you guys. I’m not even kidding. Not in the superhero/action movie sense of “I know this guy’s gonna win, cuz his name’s on the franchise, I just want to see how it’ll all play out” – but in the soul-squeezing, unbearable “oh god, I already know how all this is going to play out and still have to suffer through all of it” sense I usually get from bad Slasher flicks. The last question I have – I swear – is, “What the fuck happened to Ted Elliot and Terry Russio?” Yeah, they did Alladin, but after I got over that, Small Soldiers and Mark of Zorro tricked me into thinking these two had something going for them. I guess the cloud of smog and cell-phone radiation one of them once cited as the reason for every bad decision in Hollywood finally ate holes in their brains:
“Odorless. Colorless. It covers all of Burbank, Studio City, and North Hollywood. A thick layer stretches from Hollywood to Century City. A strong concentration has been reported over Culver City, new pockets are gathering at the West Side, Santa Monica and Playa Vista. A little dust-devil tornado of the stuff follows Jon Peters around, like Pig Pen with his personal puff of dirt.
“What the Cloud does is lower I.Q. levels of people working in the film business by about 30 percent. Throws off their decision-making ability and fashion sense. Over time, it can turn entire companies into staffs of blithering idiots. And the higher up in the building, the worse the effect, which helps explain the high turnover rate for studio execs.”
It obviously didn’t stop with them. It kept eating – so maybe the cloud is mobile. Maybe it circles the Earth, touching down at random to lower the IQ of whole nations. Would explain how all these genuinely Fascist thugs keep rising to leadership positions the world over. And how this dumb movie made five times its budget at the box office. The scenery’s pretty, the direction’s not as annoying as some people’s, and the actors…well, they’re not to my taste, but I’m obviously in the minority on that. A decent performance by the main villain, and my horror at what a lazy, half-assed performance Johnny Depp managed to get away with, kept me awake until the “good part” arrived in the last half-hour. But now that we’ve survived, I’m wondering what the hell we’re gonna spend the next three Pirates movies talking about…?
Okay, for real, that was the last question. One we’ll answer soon enough.