Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006) / Adventure-Fantasy

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and frightening images
Running Time: 150 min.

Cast: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy, Jack Davenport, Stellan Skarsgard, Jonathan Pryce, Lee Arenberg, Mackenzie Crook, Kevin McNally, David Bailie, Tom Hollander, Naomie Harris, Martin Klebba, Alex Norton, Geoffrey Rush (cameo)
Director: Gore Verbinski
Screenplay: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Review published July 17, 2006

I should warn you that what follows is more of a musing than a review, offering the essence of my feelings about the film rather than the conventional plot summary and details of what I liked or what I didn't within the film itself.  Since most of the film is set up to explore tangential story elements, I think the plot summary is practically superfluous.  As far as what I liked and what I didn't, my hope is that you will still be able to glean the gist of it throughout my ruminative exploration without the need for me to point it out for you.

After watching the first entry in this trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, I came away from it feeling that it had enough worthy moments to recommend, but director Gore Verbinski's (The Weather Man, The Ring) propensity for excess, especially in the scenes of swashbuckling and pirate mayhem, weakened the excitement value for me.  Basically, it was a pretty good movie almost made bad by not knowing when enough was enough.

It's been a mystery ever since my first viewing as to why the film has generated the millions of fans that it has.  All across discussion boards and film sites, many ardent fans talk about what I considered merely an "OK" film as if it were one of the greatest adventures in the history of cinema.  I've read many comments and have grilled many people about this, and I've tried my best to filter down just what would lead millions of people to nearly rabid fanboy status over such marginal entertainment, and can't really come up with a reason as to its perceived greatness as a movie, outside of the memorable performance by Johnny Depp. 

That can't be the only reason, can it?  Of course not, I have to assume.  My best guess is that many people enjoy the feel of the film much more than the substance -- the sweeping romantic energy, the eccentric irreverence, and the punchy music and visual style.  Muddled story and bloated action sequences notwithstanding, they enjoy the look, feel, sound and overall atmosphere.  For whatever reason, many people like -- no, love -- 2 1/2 hours of escapism into the world of stylishly presented, cartoonish lunacy.  At least, that's the only rationale I can come up with for adulation for something so marginal in most respects.

After literally years of being somewhat mystified by the first Pirates film's beloved status in the hearts and minds of millions, I'm at an absolute loss in coming up with reasons that the second entry, Dead Man's Chest, has whipped up these same millions of people into even more of a froth-mouthed frenzy, the likes of which I haven't seen before for a film this mediocre, even rivaling the collective fervor for Narnia, Harry Potter, and the Matrix sequels.

They say that the second film in a trilogy always has the toughest time gaining respect, as it is merely a bridge between the events of the first film and the climax in the third film.  Dead Man's Chest is a classic case of this as, even after 2 1/2 hours of almost nonstop action, the story hasn't progressed much further than when it began.  If you've seen The Curse of the Black Pearl, I could tell you in two sentences everything you need to know about this middle entry to prepare you for the third film, and you'd never need to see a single frame. 

Here's a metaphor for you to illustrate my point as to this film's pointlessness.  In the climax to Dead Man's Chest, there is a prolonged battle taking place on and in a giant wheel rolling out of control.  I could only laugh at the irony of this scene, as it perfectly encapsulates exactly what is wrong with the film as a whole.  The characters run around in circles (quite literally in this scene), always moving forward but never getting anywhere, only finally stopping when all energy is exhausted,  They've taken about twenty minutes worth of story and injected over two hours of filler, and some fans (and even some critics) have the audacity to compare it to The Empire Strikes Back as a sequel?  Absolute, downright blasphemy!

I've come to the conclusion that we're in a new era of cinema, and of pretty much every popular narrative form in general.  This is the era of imagery and atmosphere, where all it takes to give pleasure to the masses is that which used to be just window dressing to stories of old.  Gone are the days of forward-moving plotting, character build-up, and narrative cohesion -- the building blocks of nearly all great works of fiction. 

Back when I was in high school, one of my classes had been American Literature, and during the course of reading his short story, 'The Cask of Amontillado", our instructor told us of how Edgar Allan Poe believed that every element of a story should push forward the plot in some way; even little details that might otherwise seem inconsequential actually fill in the thematic blanks to make the story a more enriching and engrossing experience for the reader.  From the day I heard this, I believed this to be a given in any fictional work of perceived quality of greatness.  I have only recently discovered, much to my chagrin, just how naive I have been for so many years. 

The creative minds behind Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest have given us the antithesis of the classic narrative approach, and they do so because they think that audiences of today no longer seem to care about stories anymore.  All it takes to be entertained these days are crazy action sequences, romantic flirtations, wacky one-note characters, and a kinetic visual style.  No need to expend time and care in honed characterizations, well-integrated plotting, and a compelling exploration of themes done with intelligence and emotion.  Those aren't the benchmarks anymore. 

Judging by the films that rake in the most money, an inordinate amount of people don't come to the movies to think or to feel these days.  They come to forget themselves, to be taken away to a time and place not of their own, content to be immersed in lands of pure fantasy, with no moments of reflection on their own lives or anything remotely resembling something in them.  In an effort to appease us, the brain trusts behind these mega-budget blockbusters have ripped into the chest of classic narrative form and pulled out its heart, throwing it in a jar full of dirt so they can ignore it for long spells to amuse us with clownish characterizations and trivial distractions.  By the time they look for the heart again, they open the jar to find it is no longer there.  They look back in the chest of this dead man called the classic narrative only to find it is filled with nothingness, and we all can do nothing but weep that the heart of storytelling beats for no one anymore.

It doesn't really matter, though.  The audiences of today seem quite gleeful to accept a jar full of dirt in its stead.

-- Preceded by Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Followed by Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo