Short answer: yes, At World’s End is a more enjoyable film than its deeply flawed predecessor. That doesn’t mean, though, that this whole two-film endeavour wasn’t foolhardy from the get-go. Built on a faulty foundation, Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End together represent not only an artistic failure but potentially a turning point in the history of modern cinema (well…maybe).
Double or Nothing
At the very least, I’d like to hope that these two movies will be enough to warn Hollywood off of the ridiculous idea of filming two sequels at once. Every time it has been attempted – Back to the Future, The Matrix and now Pirates of the Caribbean – it has led to highly disappointing creative results that in turn hurt the box office results (the third BttF and Matrix films were the lowest earning in their series, and I expect that At World’s End will suffer a similar fate). This creative failure, really, shouldn’t be surprising. Not only is filming and managing two movies at once a huge logistical nightmare, but it binds the films to the same artistic fate; the flaws of the first half are doomed to be repeated by the second half, with little chance for adjustment.
One could argue that we’re supposed to treat Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End as one film, an argument flawed because we’re forced to experience them as two. Each film needs to be rewarding in its own right, not just as the set-up and the climax separated from one another. This seems to have been missed slightly by director Gore Verbinski and his team. For example, much of the back story and motivation for Davy Jones as a villain is revealed in At World’s End, rendering his character in Dead Man’s Chest completely underdeveloped. Likewise, the saga’s mid-point action sequences come in Dead Man’s Chest, leaving At World’s End slow and uneventful for much of its running time.
In spite of its dragginess, there are two reasons why I enjoyed part two of this misguided effort more than part one. The first that in spite of all the falls it makes along the way, it sticks the ending quite nicely, giving each of the series’ four leading characters a fitting send-off. The second is that Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow is infinitely better realized in this film.
I read one review of Dead Man’s Chest that hit the nail quite firmly on the head: in the first Pirates movie Depp was playing a brilliant pirate who pretended he was a fool, but in Dead Man’s Chest he became a fool who pretended he was a great pirate. Here, Depp is given the material to allow the character to find his bearings again. Sparrow is silly when he wants to be, but smart when he needs to be; in other words, exactly the way that he was meant to be. But even still, the writers do their best to try and make Sparrow nothing more than a crazy person, giving him several misguided scenes where he imagines multiple versions of himself to banter with.
This touches upon one of the two fundamental flaws of this whole sordid two-picture mess: the futile attempt to recapture lighting in a bottle. Everyone seems to forget that the success of The Curse of the Black Pearl was pretty much a complete surprise: its very concept was sprung from the bottom of the same empty well that produced The Haunted Mansion movie, its script was all over the place, and even the finished film was in desperate need of a good edit. But in spite of all this, it worked, and Johnny Depp deserves pretty much all the credit for this. Without his brilliant Jack Sparrow, we would not even be here talking about a second and third Pirates film. The Curse of the Black Pearl would have been a mediocre-at-best action adventure movie without his performance, and it’s the single reason that people a) went to see the film and, more importantly, b) told their friends about it afterwards.
Just like Depp’s performance, the film’s success was almost completely spontaneous, intertwined as they were. The Curse of the Black Pearl certainly left room for sequels (like The Matrix and Back to the Future before it) but like those films it was not created with future movies in mind. All of this begs the question: how do you repeat a spontaneous success? While Sparrow comes out of At World’s End much better than he appeared in Dead Man’s Chest, both films are trying to write and create a character and a movie whose successes were founded on spontaneity. Is it any wonder that the results feel almost entirely cold and calculated?
But calculated to do what exactly? Here’s where we hit fundamental flaw number two, and it’s a doozy.
The Death of Wow
From the earliest days of CGI experimentation in the 1980s, through to the high water marks of its formative years (Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Twister) through to the Matrix and Star Wars prequel trilogies and up until the Lord of the Rings movies, CGI has captivated us purely on the basis of “wow.” Like with colour photography, stop-motion animation and other advancements in film production before it, CGI became the starring attraction in many of the major Hollywood films that came in its wake. Its development over the past 20 years given directors and writers and producers a near-unlimited pallet to paint with, and we’ve been largely content to be wowed by the colours.
Dead Man’s Chest and At Worlds End were 100 per cent designed to be “wow” movies. Every shot, every design, every visual effect seems like the wet dream of a production crew obsessed with trying to wow the audience with the impressive concoctions that they can now create. Since the first Pirate film had the walking dead, this time we get a crew of grotesque sea creatures and their macabre ship. We get oversized sea goddesses and giant squids that devour ships. And in Davey Jones, we get easily the most photo-realistic CGI character of all time.
What we don’t get is a reason to give a damn. We don’t get rewarding character arcs, we don’t get well-developed villains, we don’t get engaging camera work and we don’t get plots that act as anything but an excuse for swashbuckling and high seas combat. Both Pirates sequels try to make “wow” the main attraction, the reason to hand over your ten bucks at the box office. But after 20 years of CGI, we’ve reached the point where anything is possible, and has been for a while now. And when anything is possible, can anything really “wow” us anymore? Can “wow” survive anymore as the starring attraction in a two-part, six-hour extravaganza?
I hope that someone in Hollywood takes the time to talk to audiences as they leave the theatre from seeing At World’s End, instead of just counting the money they handed over as they entered. If they do, they might come to realize that the answer to that question is a resounding no. After all, “wow” had nothing to do with why The Curse of the Black Pearl was so popular. Its success came from an accomplished actor breathing bold life into an engaging character, a success at the most basic of moviemaking art. A shame that nobody picked up on that fact when sequel opportunity came knocking.