Thursday, May 31, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Just a few weeks ago, I complained that much of the critical body was off-base in deriding Spiderman 3 for its overstuffed plot and epic ambition. I argued that this content-based approach to reviewing movies is a fundamentally weak mode of criticism even by journalistic standards. I think it's fitting for plot-demanding audiences and opinion-driven commentaries that are so marketable today, but as criticism it flounders under its own bloated self-importance. Now comes threequel number three from the endless Hollywood summer arsenal, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. (The second, Shrek the Third, isn't so much a movie but the cinematic equal of the fast food with which the film cross-promotes.)

Given the market-value of this film and its status as both "blockbuster" and "sequel," I suppose it would be easy to lambast its running time, convoluted plot, etc., which is precisely what many critics have done. They may as well have re-printed all of their reviews for Spiderman 3 and switched the names of the films, because the reviews are practically the same. The movies, however, are nothing alike. Yes, both are incredibly long (which is a critique only a consumer-friendly critic would bother mentioning), and both feature extensive plot trails that are borderline impossible to follow. However, while Spiderman 3 was content to lean on the viewer's recognition of the previous films' freshness and popularity, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is only interested in moving ahead, digging deeper into its own mythology, and moving farther away from the easily defined limits of the Hollywood blockbuster. Sure, it speechifies, a la Braveheart and Lord of the Rings, it features cartoonish caricatures, e.g. the monkey, parrot, and two duos of quirky side characters, and it resorts to lots and lots of noise during its climactic duel; but it does all of this with a spirited sense of whimsy, off-setting the increasingly serious tone of the movies and the genuinely strange nature of its oceanic universe. These touches of movie convention, which take inspiration from Star Wars, Kurosawa, old-fashioned epics, and silent comedies of the silent era, lend the films a stable sense of familiarity as they plunge deeper (unexpectedly) into the stories of side characters, working against the more simply stated rules and atmospheres of the original film.

Before looking at the details of At World's End, it is first appropriate to lay the groundwork by looking at the underrated Dead Man's Chest, a film that assaulted the viewer with complex images that rather boldly proclaimed the filmmakers' lack of interest in recreating the naive innocence of The Curse of the Black Pearl, a film that was more of a direct homage to matinee serials, pirate adventures, and Errol Flynn swashblucklers. Dead Man's Chest instead builds elongated and somewhat disturbing sequences featuring an implaccable sea monster, The Kraken, feasting on helpless victims before enveloping the frail and creaking wood of various pirate vessels, including the Black Pearl, swallowing them whole underneath the sea. Dead Man's Chest is more about the dangers of the sea and the uncertainty of what lies beyond that horizon so romanticized in the first film.

Audiences detested Dead Man's Chest and critics ripped it, but its treasures were reaped by those unwilling to pen the movie as a hapless summer blockbuster who are more receptive to the nuances of all movies. Those who categorize movies in a simple manner disallow themselves from actually witnessing their images, seeing them, and processing them with a cynical bias they often impose upon the more expensive ones due to their "consumer" nature. To be fair, the film walked the line of comfortable familiarity a bit too much to really embrace the dark nature of its core; a case in point being how the dark scenes aboard the Flying Dutchman are countered by the more light-hearted nature of the land-based fight sequences late in the film which seemed to echo the first film's innocence. The film was nonetheless interesting cinema, if only for its strange deviations and basking in digital darkness.

On to At World's End...

In his excellent review of the film, Ryland Walker Knight explains:

"At a very basic level, like Irvin Kirshner's The Empire Strikes Back and James Cameron's Aliens, Gore Verbinski's two Pirates sequels disrupt everything (the worlds, the narratives, the structures) the first film (in each trilogy) rightly set up at the outset. The Caribbean world of Verbinski's trilogy is, after the first film, one of constant shuffling, of tangential narrative ruptures: the world of the film, like the world we audience members live in, is chaotic. Of course, this Caribbean world is not the world we live in. In our world, there are no giant mythological squids or sea goddesses, but there are, however, pirates — and daily acts of piracy. And there are social dictums, social pacts, that we appropriate and reconstitute on an individual basis, to live with ourselves, to live with the world. The main thrust of this trilogy is that reckoning: How will we live in the world when our autonomous freedom is continually challenged?"

Interestingly, where the pirates represented the villains in the first film's rose-colored vision of the world, the two sequels envision pirates as a dying breed of individuals willing to fight for freedom. Moreover, where much of the original film is spent on some kind of land with the sea essentially serving as the passage through which our land-based heroes must travel in order to reach destinations, At World's End is set primarily at sea. It is a game of cat-and-mouse, with constant betrayals and backstabbings before arriving at the waters of Shipwreck Cove, where the final stand is made. The three films seem to represent a progression from land to sea from first film to third, with the sea representing the horizon in The Curse of the Black Pearl, a more dangerous and lively world in the second film, with ships inhabiting the waters as well as its surfaces.

In At World's End, the sea is where most of the action occurs and the land is the distant place. The scenes of discomfort take place on land and aboard the stagnant quarters of the East India Trading Company vessels, each ship looking exactly the same, a direct reversal of the disorganized nature of the Black Pearl and Flying Dutchman. But the land-based drones of the East India Trading Company must take to the sea in the third film and can only rule with an iron fist with the heart of Davy Jones in their clutches. While Lord Beckett appears to be more self-assured in the film, attempting to embody the pirate image he so rigorously desires to destroy, he meets his end stradled by the Pearl and the Dutchman, which both unleash canon fire upon his ship. The perfectly constructed and stained wood shatters around him, blown to bits by the creaking lumber of the pirate vessels which now reclaim the seas.

Apart from the mythical archetypes throughout the film's storyline and freedom versus fascism plot, the film is focused on pure moments which seem to exist between the endless interludes of meetings and conversations. One example of this is the re-introduction of Davy Jones, a creature so hell-bent on destruction in the previous film, first seen wiping a tear away from his face with a tentacle in At World's End, fondly reminiscing on his memory of love as his ship wreaks havoc in the open waters. Jones takes no joy in the spectacle of destruction here and is more focused on regaining his own dignity as the would-be villain were it not for Beckett, who controls Jones and his ship. This allows us to see Jones more as the shadow of a pirate who at one time may have understood the joys of piracy, i.e. freedom but has since been taking that from others since his own was stripped of him. His tentacles slither and shake when he is emotional, the skin around his eyes, nose, and mouth tremble, and we see him for the defeated soul he is in these films. His only moment of regaining himself is his ruthless killing of Beckett's number one henchman before directing the Dutchman into the maelstrom to duel the Black Pearl. His tragic story demands that he die in the end, but he does so having embraced the pirate freedom that he had taken away from others for years. He collected their debts to the sea, but his own demanded that he plunge to the depths.

Other standout sequences come in the form of passing moments, in which not only the world of the film is established and built-upon, but that imbue the characters with feeling. It is true that they mostly remain type characters rather than full developed and dimensional individuals, but Verbinski's visuals and brief asides from the complications of the plot actually enable the characters to take some kind of form. Jack Sparrow interacting with his hallucinations of himself in Davy Jones' locker are among the film's finest moments, as well as the bitter rivalry between him and Barbossa, which remains playful throughout the film. In these seemingly arbitrary asides, the film takes life in the sumptious visuals. Another moment of visual beauty is an image of the Pearl cutting through the waters dark, speckled waters (looking very much like space) at the edge of Davy Jones' locker. Another such moment involves the pearl, quietly sailing through the icy wilderness before approaching the end of the world.

All quibbles over logic and plot details aside, At World's End is a movie about moments. It may be an empty embodiment of mythical archetypes on a superficial level of narrative details and plot developments, but it revels in its crazed nature and gets a wit of enjoyment out of portraying them. Through all the action and cartoonish moments of caricaturizing the side characters, the movie actually takes itself serious based on its focus on the strong performances on the part of the cast, of whom Bill Nighy's Davy Jones is the easy standout. Nighy is commanding in portraying Jones' fury and enslaved emotion, and the digital artists that brought him to life may well be the first to imbue a digital character with a performance of subtlty and sublimity, one not achieved (in an artificial "non-human" sense) since Frank Oz's puppetry of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back.

It is certainly true that these "Pirates" sequels, both Dead Man's Chest and At World's End, are not cinematic masterpieces as defined by classical or contemporary standards, but that's nothing to aspire to. To achieve such a status, a film must meet a checklist of requisites. However, like all of art, cinema is not defined by its meeting of a certain standard of excellence. In the case movies, Narrative (as a broad idea) sets the rules for the familiarity, convention, and identification, and good movies work within them and beyond them to provide images of depth and feeling.

Unfortunately, emotional reactions to sights and sounds on a screen have been devalued in contemporary mainstream critical discourse and pop entertainment just the same, which is why the ambitions of these films are not rewarded, but instead blasted for their bloated nature of "being too long." This fuels a mentality that suppresses one's ability to experience moments and feelings as brought on by images and sounds. But that mentality is one all too common amongst critics and moviegoers, and the fact that these movies are routinely slammed is evidence of an overall inability to experience a moving narrative image.

Dead Man's Chest and At World's End are richer films than many critics are claiming. They celebrate the familiarity of movie conventions and mythical storytelling. While they do not master either end of that spectrum, they explore both sides through the complexity of their compositions and willingness to take enjoyment in their own strangeness and invention, risking a convoluted plot in the name of pure cinematic moments.


Fritz said...

Your review has some decent points... but how is this anything but a mediocre anti-Western? Think of The Wild Bunch. You have a dying breed of outlaw-Western-types and the only way the expanding power of the railroad line can track them down is to hire Deke Thornton, a former one of their own who turned is more or less in the same position as Davy Jones except his acting job is more human and less the automaton that Davy is in most cases.

It's an entertaining film... and it's narrative--while more complex than Batman--is still rather simple. The only complexity is added by a lack of clarity in transition. But that's not the problem of the movie. Nor do I think it's mediocre because it's too long (I like long films). Things like Captin Swan's speech... of no originality and poorly done... make it a mediocre movie. They didn't only revel in their own mythology which would have been fine but played to popular cinematic stereotypes which are not very good. I would not say that (good) critics use a checklist but they are looking for something beyond a typical action film splattered with entertaining and expected devices. It's surely entertaining and has its value in the same way that Starship Troopers does with its charm and eccentricities. But, I find it unwise to confuse 'good' film with entertaining and charming film.

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks for the comment, Fritz. I certainly see your point and I definitely understand that I don't adiopt a very popular critical perspective. That being said, I am one who feels that critics do not focus on the image, but are rather instead focused on plot and narrative.

I'm not disputing the stereotypes and the mediocrity, and I am not calling it a great movie by any means, but I think it is good precisely for its ability to be charming and entertain. I actually dislike refering to movies as good or bad, as I have postd about before, because I think that sustains a notion that film should fit very simple structural terms of "good" and "bad." Me, I'm more interested in a nuances and details of the images, how they work together to sustain a narrative, to work against narrative, to comment upon narrative, and what the experience is like of actually watching the movie. I do not believe that if a movie is about certain subjects (such as pirates or killer aliens), or does not adhere to a familiar pattern of movie quality, or is not original in a cross genre sense, that it is bad. Any movie about any subject can be good, in my perspective.

Regarding At World's End, I wish the focus was more on the humanness of the characters rather than stiff stereotypes, but I think there is much more to these films and their compositions than critics are willing to notice. While they're complaining about film length and plot complications, the compositions of the film and the energy of its movements show it to be more than an empty representation of cinematic stereotypes. While the film no doubt sits comfortably in genre familiarity and offers its share of thoroughly mediocre moments (such as the speech, as you mention, I think it is good because it provides a mix of the familiar and the new, and "the new" has little to do with cinematic stereotypes or idealized notions of originality, but rather how the images work upon me.

Anonymous said...

pirates 3 was missing one thing..

Frankie said...

I've been reading some of your reviews here and there. Though I do not have enough time currently to read them all the way through, I do see in my skimming an excellent structure and good comments. I look forward to reading your reviews in the future. Thank you.

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks, savav! I am hoping to post several reviews this summer, including perspectives on older films. Right now, I'm currently kicking around the idea of doing an 80's gem series.

Anonymous said...

I've waded through so many reviews, only to find yours- which at last expresses the things I adore about Dead Man's Chest and At World's End.

I felt that DMC was a masterpiece. The symbolism that revolved around Elizabeth's journey (the central journey of the film, I felt) was spare and struck just the right notes- the sinking dress, the rain-filled teacups. The trappings of a now-discarded life. And the storytelling- the movie was as loose and free as a real ocean voyage, stopping only to pick up narrative passengers and discard them at will. I think that thing that I liked best was the lack of responsibility in the story- the villains did not need to be neatly defeated by the end, there was not a kiss to seal the romantic entanglements nicely; only, again, that endless horizon you spoke of.

And AWE left me breathless- particularly those shots of the ship adrift in an ocean of starlight. The sea was truly a character in the film, full of moods and whims and having its own secrets to contribute.

I agree that King Swann's speech was hollywood twaddle, so to speak; but I disagree on why- it stood out from the film as one of the only 'hollywood' bits. Her character was endlessly complex in the second film, and she continued to be both mysterious and completely readable- a true bloodthirsty pirate king only restrained by her absolute love and decency. Odd and wonderful. I was disappointed in the fairly quick and neat Disney ending (a child ?)

Anyway, thanks for this. I adored the movie and it's nice to see it admired.

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks for the comment, orange. I loved your comments about Dead Man's Chest. It remember seeing it last summer for the first time and being so enamored by it. Then, over time, and perhaps shamefully bowing to the overwhelming negative response to it on a more subconscious level, my high thoughts of it had become rather ordinary. That is until I saw it again and realized that it is a good film. Since then, I have been careful not to fall victim to the overall critical or audience consensus or even media depictions of a film.

As for your comments on At World's End, your short description of the mystery of the sea says it all. That shot of the Pearl coasting across the surface in Davy Jones' locker struck me as totally beautiful in its resemblance to the starlit realm of space. As I said in my review, I think the movie is really about what happens between those plot-driven moments of conversation and conflict.

Thanks again for commenting.

kirstyx said...

I just wanted to thank you for the most insighful article I have read regarding these amazing movies.
I have read few that remain unbias and non-judgemental and purely concentrate on the mastery that must be credited to Ted and Terry, Gore and Jerry and all the actors involved.
Thank you.

And I must say, that I throughly enjoyed reading orange's post.
His/her description of the Locker and the explaination of the symbolism of Elizabeth's journey (Which, I too, believe is a central theme) was just a pleasure to read.
Thank you once again.