I will say from the start that if you enjoyed the first movie in this franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, then I highly recommend this movie. Though this review will be as spoiler-free as possible, it will contain mentions of characters and events from early in the movie. I highly recommend viewing it with no knowledge and no expectations. I invite you to come back to this post afterwards and perhaps post a comment and we can discuss the film. But if you would prefer to read my opinions first, I will offer it without giving too much away.
This fifth installment in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise seemed entirely unnecessary. After one successful film turned into an over complicated trilogy, the fourth installment was already beating a dead horse. I was as exasperated as anyone that this fifth film was made. Yet having watched it, I am grateful that it was made, and that I watched it.
Dead Men Tell No Tales follows in the footsteps of the Star Wars franchise, reviving elements of the first film with a next generation cast to try to recapture the magic that kicked the franchise into motion. Yet in contrast to The Force Awakens, which essentially retells A New Hope only with a new set of characters, here the element recycled is the dynamic between the main characters. The storyline in Dead Men Tell No Tales is all new.
Okay, perhaps “all new” is debatable. Elements such as most characters’ refusal to believe in the supernatural are as alive here as in the first film, despite the subsequent films’ increasing lack of regard for hiding the supernatural from the masses. Then again, every character from previous films who knew about such things from previous films is either dead or part of a crew that does believe, so it does seem plausible that society at large remains in the dark.
The prologue of this film would have us believe that our main character is Henry Turner, the son of Elizabeth Swann and William Turner from the first five films. The start of the film devotes a great deal of screen time and drama to the setup of Henry and his motivations. Yet just as the original film started as though it would be about Elizabeth and ended up being Will’s story, this is more the story of one Corina Smith.
Corina is introduced with the line, “I confess that I am not a witch, but a woman of science,” and from that line, I was hooked. Scene after scene, Corina did not disappoint, always taking up the screen with her dedication to her cause, her wit and her cleverness. Though the film did essentially recreate the dynamic between Jack, Will and Elizabeth here with Jack, Henry and Corina, it did not try to make Henry and Corina as helpless at sea as Will and Elizabeth were without Jack. Furthermore, because Henry and Corina get to know each other over the course of the film rather than coming as a prepackaged pair as Will and Elizabeth did, their dynamic is far more interesting to watch.
I approximate that some 20 years must have passed since the first film, and while Jack’s visage and aims are unchanged, my hat goes off to the writer, director and Johnny Depp, who convey Jack’s aging through his actions far more subtly. His age is seen in the way he flirts with Corina, which has more of a snarky edge to it as if to deliberately offend her, knowing she will not take him seriously. His moments of softness where he could give Will genuine advice on wooing are gone now, replaced by cynical advice that shows us Jack’s careless ways, but is of no use to Henry. His alcoholism has reached deeply concerning levels, no longer merely called upon for the sake of humor.
Yet the humor, so delightful in the first film and so diminished bit by bit in every film since, is back. From the moment that Jack first appears, he brings us laughter through witty banter and crazy antics. Corina too can hold her own, bantering first with Jack as both of them are in a public square to be put to death, and then with Henry as she berates him for the way he is holding her to save her, only to immediately back track and demand that he not let go when it seems like he might.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that this film has heart, as well. Both Barbossa and Jack are given backgrounds and depths that previous films never supplied, drawing them into the viewers’ hearts more than ever before. Though the plot is solid and engaging, the characters and their relationships are what make this movie such a delight to watch. I got a movie that I wasn’t aware that I desperately wanted: a pirate movie with a main female character who is not a damsel in distress, and a continuation to Will and Elizabeth’s story.
The villain, Captain Salazar, is another undead character after Jack. There is some ambiguity over the curse that binds him and his crew, but their backgrounds and motivations are clear. Furthermore, the makers of this film went out of their way to ensure that these characters are distinct from previous undead beings in the series. Their appearances are striking, including one figure missing a face above the mouth and another missing a face below the ridge of a nose, the upper part of a face just hovering in the air above a body. It appears as though they are supposed to be rotting, but it looks more like something took a bite out of them and sucked out their insides, leaving partial hollow pieces of skin. My mind got distracted searching for the logic of this in vain once or twice, but for the most part, the plot was engaging enough to keep such nitpick from my mind.
If I had one complaint, it was the after-credits sequence, which was unmistakably yet another film in the franchise. I am trepidatious of this development. If the series ended here, I would have no complaints. It would have come full circle, and I would happily rewatch all five knowing that this was the conclusion. As for another…well, I didn’t expect to so enjoy this one either, so we shall have to see.
In the meantime, I very much enjoyed this movie. I recommend it.