“The immaterial has become material”, says the East India Company’s conspiring Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander) early in Pirates of the Caribbean At World’s End.
He could be hinting at the recent resurrection of the pirate Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), flush with life and his extended role in the trilogy. Or he could be referring to his newfound mastery over the Flying Dutchman and its squid-faced captain, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), whose excavated heart is now in Beckett’s hands.Though more likely, the words are a subliminal assuredness from the director Gore Verbinski. After the bloated shenanigans of the previous movie from Pirates of the Caribbean series, “Dead Man’s Chest” – probably the only pirate film to see the need for a Ferris wheel – Mr. Verbinski is reminding us why we should ever count on him again.
This third and probably final chapter in the swishy, swashbuckling franchise goes some way toward achieving that goal. The cannibals, coconuts and landlocked locations have been replaced by the high-seas high jinks that brought the joy to the first movie. And the substantial relief as the countless plotlines rush toward some semblance of resolution has made everyone quite light-headed; even our passion-postponed lovers, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann (the famous Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley), seem marginally less bored with each other, or at least less bored than we are with them.
Shot sequentially with its prior, Pirates of the Caribbean At World’s End is less concerned with ends than inversions, introducing a society where the outlaw practice democracy and their rulers engage in tyranny. The crown has proclaimed a state of emergency, civil rights have been suspended, and those who refuse are lined up to be hanged.
In one of the movie’s weirdest scenes, the condemned start to sing, belting out a dirge among the rolling tumbrels and swaying nooses. (Tardy audience may think they’ve come across a performance of “Les Misérables” somehow.) The song reaches Elizabeth, in a small boat heading for the Pirate Brethren Court in Shipwreck Cove, and for a while the film becomes a soggy opera with a distinctly Oriental flavor.
By the time Chow Yun-Fat shows up, as the grumpy pirate lord Sao Feng – complete with an surrounding of old-Hollywood badass – the Gilbert and Sullivan vibe is starting to wear. After designating Elizabeth pirate king (the Brethren know who wears the trousers in this trilogy), the pirates begin to attack the British before Davy Jones and his seafood-combo followers can fight back.
This will need the help of the priestess Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris), whose role has claimed but whose diction remains abstruse. “Therr is a cahst to be ped en thah end”, she warns mysteriously, crushing her vowels like a voodoo version of Inspector Clouseau.
Having blown Tia up to Godzilla size, however, the screenwriters, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, have no further intention for her; in her new incarnation as the sorceress Calypso she’s no different than crabs and raging wind. Considering she is afforded conjugal visit only once every 10 years – and that from a man who breathes through a blowhole – her irritability is surely relatable.
But what about Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow? Following his unlucky encounter with a humungous cephalopod at the end of the last film, this one shows him trapped and hallucinating in Davy Jones’s Locker, an parched limbo of rolling dunes and raging heat. Because he is Jack, his illusions are all about himself (the real love affair in these films has always been between Jack and himself), and Mr. Verbinski fills the screen with an army of mincing clones in kohl eyeliner and fancy head scarves.
Forever above the brawl and beside the point, Mr. Depp’s devious pirate is the ultimate factor that holds the series together; as he slides from battle to bar, incomprehensible to insult and musket alike, Jack’s very narcissism is his safe protection. He’s a counter superhero.
Although Pirates of the Caribbean At World’s End movie is filled with the expected special-effects magic, its most glamorous and surreal moments are also the most peaceful: an army of crabs transporting the Black Pearl over sand and back into the ocean, and a glorious sunrise viewed through shredded seaweed sails. A disappointing cameo by Keith Richards, still alive and showing off the look of hard-won dissipation that allegedly inspired Jack’s personal style, is in its own special-effects genre. Perhaps he should have rented a copy of “Performance” and studies from Mick Jagger.
Because of the wealth of unpleasant human characters, all of whom lie, cheat and turn on one another at the drop of a flounder, the burden of forming an emotional connection with the viewers must ironically be borne by characters whose humanity has long gone. From the compassion of Davy – still playing the organ like an invertebrate Phantom of the Opera – to the tragic desire in the barnacle-coated face of Bootstrap Bill Turner (Stellan Skarsgard), Pirates of the Caribbean At World’s End reminds us that amazing acting can overcome even the most sophisticated makeup.
Even so, if the story is to continue, its creators will definitely need more than Jack’s limp wrists and Will’s limp resolve. In the prediction of Barbossa, “There’s never a guarantee of comin’ back, but passin’ on – that’s certain.”