In Reappraisals, Michigan Daily film writers attempt to defend films that have been critically maligned.
This week: Two “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, 2006’s “Dead Man’s Chest” (54 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and 2007’s “At World’s End” (45 percent on Rotten Tomatoes).
“Pirates of the Caribbean”: It’s a franchise that is uttered in the same breath as “Transformers,” symbols of the Hollywood machine intent on cranking out as many sequels per year as is physically possible. To read reviews of the recent “Pirates” film is to be assaulted with descriptive language so unabashedly negative that it seems impossible there was ever anything good to be found in this series. The accepted consensus in the media world is that the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series has been garbage since the first one. I think this is absolutely unfair. In a cinematic landscape filled with generic, uninspired and mindlessly unimaginative blockbusters, to see “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End” lumped in with all the rest strikes me as ludicrous.
Far from being repetitive and derivative schlock like the more recent “Pirates” films, the original should be considered the gold standard for modern trilogy storytelling. The first film tells a complete story that leaves the door open for more. Parts two and three continue and then conclude the arcs of all major and minor characters, eventually uniting all the heroes and villains from the original film against a much more dangerous and chilling foe. People forget that before Jack Sparrow became a bumbling idiot, he was the smartest man in the room. In all three of the original films, Jack Sparrow continually outsmarts and outthinks his enemies, and we watch him grow from a selfish rogue to a true hero over the course of the three films.
Many blockbusters nowadays are rightfully critiqued for having basic and predictable plots, yet “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End” are both criticized for having plots that actually require the audience to think. “World’s End” in particular is accused of being byzantine and confusing, but the truth is that it’s almost like a heist movie: The more you watch it the more you understand. There are a lot of different layers to that movie, and yes, almost every character has a hidden agenda. That doesn’t mean the movie is bad though, or that it should be blamed for its audience’s stupidity. I for one would prefer more movies that actually ask something of the audience rather than hand them everything on a silver platter.
The films also boast wildly creative action sequences. From the three way wheel sword fight in “Chest” to the final ship-on-ship maelstrom at the end of “World’s End” these are imaginative sequences that are still remembered today and have stood the test of time. These first two “Pirates” sequels also succeed at world building in a way almost all other franchises fail to do. Like “Star Wars,” “The Lord of the Rings” and maybe a few others, the original “Pirates” trilogy feels like a fully realized world, with each addition uncovering a new part of the universe that feels like it was always there and you just couldn’t see it.
Unlike so many more recent blockbusters, the original “Pirates” films are both serious and fun. It seems like every Marvel or DC movie has to make a choice between being serious and having fun. The original “Pirates” movies remind us that there doesn’t have to always be a choice. These films have serious themes and dark moments and are also an absolute blast to watch. Directed by the same director all the way through and with the same writers, cast and crew throughout, they feel like a complete whole in a way the later films and most other franchises don’t. There’s a reason why “Dead Man’s Chest" and “At World’s End” were at one time two of the highest grossing films ever made but the fourth and fifth films have faltered. “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End” are smart, sophisticated blockbusters with compelling characters and emotional storytelling. Forget about throwing them in with the meaningless later “Pirates” movies. We need more trilogies like this one.