It’s quarantine so we’re all burning through movies at a rate of knots but only one film franchise takes you to the sea (where the salt water is great for your skin and the sun is even better) aboard actual pirate ships.
Here, there be monsters and early-to-mid-2000s Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, and Keira Knightley. They’re all quite soft on sore eyes used to the same four Aztec-god-damned walls so that’s your first rewatch excuse.
The second excuse is because they’re all fun as shit and I’m not here to entertain wrong assertions in the other direction.
But everyone knows it’s impossible to watch a movie through an Internet connection without developing violent opinions. So here I am, outletting.
The Best One:
At World’s End
This might be controversial but watch it again, I dare you. Pirates has always been a bit absurd — an undead monkey, surviving the sackings of like four different ports or ships or treasure-caves with basic, broken French (“Parley”) and Norrington chasing them through the hurricane (?).
For a long time, Dead Man’s Chest was my true love for the way it marries its vivid imagination with the still-sort-of real world of 18th century piracy.
At World’s End throws this real world version of piracy overboard and lets it float away in a dinghy with the rest of the souls Davy Jones didn’t ferry.
A Singaporean pirate snapping his toe off in the cold. Jack hallucinating in the locker. Pirate King Swann. Everything in the ballistic, brave, wild, perfect third act.
Watch it again. Change your mind.
The Second Best One:
Dead Man’s Chest
Cutler Beckett, Davy Jones, the Kraken — a series of villains introduced onscreen in ascending order of how good, big, and bold they are.
It was the most difficult of the films to make and it shows. Set pieces loosely connected to the story shot because they had sets before a script. Bouncing from tropical island to tropical island so quickly that I, an enormous fan, actually forgot that the cannibals and the chest were in different places. (Does Tia Dalma live on the cannibal island?)
But it intros answers to beautiful threads from Black Pearl—Jack’s compass does work, just not like a regular compass; Bootstrap survived his mutinous fate; and the age of piracy does have to contend with growing influence from London.
And what Dead Man’s Chest has the burden of introducing and explaining and justifying, At World’s End has the enviable advantage of just having to pay off.
But remember — when the Kraken’s tentacles destroy that first ship by falling on them, Verbinski just dropped two giant concrete cylinders onto an actual ship.
The Safest Good One:
Curse of the Black Pearl
Ahhhhhh look, yes, this is third place.
I’ll confess the series started strong. Reviving the swashbuckling genre with a story based on a theme park ride is a tough brief. And when the curse is revealed through a slice of moonlight in the pits of a jail Jack Sparrow can’t quite escape (Captain Jack Sparrow, sorry) you realise you’re in for a hell of a movie.
And it’s really hard to shoot this one down. There’s not a lot wrong with it and, within the context of its development and its production, it’s much more real-world ambitious than the financially lucrative, if deeply expensive, sequels that would follow. But the story is less ambitious.
A skeleton crew’s one hell of a villain idea for a pirate movie but Davy Jones is better. Davy Jones as a cuttlefish with a tentacle beard is even better again.
Curse is fun and smart and well-timed and well-paced and it deserves to be some people’s favourite but, in the context of its more imaginative, more wild sequel and threequel — and the blockbuster culture that came afterwards—it feels a bit small. It only stops in Jamaica and Haiti, after all.
And the Caribbean and its mythology are much bigger than that.
The Least Sensible But Still Good Fun One:
Dead Men Tell No Tales
Most of the problems with this movie stem from it being the second one to play on dead men in the title. Unfortunately, the dead man’s chest is much more evocative image.
Look, I know a bunch of people who were extras in this one because it shot in Queensland so I’m gonna take it easy and hope they come back for the next one.
Poseidon’s Trident is a fun MacGuffin though and it at least kills Barbossa off properly — almost presciently, given that Rush is cancelled now.
Ultimately, the movie (also Salazar’s Revenge, depending on your territory). is best exemplified by the moment towards the beginning when an English naval ship opens fire in the Devil’s Triangle. Cannons, smoke, gunpowder — we see the hull of the ship—and then we cut away when we’d have impact?
And the logo’s gotten shiny and gold right at the start, probably with one gold pixel per million dollars these movies take to make now.
The One Where They Changed Core Creative Teams, And You Can Tell, Unfortunately:
On Stranger Tides
Really can’t help but feel like the Fountain of Youth was a bit wasted here, turning into a strange ghoulish whirlwind as the Spaniards destroy the ‘profane temple.’
The franchise improves the further away from regular skeletons it gets.
Blackbeard controlling his ship with his sword is fun and Barbossa getting is also a fun little coup, plus grounding the franchise in realtime with King George and Judi Dench (?) is a nice touch. It’s also got some great sight gags, like Barbossa drinking whisky and eating apple slices as a privateer, and his flask leg.
But for its moments it doesn’t quite come together as clean — or as entertainingly messily—as its cousins.
It’s worth noting this is the most expensive movie ever made.
Maybe On Stranger Tides suffers mostly from the jarring shift after At World’s End. Dead Men Tell No Tales feels much closer in tone and spirit to On Stranger Tides than to the other three so perhaps the sixth film, below, manages to create a new Bond-esque franchise.
The Untitled One That Comes Next:
Pirates 6 is apparently still in development. I’m still keen. I’ll still see it opening weekend (when theatres open back up, because they will and because popcorn’s best when no one can see you eat it like the hot mess you are).
Maybe I just love pirates (I do) and all their lore (I do).
I just hope this one doesn’t use the iconic theme as a crutch during action scenes that would benefit more from almost any other soundtrack.