Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean — Salazar’s Revenge is a Case Study in the Limits of World-Building

When Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl hit screens in 2003 it was a thing of pure joy, the kind of experience that reminds us why we fall in love with cinema in the first place. Why was it so enjoyable? First of all, it shouldn’t have worked. So half the fun was just the fact that these crazy motherfuckers made a film based on an amusement park ride and it was, contrary to the dictates of logic and common sense, actually good. Most would probably attribute this to Johnny Depp debuting the swaggering weirdo persona of Jack Sparrow, which immediately took its place in the pantheon of pop culture icons. Instant classic.

But the rest of the movie was also solid. The action set pieces were fun and inventive. The banter was funny-dumb. The plot was a reasonable excuse to keep the likeable characters moving briskly through the magical world they inhabited. And that might have been — aside from Depp — the film’s greatest strength. It built this really compelling alternate version of the past with pirates and ghosts and ships and curses and cannons that just steamed with an alluring old-world mystique. It was an imagined, magical world that we wanted to spend time in with Jack Sparrow and Barbossa and Will Turner.

World-building is hard to do, especially with a big-budget swash-buckling adventure. It needs to feel epic, but also lived in and real. This usually leads filmmakers into the trap of confusing “interesting” with “spectacle” as they splash as much CGI noise onto the screen as possible. But the first Pirates movie didn’t really fall into that trap. A major component of the world-building they did was more subtle and much more effective: building the myth of Jack Sparrow himself.

He shows up riding on a ship that is sinking and finally steps off the mast, just as it goes underwater, and onto the dock. This is not only a great visual gag, but it gives the audience important hints about Jack Sparrow: he’s an impossibly cool rockstar pirate nutcase with a mysterious past who can perfectly time the sinking of a ship. The legendary reputation of Captain Jack Sparrow then gets teased for the remainder of the movie as we hear from the characters around him about all the impossible feats he has pulled off. This is essential to the world-building that the film does so successfully, because the mythology that unfolds during the rest of the movie pretty much hinges on the audience buying the larger-than-life persona of Captain Jack Sparrow. Otherwise he would just come off as a swaggering idiot.

Once you have pulled this off successfully, though, it is damn difficult to sustain through numerous sequels. Why? Well, because now we know the character of Jack Sparrow. He’s no longer a legend being described to us by characters who inhabit a cool fictional universe. Instead, he is a pop culture icon in our own world. The illusion, to some extent, has been punctured. Skilled and thoughtful writers could still get plenty of mileage out of him by revealing new (believable) dimensions of the character or the world. Star Wars is a good example of this done well. The Empire Strikes Back expanded the depth of its world by introducing us to Yoda and Hoth and Cloud City, and took its central character in an interesting direction by revealing that Darth Vader was Luke’s father.

But the Pirates franchise has not shown any interest in that. They have a template that works and they don’t want to fuck with it (and, to be fair, if the goal of this thing is simply for it to be a money-printing machine for Disney, than it is an unqualified success). So every movie since the first one has been set in an old colonial fort or town, has action set pieces staged on ships and tropical islands, features un-dead antagonists, peppers in quippy dialogue and a flimsy magical back-story, and has Johnny Depp sashay his way back into our hearts for the umpteenth time, even as deep down we know that at this point he is just doing an impression of someone else doing a Jack Sparrow impression.

There isn’t much to say about this film itself. There are worse ways to spend two hours, and because the template they are working from is so solid, it still manages to be mildly entertaining without trying too hard. The plot makes no sense, the zombie bad guys look terrible, and the two new co-leads are utterly forgettable. Instead of expanding the Pirates world in interesting directions, this series has always been content to slap on layers of big noisy spectacle and call it a day, which is what it does here — although not as egregiously as in some of the previous movies. For Jack Sparrow completists, there is an unbelievably lazy sequence about how he acquired his famous compass but it is literally the kind of scene a computer program could have written.

As I watched, I was struck by how the mediocrity of the film was in many ways a result of the wild success of the first one in building its world and fleshing out an irresistible mythology. At the end of the day, for a franchise based on an amusement park ride whose primary purpose is to gobble up the entire money supply of the world, I guess it just isn’t worth the effort to try and top it.