Reviewing Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End is an exercise in futility. It is such a presold product that the chances of anything written here having much impact are virtually nil. You already know whether or not you’re planning on spending three hours of your life on the supposed final chapter in the series. At the same time, it’s nice to be able to report that At World’s End isn’t a waste of time. Oh, it’s not perfect. In most ways, it’s better than Dead Man’s Chest, but in others it’s not—enough so that the two films end up on about even footing.
It doesn’t capture the seeming spontaneity of the first film. There’s nothing to quite match the fresh, seemingly effortless entrance of Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) in the original—casually stepping from his sinking boat onto the dock as if this had been his plan all along. Of course, by now we know Depp’s Sparrow, and we know what to expect, so the question becomes less how he can surprise us but more how he can fulfill our expectations. Happily, he can and mostly does—and he does so without that stale sense of merely indulging the viewer the way last week’s Shrek the Third did.
At World’s End‘s biggest miscalculation lies in the screenplay’s apparent belief that the viewer has some kind of genuine emotional investment in the relationship between Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom). The characters are important to the story, yes, but does anyone really care about their romance? And, no, it’s not just that Bloom is such a stiff—in fact, he’s much better in the Pirates movies than in his lackluster attempts at carrying movies by himself (see Elizabethtown and Kingdom of Heaven). The problem lies in the fact that Will and Elizabeth are cut from the same hard-edged, cynically duplicitous cloth as Jack Sparrow. All three are basically charming scoundrels. They’re 18th-century versions of the sort of cynics one finds in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play The Front Page. We like them because they’re manipulative, self-serving folks who constantly double-cross anyone—especially each other—to get what they want. Having Will and Elizabeth go all warm, soft and woolly on us not only doesn’t work, it verges on the embarrassing. Giving over so much of the film to their characters is a mistake of some note. It’s not deadly, but it does keep At World’s End on the far side of greatness.
The biggest surprise lies in the fact that while this third installment is both the biggest and most effects-laden of the three, it feels less like corporate filmmaking than Dead Man’s Chest did. At World’s End has a greater sense of being a Gore Verbinski film—more in keeping with The Ring (2002) and The Weather Man (2005), if the two had somehow been fused to the cartoonish quality of Verbinski’s debut feature Mousehunt (1997). The splendidly elegiac tone that marked the final scene of Dead Man’s Chest (at least to the point of the promise of this new adventure) informs the opening of At World’s End—and goes beyond this tone to a surprising level of grimness, with mass executions of pirates and anyone who might be a pirate or have connections with pirates. The fact that these wholesale executions are allowable owing to the suspension of every known aspect of due process—a kind of extreme 18th-century “Homeland Security Act”—also imbues the film with a pointedly political slant, making At World’s End a bit weightier than the average summer blockbuster. Verbinski and company, however, are smart enough to keep the film’s messages in perspective so that they don’t actually get in the way of the fun.
That said, this is a considerably more serious-minded film than either of its predecessors. While the Will/Elizabeth romance falters, the film scores several genuinely touching moments, especially concerning Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and Elizabeth’s father, Governor Swann (Jonathan Pryce). The latter is indicative of the film’s almost obsessive concentration on daddy issues. Not only do we have that one, but much (maybe too much) of the plot revolves around Will attempting to free his father, “Bootstrap” Bill Turner (Stellan Skargard), from service to Davy Jones. Even Jack has a meeting with his estranged father thanks to the long-anticipated (and maybe five minutes of screen time) appearance of Keith Richards. These things do help to make what could have been yet another lumbering behemoth of a movie seem human—without succumbing to the saccharine sentimentality that literally bathed this summer’s first big movie, Spider-Man 3.
Of course, the essence of the film lies in its comedy and fantasy—and the size of its miraculously believable effects—and there’s little room for complaint on those grounds. The business of turning the ship upside down in order to escape Davy Jones’ locker is inspired, while the final battles and the comeuppance of head villain, Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), could hardly be bettered. True, the fate of Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) seems undercooked to the point of anticlimax, and perhaps the film’s most striking image is the simpler one of the Black Pearl being carried to sea on a wave of land crabs, but generally the film’s attempts at being epic in nature pay off. I can’t imagine not having a good time with it all. I will go ahead and say, yes, there is a setup for further adventures, and yes, there is a final scene at the end of the credits. I’ll also say that it’s a scene that really ought to have been in the body of the film proper, and isn’t in the humorous tone of the first two films’ additional scenes. Rated PG-13 for intense sequence of action/adventure violence and some frightening images.