Dead Men Tell No Tales is the second best Pirates of the Caribbean film. It’s a tight race, but not in the direction you’d hope. This is a sloppy movie, devoid of reason, passion, and sincerity. It has a few good ideas that fail to progress beyond ideas, relying solely on the zesty performances of the fresh blood to the series to save this sinking ship.
It’s not enough, though. Picking up from the post-credits scene of At World’s End (and ignoring the existence of On Stranger Tides), we see that Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), son of Jack Turner and Elizabeth Swan, is driven to free his father from the curse that binds him to the Flying Dutchman, a ghost ship of legend whose purpose is to ferry souls to the afterlife. Almost too obviously, this puts him on the path to find Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp).
Almost coincidentally, this puts the two of them on a collision course with Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), a science-oriented astronomer accused of being a witch. After an introductory action sequence that draws more from Fast Five than anything else, they all end up banded together and seeking the Trident of Poseidon. They may each have their own reason, but off they go anyway towards the horizon.
And within this seemingly innocuous setup lies the problem. With this mix of new blood amongst signature old blood, this movie feels an awful lot like X-Men: First Class in that it wants to pass the baton to a new generation. I’m sure the writers Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rossio and directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg would even say they liken it to The Force Awakens, what with its circuitous parallels with Curse of the Black Pearl.
It lacks everything that makes those two films work, though. There’s no charm, there’s no attitude, and there’s somehow no vitality despite casting two youthful and buoyant actors. And the nuance of reshaping classic characters into people that hew close to the line but stray in their own unique ways is absent. The inversion of believer and nonbeliever between Henry and Carina is hollow and meaningless when we know they can only end the same way as Jack and Elizabeth.
To call them inspired by the now classic swashbuckling portrayals is an understatement. Henry is wide-eyed and naive, ready to jump at whatever chance he gets to rescue his rescuable MacGuffin. Carina is a headstrong woman that refuses to take guff from anyone. That’s about as deep and complex as they get, which means that they can only possibly end up superficial copies of their predecessors. The actors, however, at least fill them with as much zeal as possible.
Then there’s Jack. Watching Depp return to the iconic character feels like watching a singer try to hit a falsetto they once had well in their pocket. This is two hours of a stumbling, mumbling man straining to be noticed. He hasn’t grown or changed in any interesting ways save for that he has the dead eyes of someone who can’t be bothered to care. Any innovative hook surrounding his schtick has long since evaporated.
It also can’t be ignored that Depp in a role as a womanizing scoundrel is in rather poor taste. (Casting him in any role anymore is perhaps folly enough.) Seeing him tell a woman “you need to scream” is probably one of the most uncomfortable things you’ll ever have to sit through if you see this movie.
Hinging on a crucial scene, it’s unfortunate, too, that the movie redirects its focus from the growth and intertwining of Henry and Carina to the Jack’s Assassin Creed-level of bumbling misfortune to be involved in every single major event on the seas. It not only makes the crux of the movie laughable but the eventual resolution and leering towards inevitable sequels laughable as well.
The introduction of series newcomer Javier Bardem as Captain Armando Salazar is a waste, too. For an actor of such immense talent and gravitas, it’s disappointing that most of his time onscreen is dedicated to hissing, gurgling some black tar, and saying the words “Jack Sparrow.” Save for one scene (which coincides with the movie’s greatest cinematographical ambition in a series of well-utilized Dutch angles), he fails to capture the same menace or intrigue as past villains.
He is, however, an example of just how many good starts to great ideas this movie has. His entire crew isn’t like that of Barbossa’s where they’re dead and decaying to the point of nothing. No, his is trapped in a perpetual state of their moment of death. Salazar, for instance, appears to be always drowning with his hair flowing as if it were always underwater. Members nearly vaporized by direct cannon fire struggle on as Rayman-esque entanglements.
Their ship is even stuck in a state of pallor mortis, its hull disbanded and mast cracked into the water. It turns the vessel into a sort of bullish piranha, literally devouring other ships it encounters. But like I said, it never goes beyond an idea. We see it do its thing a couple of times and then, well, that’s it. Nothing is developed on this creative foundation.
You can see that in the inclusion of returning Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). (His preeminent depiction of a seafaring scallywag continues to be on par with Val Kilmer’s bar-setting turn as Doc Holliday in being that archetype’s gold standard.) His story starts as a tepid and all too relatable modern tragedy of ennui and eventually becomes one about loss and desire that we hadn’t seen from his character before. And it would work, too, if there was, like, any connective tissue from Point A to Point B instead of being slotted in their like a coin into a gashapon machine.
These and many more are the disappointments that await for this theme park attraction. The concepts are mostly interesting, but they fail to pick up any steam and are instead shoved along like corpses to the finish line. The somewhat climactic conflict between Salazar and Sparrow’s crews should be exciting—it would even be surprising if I described it to you now—but seeing it play out as nothing but dark objects moving amongst dark backgrounds, it’s just ten minutes of squinting.
After all that, you must be asking yourself how it ends up being the second best Pirates movie. Easy: it follows logic, it doesn’t assault the senses, and the middle bits involving an island are genuinely fun. Even if zero percent of the jokes land and it wastes its bountiful harvest of talent, you’re forgetting that for a franchise that started with explosive and immediate success, it then spent eight years trying to put that bar in the ground. And Dead Men Tell No Tales is just another heap of dirt on top.
Final Score: 4 out of 10