I’ve spoken favorably about all of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, despite the fact that each new chapter would be more needlessly convoluted than the last. With the newest chapter, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, I will once again speak favorably, but this time it isn’t just for having all the elements we’ve come to expect, such as engaging characters, swashbuckling, elaborate stunts, and incredible special effects. It’s also for telling a story that’s much easier to follow; for the first time since the original film, The Curse of the Black Pearl, I didn’t feel as if I needed to take notes in order to follow along. I understood what was going on, and why, and how.
Norwegian directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg have already proven themselves adept at making movies set at sea with their Oscar-nominated Kon-Tiki. Now with Dead Men Tell No Tales, they go one step further and prove themselves capable of helming a big-budget, studio-backed, mainstream Hollywood summer blockbuster. As long as they don’t let it go to their heads, I won’t say that they’ve sold out. I will say that they’re expanding their horizons, as if telling the world that movies made for entertainment are every bit as valid as movies made for edification … provided, of course, that the entertainment they want to provide is actually entertaining.
I’m happy to report that Dead Men Tell No Tales did indeed entertain me. It reunites us with familiar faces such as Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), and Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin R. McNally); there’s even a brief appearance by a now cursed and barnacle-encrusted William Turner (Orlando Bloom), the new captain of the equally cursed Flying Dutchman. It also introduces several new faces, including Turner’s teenage son Henry (Brenton Thwaites), amateur astronomer and Henry’s inevitable love interest Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), and power-hungry British Royal Navy officer Scarfield (David Wenham).
And then there’s the new antagonist, Captain Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem), who, along with his ship and his crew of merciless pirate hunters, has been cursed to be among the undead. This is where the special effects really shine; in much the same way as Barbossa and his literal skeleton crew in the original film, Salazar and his crew are monstrous shadows of their former selves, large chunks of their bodies invisible, the visible portions a sickening display of putrid white flesh. They can walk on water, which makes them semi-biblical. Their ship is nothing but a skeletal wooden structure; like some undersea beast, it can raise its top half out of the water, unfurl its wooden planks, and consume any other ship it comes across.
The plot is driven by the search for the trident of Poseidon, which if found is said to undo all ocean-related curses. Henry wants to find it to save his father. Carina is, in a way, also in search of her father; although she doesn’t believe in the supernatural or the myths of the sea, she does believe that going on this journey will help her to understand why her father left her on the steps of an orphanage, along with an astronomer’s diary that hints at a map hidden within the night sky. Of course Salazar wants the trident, not only because it will free him from his curse, but also because it will give him power over all the oceans. The unscrupulous Scarfield wants it so that the British Empire will always reign supreme. As for Jack, it’s more a matter of trying to save his own skin, seeing as he has had dealings with Salazar in the past.
Aside from the unnecessary and insignificant inclusion of a bald, heavily tattooed sea witch (Golshifteh Farahani) and a post-credit sequence that I’m fairly certain undermines the end results of the final battle, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales didn’t leave me with much to complain or nitpick about. Like its predecessors, it’s made in the spirit of fun and excitement. And boy, does it give us plenty to marvel at in the ways of art direction and special effects, made all the more impressive by its presentation in IMAX 3D; we see zombie sharks, a miniature ship that expands to full size when you just add water, an entire building being dragged through a seaside town by marauding pirates on horseback, and the best sea-parting effect since The Ten Commandments. To watch this movie is to immerse yourself in terrific entertainment.