Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Recent Watching: Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest (2006)

Legendary bottom-feeder Davy Jones is the old haunt in the bottom-of-the-barrel Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest (2006). As a sequel, it fails to achieve the same level of spontaneity and charm of its predecessor, largely because it is reusing the same bag of tricks, but to lesser effect. Action sequences and special effects take precedence over story, a compromise that barely keeps the movie afloat for its bloated 2 1/2 hours.

Like hidden treasure, the plot is buried deep within a chaotic structure filled with too many ghost ships, sea serpents, island cannibals and conniving British exporters—only once you dig up the plot, you discover how little it is worth. Squid-faced ghoul Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) is out collecting on Captain Jack Sparrow’s (Johnny Depp) soul. Meanwhile Sparrow, with Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) in tow, is in search of buried treasure—a chest that contains Jones’ still beating heart. Whoever is in control of this is in control of Jones and, in turn, the seas that he still haunts. However, Sparrow isn’t the only one who wants the treasure: Will Turner has his own reasons for assisting Sparrow, as does the tyrannical East Indian Trading Company, who wants to create a monopoly on trade waters.

The script leans more on adventure and excitement than on character, a decision that weakens our connection to the story. It is as though writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio expected our empathy with the characters to carry over from the first film, and they do little in this sequel to help re-forge the bonds. For example, the relationship between fiancés Will and Elizabeth (whose marriage is interrupted in the opening scene) seems stagnant: they hardly share any on-screen time together, and when they do the proverbial “sparks,” typically felt between the ingénue and leading man, are decidedly absent.

Johnny Depp, the highlight of the first film (who even garnered an Academy Award nomination), reprises his role as the gangly, strangely flamboyant pirate Jack Sparrow, but adds nothing new to the role. His mannerisms have grown redundant, and his character meets, but never exceeds, our expectations—in short, he is predictable. He shies away from valor and adventure at first, choosing always to save himself over others, but just when you think he’s a selfish lout, he joins the fight and waxes gallant like the rest.

The film tries to maintain a sense of humor throughout, but often it feels out of place. Instead of being witty, the writers often resort to anachronisms: modern jests that are out place in the movie’s historical setting, such as Depp sprinkling paprika under his arms as though he were in a deodorant commercial, or the way in which characters slip out of their stylized dialect to say lines in a more contemporary manner. During these winks at the audience, the historical façade drops, and it seems that neither the actors nor the writers are up to the challenge of creating authentic pirate humor.

I also had the feeling that I had seen some parts of Pirates’ before, and not just in the original. A scene on a cannibal island where Jack Sparrow is mistaken for a god and Will Turner is bound to a log seems very much a scene from Return of the Jedi (1983) in which the ewoks think C-3PO is a god, and Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Chewbacca are bound to logs in preparation for cooking.

As often happens when too much attention is given to special effects, they cease to be neither special nor effective. Such is the fate of Pirates’ densely grotesque visuals, particularly Davy Jones and his salt-water zombies, whose scaly flesh writhes as though it were still living. Director Gore Verbinski and his special effects crew have painstakingly integrated live-action footage and computer animation seamlessly, but they lay it on so often that the spectacle soon loses its impact. It might be archaic of me, but with blockbusters becoming increasingly reliant on CGI, I long for another filmmaker like David Lean who is able to create epics without all the artifice and gloss. In films like The Bridge On the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Doctor Zhivago (1965), Lean was able to craft visceral, exciting images using actual landscapes, and the simplicity is effective and immediate. I find the spectacle of reality more invigorating than any computer generated sea monster, which is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive and cannot share the multiplex together, but just that they don’t anymore. Blockbusters like Pirates and superhero movies dominate theaters, and I am left to look elsewhere for other varieties of cinema.

1 comment:

Orhan Kahn said...

Well written review.