I think this is a telling anecdote: the night after I saw Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, I found myself at a party with some other gentlemen who'd already seen it as well. "Wasn't it the worst thing ever?" one of them asked (no, but that's a forgivable response), and then the important part: "I didn't know until it started that the actual title was On Stranger Tides."

We could chalk that up to not paying enough attention to the marketing - or, alternately, paying exactly the appropriate amount of attention to the marketing - but it sums up rather neatly the degree to which On Stranger Tides doesn't really have any kind of personality or identity on its own. It's just "the fourth Pirates movie". Hell, I myself got confused, earlier in the same day, which entry in the series it was. They all tend to melt together after a certain point; that point, for me, is the end of the opening cannibal sequence in the second film, Dead Man's Chest, the last moment at which I felt like the franchise was meant to be entertainment and not product, though as in all things your milage may vary. Far be it from me to begrudge Disney the right to make money however they see fit, but if On Stranger Tides fills any kind of actual need whatsoever, I am not perceptive enough to spot it. Was anyone genuinely still foaming at the mouth for still more adventures with the increasingly played-out Captain Jack Sparrow, played by the increasingly resentful Johnny Depp? And if there are such people, can this possibly be the film they were hoping for?

In this go-round, Sparrow sneaks into London to spring his longtime right-hand, Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin McNally) from imprisonment, having been wrongly accused of being the selfsame notorious pirate Jack Sparrow. Cue a chase scene. Sparrow then finds out someone is impersonating him, and he goes to investigate. Cue a fight scene. Long story short, there are three different groups chasing after the legendary Fountain of Youth - the Spanish, the British under command of former pirate and series stalwart Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), and the dread pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane), traveling with one of Sparrow's ex-lovers as first mate, Angelica (Penélope Cruz), who claims to be the villain's daughter. Sparrow and Gibbs are the only men who know the location of the Fountain, and each get shanghaied into one of the competing factions. Also, Jack and Angelica fall back in love, which is an extra little "fuck you" to those of us who enjoyed Depp's characterisation more when it seemed likely that Sparrow was gay.

That implies a straightforward quest narrative, doesn't it? But On Stranger Tides is by no means straightforward; I'd be tempted to call it episodic, but even that would be crediting it. It's more like the story advances in chunks: here's the chunk where they're hunting mermaids, here's the chunk were Sparrow and Barbossa team up, here's the big fucking chunk with the British missionary Philip (Sam Claflin) and the imprisoned mermaid Syrena (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) play at being the romantic subplot, and prove to be even less interesting and important to the overall scheme of the picture, and to suck out even more air from the proceedings than the incorrigibly bland team of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley from the original trilogy.

The plot advances, in essence, because it is made to advance, not because there is flow from one event to another. And though, in the most functional sense, there is a chain of causality underpinning all of it, everything still seems pretty damn arbitrary and laden with plot holes and obvious contrivances. For example, everybody in the movie but Jack seems to know everything about the Fountain and its absurdly arcane ritual, though where or why they would come into such exactingly specific knowledge is something the series' regular, writers Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, apparently don't consider interesting enough to address (fun fact: as "suggested" by an unrelated novel by Tim Powers, On Stranger Tides is the first Pirates movie without an original story. So to speak). Ideas like the notion that Angelica is lying to Blackbeard, are dropped minutes after they're introduced, the beginning is needlessly protracted involving all sorts of narrative red herrings - the "impostor Jack" mini-plot contributed nothing at all. And the rhythm throughout is brutally plain "this then this then this then this" plodding.. I would perhaps sum it up as a story being posited, rather than one being told; nor a terrifically invigorating story at that, lacking as it does the high stakes of even the worst films in the series till now - for far too long, there doesn't seem to be much of a motivation for Jack Sparrow to be involved in this story at all, a problem compounded by his repeated complaint in the early going that he has no idea what is going on.

Still, the film is structurally more sound than Dead Man's Chest or At World's End, lacking the same burdensome mythology and narrative dead ends (the false first act in DMC, the sheer multiplicity of conflicts in AWE, and the reams and reams of exposition in both), and it anyways answers my chief complaint about the third film: there's a lot more piratey action relative to the plot - the producers have acknowledged that it was a deliberately stripped-down attempt at returning to the simplicity of The Curse of the Black Pearl, the first and (by a hefty margin) best film in the franchise. And yet, that doesn't save On Stranger Tides from being worse than either of its immediate predecessors; or maybe I had better say, more disposable than either of them, though the chase through London is agreeably done (though replete with a stupendously pointless cameo from a distractingly famous British actress), and a mid-film encounter with an army of killer mermaids has plenty of the matinee-movie creepiness that made the first film such pip, even if it goes on a bit long.

At the risk of sounding like an auteurist, I honestly think it's the difference between having Gore Verbinski direct and having Rob Marshall direct: for even though the trilogy made under Verbinski's watch often went to some very airy and very stupid places, there was always the constant sense that the filmmaker was committed 100% to the bizarre energy of the scripts, treating the cartoonish adventures of Jack Sparrow with the logic and mania of a cartoon (the same mood, in many ways that he and Depp recently demonstrated in Rango) . Marshall, whose best work to date has been trashing the seemingly-untrashable musical Chicago, has nothing like that level of inspiration: his handling of the material evinces no idea clearer than "that's how they did it in the other ones", and instead of a baseline of absurd whimsy, there's just exhaustion, all over everything. At their most tedious and unpleasant, the other Pirates movies have all been energetic, but On Stranger Tides is altogether droopy; both in terms of its pacing, which idles along without any urgency, and leaves the shortest of all four films feeling much longer than its already indulgent 137 minutes; and in terms of its visuals, which are not half as glossy as anything previous in Marshall's career (he works here for the first time without cinematograpehr Dion Beebe, instead inheriting Pirates regular Dariusz Wolski), and suffer from being woefully underlit for most of the middle.

A certain insipid lack of personality was always a danger, of course; as much fun as it is to imagine that some future Pirates sequel (and there will be, of course) will shed all the accretions of these last three pictures that ship has sailed, if you'll pardon me for being a complete douchebag. The Curse of the Black Pearl was alchemic; a perfect storm of the right actor, director, and character coming as a complete surprise. Ever since then, it's just been about cranking out Jack Sparrow Adventures, sausage-like, by the carload, and nevermind if the shtick keeps getting rattier every time. At least the four years off seem to have rejuvenated Depp, who's not as obviously repulsed by the role as he was in At World's End; but that overwhelming spirit of "Jack Sparrow Delivery Vehicle" pervades every moment of the film, which absolutely dies every second Depp isn't onscreen, and boasts virtually no worthwhile performances, from a desperately overthinking-it Rush to McShane's utter, unpleasantly obvious boredom with a character who is nothing but a patchwork of PG-13 nihilism and bullshit paranormal trickery; leaving it to Richard Griffiths in a one-scene performance as a squishy, irritable King George to steal the whole entire movie from every other human being onscreen. I don't know if it's fair to say all of this is bad, but it's mediocre to the point that it burns like acid, and it's pretty hard not to feel angry towards a swashbuckler where all the fun has been replaced by line items on a Disney accountant's spreadsheet.

Reviews in this series
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Verbinski, 2003)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (Verbinski, 2006)
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (Verbinski, 2007)
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Marshall, 2011)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Rønning & Sandberg, 2017)