Monday, August 07, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

About half way through Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest the cast arrives at the pirate haven of Tortuga. Last time they walked through this town, a group of pirates were dunking a nobleman in a well. This time the same pirates are dunking the same man in the same well. This is just about the only moment at which the film betrays it's Disneyland origins. If Curse of the Black Pearl was a theme park ride, Dead Man's Chest is a computer game.

The film is made up of four or five relatively self-contained units: at times it feels as if we are watching a collection of shorts. The first major sequence – in which Will Turner rescues Jack Sparrow from an island of cannibals – is pretty much a stand-alone adventure. It has beginning (Will arrives on the island); a middle (Will finds Jack) and a satisfactory climax – everyone gets back to the ship with a mob of furious natives at their heels. Similarly, the brilliant central sequence in which Will becomes a sailor on Davy Jones ship (eclectically named the Flying Dutchman) could have been a free-standing sea-faring yarn. The sense of watching a series of different films is increased by the shifts of tone The cannibal island section is played as farce – Jack putting paprika under his armpits before the natives try to cook him and pole vaulting over a cliff with the cooking spit still tied to his back. But the Davy Jones section is very dark indeed: the first thing that Will's long-lost father does is administer a flogging to his son – as an act of mercy. Where the cannibal sequence is full of mad action, the climax of the Flying Dutchman scene is Will dicing for his soul against Davy Jones. (Making the plot turn on such a complex game as Liar's Dice was a very courageous decision, I felt.)

This unconventional structure means that one has no real sense of where one is in the movie. You feel that you have already spent a long time in the cinema when everyone finally converges on the island where the eponymous Dead Man's Chest is buried. There is a dramatic, three-way sword fight for possession of the Chest, which turns into an audacious series of stunts and chases. I think it's rather a pity that so many directors believe that the best way to make a sword-fight exciting is to use CGI to put the protagonists in an unlikely location – as opposed to choreographing a dramatic fight with swords. (I may have previously mentioned The Princess Bride in this context.) But there is no doubt that having Will Turner and ex-commodore Norrington duelling on top of a giant water wheel made for a spectacular set piece. You could have been forgiven for thinking that this would be the Climax of the whole film – but no, the fight on the island is only the prelude to an even bigger climax in which Davy Jones' Kraken finally catches up with the good ship Black Pearl. At the end of this even more enormous special effects set-piece, the first mate says, and I quote, 'We're not out of this yet...' The audience could have been forgiven if, at this point, the phrases 'Good thing' and 'Too much of a' drifted across their minds.

To add to the sense of disorientation, the film doesn't come to any actual conclusion, but ends on a (brilliant) cliff-hanger. The story doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but you carry on watching in order to find out what the next amazing location, stunt, villain or monster is going to be. Dead Man's Chest is very canny about spacing out its revelations: you are a long way into the film before you properly see the Flying Dutchman; you have to wait to the end to get a good look at the Kraken, and there is a final surprise in literally the last frame.

The characters are propelled between the various levels – I'm sorry, the various sub-plots – by a collection of more or less arbitrary magical objects. Rather than being autonomous entities with actual motivations, they ricochet around the Caribbean performing quests and sub-quests imposed on them by other characters. Where Curse of the Black Pearl was driven by a plot device of breath-taking elegance (everyone wants the cursed medallion that Will inherited from his father); Dead Man's Chest piles up the macguffins until you wonder if they are taking the piss. Jack has a picture which leads to a key which opens the chest which contains Davy Jones heart. Will wants Jack's magic compass in order to trade it with the sinister Lord Beckett for Elizabeth's life; Lord Beckett wants the compass because it will lead him to Davy Jones' chest which will give him mastery over the seas. But Will wants to free his father from the curse of Davy Jones, and to do that he must kill Jones by finding the key which opens the box which contains the heart. Lord Beckett has given Will letters of Marque to trade with Jack for the compass which leads to the box; but Norrington (who has lost his honour, as one does) wants the letters of Marque to clear his name.

This could have become wearisome and artificial: but the film is brilliantly aware of its own ludicrousness. Jack's explanations to his crew abut why they need the key that they haven't got to open the chest that they haven't got are brilliantly convoluted. When Norrington, Will and Jack end up in their three-way duel over the magic chest, we get a quick recap by the two comic pirates as to who wants what and why: they are obviously just as confused as we are.

And all the silliness manages to hang off a relatively sensible premise. The person who sends Will off on his quest and who seems to have the upper hand at the end, is the very realistic – or at any rate, deadpan – Lord Beckett, representative of the prosaic East India Company, whose relatively mundane aim is to rid the seas of pirates who are bad for profits. It's quite an achievement when a realistic-romantic story involving stolen letters of marque, girls dressed up as boys, disgraced commodores and a hero who is blackmailed to save his love from the gallows dove-tales quite so seamlessly into one involving voodoo ladies, a Kraken and a ship crewed entirely by crustaceans, but the film seems to carry it off. When Norrington presents Lord Beckett with the still beating heart of Davy Jones, we very largely believe it.

Curse of the Black Pearl exhausted every pirate clich̩ in the book; so Dead Man's Chest invents new ones. It does manage to dredge up a few archetypes that the first film missed Рdigging up a treasure chest; a duel on a beach. And probably the only reason that the Black Pearl has rigging is so that Will can swing in it. He even gets to slide down a sail using a dagger; a stunt first tried out by Douglas Fairbanks. There are some half-hearted attempts to borrow from Treasure Island : the first mate recites 'Fifteen men on a Dead man's chest' without seeming to know that it's a sea shanty. Davy Jones uses a Black Spot to mark Jack for damnation, but it appears to be some kind of dermatological complaint. But most of the time, the film simply makes up its own material. There's no real mythology associated with Davy Jones Locker: like 'Boot Hill', it's not much more than a figure of speech. But here, Jones is imagined as a terrible captain, half-man half-squid, conflated with the Flying Dutchman and possibly the personification of the Sea. The imagery of Davy Jones ship Рcrewed by dead seaman who are gradually turning into fish Рis sensational, much the best thing in the film. Yes, there are times when you feel that the designers have gone slightly insane Рthe ship has a fully equipped pipe organ on board, which Jones plays with his tentacles. But oddly, the Dutchman feels like a real ship Рgrim, sadistic, with a crew of sailors getting by on small amounts of camaraderie Рwhere the Black Pearl ultimately feels like the home of some Lego pirates.

The most unexpected thing about Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is that, after all the duels, the bar room brawl, the sea-monster, the cursed ship, the cannibals, and Jack Sparrow's repeated attempts to become Indiana Jones, the denouement of the movie turns out to be entirely character driven. Yes, Orlando Bloom is still the generic hero, a slightly girly Errol Flynn with no personality or motivation apart from his absolute dedication to Elizabeth. Yes, Elizabeth is still simply Will's love interest – even though she somehow manages to become a brilliant swordsperson once she dresses up as a boy. And yes, Jack Sparrow is Jack Sparrow, a classic comic creation or a steaming pile of camp overacting, depending on your point of view. But the film allows us to spend a lot of time in the company of these characters. We get used to them. So when Elizabeth tells Jack that, one day, he will do something good: and Jack tells her that, on the contrary, one day she will do something bad – we realise that these animatronic dummies have over the last six hours, become actual people.

The resolution is genuinely clever. Davy Jones wants Jack Sparrow's soul – you see, even the villains have macguffins – and has sent the Kraken to collect it. Ship in danger; cursed sailor; sea monster: the logical thing is for Jack to do a Jonah and jump overboard. But Jack being Jack this is the one thing that can't happen. So Elizabeth forces him to stay on the ship and face the monster while everyone else leaves; she distracts him with a kiss and then handcuffs him to the mast. So while everyone else believes that Jack has finally done a good deed, we know that in fact, Elizabeth has done a bad one. And Will, having seen the kiss, believes that his true love has betrayed him. The film ends with everyone except Will toasting the dead (yeah, right) Jack: and we realise that this has turned into something rather more than a silly film about an omni-competent action hero who some Ewoks nearly turned into a kebab. Hopefully, the working through of these various misunderstandings will drive the plot of the third part of the trilogy, rather than another treasure hunt for magic power crystals.

Curse of the Black Pearl was far more fun than anyone expected a movie based on a theme park ride to be. Dead Man's Chest was far, far more smart, involving, and enjoyable than any movie that stole its narrative structure from computer games has any right to be. Avast ye!

7 comments:

Endie said...

"we realise that this has turned into something rather more than a silly film about an omni-competent action hero who some Ewoks nearly turned into a kebab."

Funny thing is, I thought it was a very long and silly (but sometimes funny) film about a disappointingly incompetent and unquestionably evil action hero who lets himself down in the kebab scene: http://endie.net/cs/blogs/endie/archive/2006/07/20/Pirates_of_the_Carribean_Review.aspx

Endie said...

Oooh, I do hate blogger and its inability to force line breaks:

How about this instead?

Sylvia Drake said...

(Making the plot turn on such a complex game as Liar's Dice was a very courageous decision, I felt.)

As long as one has the faintest glimmer of an idea of what the hell was going on in that game, which I didn't; I had to treat it like technobabble--well, as long as the characters understand what's happening, I don't have to--in order to get past what was literally happening and follow the character development. It hadn't actually occurred to me that we were expected to understand it.

And as much as I enjoyed the movie, I was disappointed by how much of it depended on virtually every one of the major characters making several needlessly stupid decisions, as if it were a romantic comedy or something. (Or a Disney movie, I suppose. I was spoiled by the first one, in which the plot pretty much made sense, as I recall. . .)

Charles Filson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Charles Filson said...

I removed that post because it contained a spoiler...here it is again sans-spoiler:


This is a terribly inane question, I am aware but:

In the first film, none of the pirates could become human again unless all the Gold coins were returned. It wasn't like one person could return theirs and become human while everybody else stayed undead.

So why is the undead monkey still undead?

Did I miss a scene where the monkey went back and stole another coin or something?

Like I said, I know that's overdoing it, but it was the one area that gave me trouble with the suspension of disbelief thing.

That one dood came back from the dead: cool. He is in a Voodoo woman's hut...explanation enough for me.

Nobody can tell that Kira Knightly isn't a boy as she sashays about the deck with curvery hips...hey, she's in men's clothing. We can't see past a disguise like that.

A guy became a squid by cutting out his own heart for love...not sure about this one, but he became a squid! It's PFM.

But the undead monkey was made undead by a curse that had rules. You can't violate those rules and keep me from wondering about it.

Or did I miss something key?

Gareth said...

You obviously missed the scene after the credits at the end of the first Pirates movie, where the monkey does indeed go back and steal a coin from the chest.

Charles Filson said...

Ah, cool. My bad then.