There’s always that pressure for sequels to expand on all that has come before, but where do you go when the franchise started by being absolutely massive? That seems to be the issue that plagued the third outing for those Caribbean based pirates that seemed cursed to try and build on an original movie that already came stuffed with a multitude of characters that contained heroes, villains, numerous examples of comic relief and quite possibly one of the most popular anti-heroes to surface in the last twenty years.
The filmmakers attempted to solve this “embiggening” problem by taking a cue from Lord Of The Rings and The Matrix by making the next adventure so huge that it would take the form of two back to back sequels that would hopefully give the massive vessel some much needed room to manuever. However, despite Dead Man’s Chest putting in the hard work setting out the chess pieces, introducing brand new villains, resurrecting an ex-villain for heroic purposes and even giving old Captain Jack the Han Solo treatment by taking him off the playing field to generate a cliffhanger style sense of chaos, there was a sense that the first sequel was nothing more that just an elaborate set up. Was At World’s End ultimately worth the effort?
Mythical, octopus-faced Captain, Davey Jones may have settled his debt with Jack Sparrow by feeding him to the Kraken and sending his soul into the disorienting torment of Davey Jones Locker, but he has also picked up a huge loss after his severed heart and only weakness fell into the hands of the callous Lord Cutler Beckett of the East India Trading Company. With an unkillable crew of fish people under his thumb, Beckett has coerced Jones to utilise his ship, The Flying Dutchman, into purging the seas of anything even remotely resembling a pirate.
In response, Elizabeth Swan, William Turner, the resurrected Captain Barbosa and their motley entourage realise they’ll have to unite the nine pirate lords to gather their forces to stand against thus threat, but in order to do that, they’ll somehow have to retrieve Sparrow from the maddening limbo he finds himself. Their mission starts in Singapore in order to convince the cruel pirate lord Sao Feng to lend them the charts that will lead them to the other side and will see the negotiate the oceans to locate the world’s end, but even after locating a more frazzled than usual Jack, there’s a bunch of unresolved matters between our heroes that has to be worked through: former sweethearts Elizabeth and William are experiencing tension with the former trying to comes to terms with sacrificing Jack to the Kraken and the latter obsessed with saving his cursed father from serving on the Dutchman. On top of that, can former antagonist Barbosa be trusted and what about the least trustworthy of the bunch, Jack Sparrow himself? If he was able to stab Jones’ heart and claim the Dutchman, wouldn’t that make him the immortal Jack Sparrow?
While not an awful film in it’s own right, most of the watchability factor of At World’s End stems from letting its mercilessly dense plot wash over you and just numbly letting the characters do what they do until the brutal run time (nearly three hours) finally runs out. It’s certainly not helped by a bunch of story issues that immediately pulls off an tonal blunder by opening a family movie with a small child leading a mournful sing-a-long before being hung. Elsewhere, the script, in an attempt to shake off the sheer weight of all if its characters and their respective arcs, starts wiping out characters such as Jonathan Pryce’s Governor Swan and Jack Davenport’s Norrington in a desperate attempt to make space. It ultimately proves to not be enough as from there the brand new obstacle of Chow Yun-Fat’s Sao Feng barely survives to the half way point and Bill Nighy’s superlatively squishy Davey Jones is ruthlessly spayed in favour of Tom Hollander’s arch bastard Beckett. Almost everyone involved is meat for the grinder that is the relentlessly complex plot and matters becomes so criss-crossed and laboured with all of its deals, double-deals and back stabbings that it becomes virtually impossible to give a single shit about any of the characters and supposedly shocking twists drift past with all the impact of a gentle sea breeze. The only members of the cast to remain unaffected (just) by the needs of the story is predictably the plot resistant joys of Johnny Depp’s dependable mugging as Sparrow and the shameless grandstanding of Geoffrey Wright’s returning Barbosa, even this banter laden double act is unable to thwart the onset of fatigue long before the huge final battle gets under way.
It’s a shame that the movie has such a bludgeoning effect because with a little less of its “more is more” style, At World’s End has some nifty thing going on such as many of the movie’s characters amusingly mirror that of Return Of The Jedi (Jack is Han, Jones and Bootstrap Bill split Darth Vader duties, Beckett is the Emperor, Sao Feng is Jabba) or the fact that the movie carries a somber undercurrent as the characters mourn the oncoming of more civilised times the way some westerns lament the end of more “free” times; “World’s still the same.” mutters Sparrow in one of his more lucid moments, “There’s just less in it.”. The climax also throws in a genuinely intriguing twist still manages to surprise despite the fugue state the movie has put you in due to its endless zig zagging and booming cannon fire and it’s nice that a blockbuster trilogy that prides itself on being quite left field managed to stay the course and deliver a finale that wasn’t a totally generic cheer-fest. If you can remain focused, the final, big, brouhaha is genuinely impressive, with everyone working out their differences in the middle of a huge, swirling maelstrom that eventually ends in an explosively resplendent death for the movie’s big bad.
Unfortunately, a lot of the good things present (of which there are many) are simply negated by how exhausting it all ends up being and what should have been a triumphant ending merely ends up being blockbuster novocaine that dulls the senses like a week long rum binge.
Of course, this was hardly the end of the continuing adventures of cinemas most beloved rumpot as Captain Jack returned another couple of times to confuse and confound his many enemies, but At World’s End may have been the point when it proved that the death-resistant buccaneer maybe wasn’t a bullet proof as he once seemed.
“Take what you can, give nothing back” is the pirate’s motto, but in this case, what they took is nearly three hours of our lives and what they gave back wasn’t exactly the buried treasure we were hoping for.