The most interesting thing about the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, subtitled Dead Men Tell No Tales, is that it was made for an insane amount of money in the firm belief it would make four or five times as much. Perhaps it will, perhaps it won’t. But given the title and the participation of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, most studios would have taken the bet.
Dead Men isn’t as shapeless and overlong as the last Pirates film, which was barely watchable and still made a billion dollars. It has a narrative line of sorts, a clear main objective (a boy wants to liberate his undead father from a curse), and a modicum of suspense. It’s stuffed to the gills with effects executed by the highest-paid artists and technicians in the business. But it’s still a sorry spectacle.
The philosophy is that what happens onscreen matters less than the fact that a lot is happening. The camera is always riding in on characters in an attempt to simulate momentum while the orchestra never lets up. Sample dialogue: “Get him!” “Get her!” “Get him!” At its best, the film is a high-speed farce filled with Rube Goldberg–like contraptions that fling its heroes around the frame, as when a vertically revolving guillotine keeps bringing the blade within millimeters of Jack Sparrow’s neck. (Depp spends more time trussed up than the heroine of Fifty Shades of Grey.) But there’s no fluidity, no elegance. Jackie Chan once did this stuff for a fraction of the cost, admittedly paying low Chinese salaries, but also with vaulting acrobats and no computer effects. As different parties — murderous phantoms, pompous redcoats, Sparrow plus the male and female ingénues — converge on a mysterious island, you feel that you could leave anytime and not miss much. Well, much and nothing much.
As the heroine who clings to scientific rationalism (which makes her a little dopey in a movie filled with ghosts and curses), Kaya Scodelario is both lovely and goofy. (Her long face recalls Nicole Kidman’s, her pert chin Meg Ryan’s.) The filmmakers have slowed down the motion of Javier Bardem’s demonic villain so it perfectly matches his bellows of a voice. But Depp is just depressing. I care little about his offscreen antics, but what’s onscreen makes it look as if they’ve wheeled him onto the set, propped him up, fed him lines, and whenever possible substituted stuntmen — or else put his head on other peoples’ bodies in postproduction. His perpetually slurring, unbalanced Sparrow seems too true to life to be funny. He looks so bad even his titanically dissolute role models Marlon Brando and Hunter Thompson would have thought about staging an intervention.
Back to the question of why people spend money to see products like this, which is beyond a critic’s purview but worth asking for sociological reasons. Did anything about the 2011 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides make you think, Hmmm, I’d like to see where Jack Sparrow goes from here? Do movies this loud and hectic really entertain you — keep you laughing and excited and invested in the characters? Do you go to the movies to be surprised or unsurprised to the point that you barely need to pay attention? I guess those are rhetorical questions, but I’m too bewildered by this series’ appeal to think of other ones. Next up: Transformers: The Last Knight.
*A version of this article appears in the May 29, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.