Sunday, July 16, 2006

Jack's Back: But Not in the Best Movie of the Summer

My friend Jeff Overstreet LOVES this movie. I liked it. Go to his place to see why he is so passionate. Oh, and I do have plot SPOILERS in here. But then again, it is the plot that is spoiled anyway, so I might not be ruining anything for anyone.

As part of my look-see series at summer movies that are good enough that they should be great, but disappoint instead, I now take you to Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.

What works:

-Action sequences so fun that I laughed my way through them – in a good way (hamster-ball chase, three fighters with two swords, Jack on a skewer – a riot!)
-Captain Jack, still the ballsiest, very most funnest performance of a pirate ever – gotta love Depp
-Cool looking villains and cameos (Davy Jones’ tentacle face, the barnacle guy in the wall that comes out and leaves his brain behind)
-Did I mention the action sequences?

Why it isn’t the best movie of the summer:

Structurally, this movie is an absolute mess.

Billy Wilder reminds us that there are two ways to tell stories: You can tell a simple story ornately, or you can tell a complex story simply. Pirates II is a complex story told ornately.

There is a type of action movie that is meant to be a “leave your brain at the door” flick; but Pirates seems to aspire to being more – to being clever, witty, and with a plot that is engaging. (Exactly what the first Sparrow voyage delivered.) The problem here is that the plot is so messy, that thinking gets in the way of the cool action.

Example One: Goal

The goal – what the characters want – drives the action movie. Friend Cory, in explaining why he was disappointed in Pirates, points out the simplicity of Raiders of the Lost Ark: the goal is to get the ark. No matter what happens, or what obstacles need to be overcome, or personal problems ensue, the hero always comes back to this. Get the ark.

In Pirates, the goal(s) are not clear, or when clear, are convoluted, which makes them not so clear. Clear?

Orlando needs to get the compass to save his sweetheart, Kiera. Until he meets his estranged father, and then his goal is to kill the heart of Davy Jones, because that will save his dad, who he obviously loves more than Kiera who he stopped trying to save several action sequences ago.

Kiera is trying to save Orlando, and to do that she needs to get the document that she is carrying around with her for the entire second half of the movie. It is made clear later that the document only needs to have the name of the person she wants to save written on it; so really all she needs to do is find a pen and get the correct spelling of Orlando’s name to achieve her goal. I think it is the pen, not the spelling, that foils her quest.

Captain Jack needs to kill Davy’s heart in order to get free from his curse (it is made abundantly clear by Orly’s quest that such an action clears everyone from the curse). That is, until Jack gets the chance to kill the heart and the writers’ realize that the movie would be too short at this point, and then the notion is introduced that everyone but Jack is helped if the heart is killed. A move so convoluted that the writers’ have to get two other characters to stand there and explain it to the audience.

Eye-ball Guy and his partner have a simple goal: get rich and watch out for number one. They have no moral compass other than self preservation, until the movie needs to squeak out some emotional manipulation in order to make the final moment of the film work, at which point they become heroic figures who are literally willing to die for the sake of honor and loyalty, two qualities that they apparently developed in the sixty-eight seconds it took to travel the firefly section of the Disney Pirates ride.

Example two: Motives

Major Spoiler Alert. Turn back now, ye spoiler haters. Ye’ve been warned!

Another thing to make your head hurt is trying to figure out why folks are doing what they are doing, especially when emotional response to scenes depends on it.

Now, this type of movie requires a bit of mystery, and the moral ambivalence of Jack Sparrow is a necessary ingredient. But that isn’t the stuff I am talking about – I am referring to the stuff where the filmmakers need us to know what is going on, and assume we do.

Such as the final battle with the Crackhead. Jack has left his comrades on the ship and is rowing toward the island; something that Kiera remarks is selfish (she is disappointed because she wanted him to do one right thing.)

Except the audience knows that he is doing the right thing, and not being cowardly at all. You see, there is only one thing that can defeat the Crackhead (other than hanging explosive kegs directly overhead, which… well, makes no sense at all), and that is the heart of Davy Jones. And the heart is on the island. So the only way that Jack can save everyone is to get to that island…

Oh, but wait. Jack turns around and goes back. So I guess he was acting cowardly and decided to go back to the ship to help save the others, which wouldn’t work as the heart is on the island… but I’m willing to go with it. And Kiera points out he did the right thing after all and we can all revel in Jack doing the Han Solo and coming back to save the day, but wait…

Oh, Kiera explains that the Crackhead is not after the ship, it is only after Jack and his marked hand, something that Jack clearly knows. So if Jack stayed in the rowboat, those on the ship would have been saved as the monster would have gone after the rowboat.

But wait, she still says Jack did the sacrificial thing… by dooming them in returning… but it was brave somehow… even though he knew it would kill everyone… and he didn’t go for the heart, which would have saved the lot of 'em… Okay, my head hurts.

I could go on and on and on... much like the movie goes on and on and on.

Pirates of the Caribbean II will probably be much better enjoyed the second viewing, when one need not try to figure out the plot. Or enjoyed if one has their brain turned off. But the first one was so much fun AND so smart, I wanted the second, craftier one to be even more fulfilling.

Oh, and for those of you that are arguing that Empire Strikes Back and Lord of the Rings One and Two are also cliffhangers, and therefore Pirates doesn’t need to be intelligible until the third one comes out: stop that.

Empire and both Lords were middle-of-the story flicks, absolutely. But they were well-structured flicks with strong, clear goals (simple stories told ornately), and they each completed their own cycle.

Pirates is a messy half of a movie masquerading as a complete issue in a three issue set.

But did I mention the action sequences that are more fun than any action has a right to be?

Just my ambivalent thoughts,



Anonymous said...

man o man, am i glad you wrote this.

I've been catching heat from friends and family (mainly 10 year old nephews) for not liking this movie. thanks for writing the faults of the story.

Now if i can get my nephews to sit down long enough to read this.


Thany said...

I totally had fun at this movie and I still want to see it again with my husband but I also agree with everything you said. (But don't tell any of my Pirate Crazy friends!)

Yo ho.

Gaffney said...

Yeah. As I say, Jeff loved it. Friend Janet ( also loved it, despite agreeing with most of what I said. Of course, I saw all the flaws of King Kong, but still loved it.



Anonymous said...

"Just my thoughts..."

Hey Sean,
I've been a fan of your work since seeing Moreau at Taproot more than a couple years back, and now I work for Taproot as their IT guy. (I was helping Karen with an email and saw you had a blog) Anyway, I am throughly enjoying your blog thus far (keep seeing movies!!), but I had a comment about the end-tag you usually put on your blog entries:
First off if this is your blog isn't all that is written here (unless otherwise quoted) "Just your thoughts"? Also I am of the personal opinion that when you put that little statement at the end of an entry it weakens some of the strong things you've said up above. EX: this is why pirates wasn't the best movie of the summer! (And we all can agree with you) And we're like "Yeah Sean! Tell it like it is!" and then you're like, "But that's just me." And then we're all like, but no! You're not alone! We agree, we agree!
I think that since this is your blog we already know that what we are seeing is your 2 cents. But maybe that's just my thoughts on the matter. =)

~Ben Morrell