Monday, July 10, 2006

Pirates 2: Not Enough Swashing and Too Much Buckling

Do you remember those days of yore when exciting films of swashbuckling action played on the big screen?


Me either.

When I was growing up, the best swashbuckling films had already been made and I watched them on Saturday afternoons or late Saturday night. The swashbuckling adventures that played on the big screen when I was young were terrible. They were either tongue-in-cheek affairs like Yellowbeard, awkward executions like Pirates, or miserable adaptations like The Pirate Movie. Sure there were some bright spots like Swashbuckler, but for the most part my youth was spent watching either spoofs of swashbuckling films on a larger than life medium, or watching larger than life swashbuckling films on a 24" screen.

Then as a teen and twenty-something tyke things only got worse. I had to endure the horror of Cutthroat Island, possibly the worst movie ever made. It just seemed that Hollywood had become incapable of making a serious swashbuckling film anymore. All they could make were parodies of classic films made decades before. The best swashbuckling film of my teen years was The Princess Bride, but even it (and it is a great film) took its subject matter less than seriously. After Cutthroat Island, I had lost hope that Hollywood would ever make another good traditional swashbuckling film.

Then I saw Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Finally, the magic of swashbuckling adventure was back. Beautiful women, rope swinging, duels, pirates, and canon fire were once more a part of Hollywood and I couldn't be happier. Add to this the release of Master and Commander and I was a truly happy man.

So, like much of America, I lined up to watch the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest with high hopes. The film is the second in what is to be a trilogy of Pirates films. I entered the theater quivering with excitement and I left the movie in a state of confusion.

The latest entry in the Pirates franchise has three very interesting narratives going on within its over two-hours of storytelling and one less interesting narrative (there are additional subplots as well). The first narrative, the least explored and most interesting, is the growing power of the East India Company and their desire to acquire a superweapon with which they can control the high seas.

The second narrative is the desire of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to "save his soul" from Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). Jones had returned Sparrow's ship from the depths of the sea in return for Sparrow's servitude 13 years after the raising of the ship. Like the first film, Sparrow is again in risk of losing his soul to an undead captain and is, once more, at risk of becoming an undead crewmember.

The third narrative is the story of Davy Jones himself. Davy Jones is a tragic villain who once loved a woman, but due to complications ended up cutting his heart out and placing it (still beating) into a chest. As long as the heart beat within the chest, Jones would be immortal. Here's where the title of the film takes dual meaning. The "Dead Man's Chest" refers not only to the physical chest storing Jones' still beating heart, but also the empty chest within Jones' physical body where the heart should be beating. Jones' narrative has a couple of primary points. First he scours the seas in search of crewmembers to serve as undead henchmen on his crew. To do this he often unleashes the Kraken (no Clash of the Titans giggles please) to destroy ships sailing the seas. Second, he still pines for his lost love, playing the organ and listening to a heart shaped music-box. The narrative leaves open the potential of redeeming this heartbroken villain.

The less interesting fourth narrative is the romantic triangle of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), and Jack Sparrow. Where the first film had Sparrow flirt with Swann, the audience always knew the young lovers would be together. No longer is this the case. As the film's storylines play out, Swann discovers that she may have more in common with Sparrow than she imagines. Where Turner is forthright and virtuous, features that often require greater than normal heroics, Sparrow is self-centered and dishonest. As Swann gets deeper and deeper into the story, she begins to discover how dishonest and self-centered she is.

This Pirates film is darker and less linear than the first film. Where the first film was a roller coaster of action leading to a structural conclusion, this film divides the characters and ends with the need of resolution. In many ways, the film shares a great deal narratively with Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. The film separates the main characters, has each follow a particular story, and ends on an unresolved down note. The bad guys are winning at the end of the film, but hope remains. There was more drama, but less excitement and fun in this production.

The special effects, in particular the creature designs by Mark McCreery (Galaxy Quest and Van Helsing) are remarkable. You can see some of his design work on the crew in this clip (Jack Trades Will ) featuring Davy Jones and Will Turner. One of the key features in the film is the use of new motion capture technology. According to USA Today, "Davy Jones is cut from a very different cloth. He was created with motion-capture technology, similar to what Andy Serkis did with Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and the giant ape in King Kong and Tom Hanks as the multiple characters of The Polar Express." Nighy's performance is entirely motion capture. He performed on set in a motion capture suit, instead of makeup, and the results were impressive. I had been wary of this technology after seeing Polar Express and fearful of what the upcoming motion capture Beowulf adaptation would look like. But after seeing the Davy Jones sequences, I am now anxiously awaiting more uses of the technology.

As an additional highlight, while there is less swashing (action) than buckling (boring talking head stuff) in this film, there is still one remarkable duel featuring a water wheel. This fight really is not to be missed.

Overall, I believe the film will be worth watching only after seeing the third and final installment of the series. I left feeling lost, alone, and sad. Quite the opposite of the emotions I expected going into the film. If Gore Verbinski and crew can complete the open narratives and redeem our heroes in the third film, this may end up being viewed as the best film in the series in retrospect. If the narratives are left unresolved, the film will be viewed as a failure. One thing is for sure, the film feels unfinished and very much like the middle part of a narrative. It is a good thing that is exactly what this film is.

Now I know what it felt like to be one of those kids who watched the serials in the theater. Well with one big difference. I have to wait a year to find out what happens.

Overall, I enjoyed the film, but I wanted it to be more lighthearted and hopeful.
If you go out to see it and don't enjoy the movie, but you like the "idea" of it, you must rush out immediately and purchase Wiz Kids Games' Pirates of Davy Jones' Curse.

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