Feb 12

13 Worst Films Of 2011: 5 /4 : Ships & Monsters

FT18 comments • 2,108 views

Yo ho ho and a bottle of dumb. My joint fourth worst films of last year are additions to franchises, which use boats, monsters and lack any real plot logic. Both films are adapted from books, one ridiculously loosely, the other relatively slavishly. But in both cases I left the cinema rubbing my head wondering why it was ever made. And then I looked at the box office results and it was more than clear why. The movie business love franchises, even faltering franchises, an box office is king. But empty special effects sequences tied together do not make a film, and be it a franchise extension or a relatively tedious point in a franchise wind down, ships and monsters aren’t enough for me.

I did toy with these two films being joint 4th, but clearly the Voyage Of The Dawn Treader is better than Pirates Of The Caribbean IV: On Stranger Tides. It is shorter, is not just a pointless franchise extension (at least not as a film) and is at least watchable. It is true that many of its problems are those of the book, which in itself I think is part of a franchise extension which soon settled in a lot of diminishing returns. So I have to clearly state that the only Narnia book I ever really liked was the Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. The kids were just too annoying and the rules of Narnia annoyed me far too much. Well you will be pleased to hear that the kids in Voyage Of The Dawn Treader are appropriately annoying, played almost remarkably so. There is an annoying talking mouse. And arbritary magical stuff going on little of which makes any sense. I spoke elsewhere about the imagination monster that pops up in the Dawn Treader this time last year and whilst there is a nominal heroes quest there is also much dicking about waiting yet again for a Deus Ex Aslan. I have a sense of weary resignation towards the Narnia films which feels slightly relieved that it looks like the Magician’s Nephew (the fourth one) may not be made.

We step up into a whole new realm of poitnlessness though when we consider Pirates Of The Caribbean IV: On Stranger Tides. Now I have a love but mainly hate relationship with the first three Pirates films. I am somewhat in awe of the sixth highest grossing film of all time being one which starts with a ten minute sequences culminating in an eight year old child being hung by the neck. There is a fever dream quality to the third film which as you marvel at its general awfulness you cannot help but admire. Luckily “On Stranger Tides” is much more conventional. It feels a little bit more like a big budget pilot for a TV series, now centred around Captain Jack Sparrow, his love/hate pirate gal pal and a mixture of old and new addtions to the Pirate canon.

Somewhere along the line, and I was never quite sure where, Geoffrey Rush’s undead Captain Barbossa went from big bad antagonist to slightly slippery best mates to Captain Jack. Somewhere along the line Blackbeard suddenly became the most dread pirate of all (despite not showing up at all for the pirate conflab where Keira Knightly became King Of The Pirates…) Somehow Ian McShane being Penelope Cruz’s father did not seem totally ridiculous. I am more au fait with murderous mermaids, and yet another hopelessly sappy love story with a chinless wonder, that is the way of the franchise. But when we get to the fountain of youth and pirates frankly refuse to act like pirates, well by then I would have walked out if I hadn’t seen it on DVD. I did fall asleep for about twenty minutes. Perhaps it was twenty minutes when some cheeky orphans all got tortured to death on the Spanish Main thus completely confounding my expectations for the fanchise again. However I think it probably had Depp either poking his own eyebrows out with a Kohl pencil or falling over.

You know who I feel a little bad for (ameliorated by the fact they must have got plenty of money): the writer of the book On Stranger Tides. I’ve not read it but the book was very well received in the eighties, and it just goes to show what happens when you sell all your rights on. A fun swashbuckler may turn into a grotesque pantomime…


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    Barbarossa basically becomes “pals” w/Jack exactly when REV. becomes Lord of all Evil. It’s standard Marvel plotting: the new big villain cuckoos the old familiar lesser villain into the anti-villainy team.

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    Mark M on 14 Feb 2012 #

    I’ve paid actual cinema prices to see all four Pirates movies, and don’t begrudge a penny. I really liked the first one, despite Bloom/Knightley, and managed to get something out of 2 & 3, even when suffering through the presence of Skarsgard, B/K, Keef, convoluted plot nonsense and the fact that Sparrow had gone from weird and camp in 1 to mincing ninny by 3, and the way 3 totally wasted the way that in 2 Naomie Harris had brought life and proper sultriness into a terrible stock part. The only bit of PofC: On Stranger Tides I remember clearly is the London segment at the start, which I thought was terrific. The rest is a bit of a blur, although the fact it had Penelope Cruz acting in English and I didn’t walk out suggests it must have been surprisingly bearable.

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    Inevitably I *really really really really really really* like 3: I think visually it’s strikingly beautiful and strange, and the machinery of the (vast, seemingly endless) whirlpool battle (climaxing in Tom Hollander’s death walk ) is high-end poetic sublime. Obviously all the characters are cartoons, some a lot more effectively than others — it’s as if they’re one by one turning back into inanimate (yet animated) “features” on the fairground-ride that originally inspired it. Davy Jones and Skarsgard are obviously morphologically liminal; Jack’s become a kind of instrumental of tics more than a character (YMMV); Calypso, after a bit too long as a stock character suddenly explodes into a vast collapsing column of crabs — and half the rest are TOTALLY WOODEN ALREADY hohoho.

    (Started this post^^^ semi-trolling, ended it quite seriously and reaching for quotes from Ovid…)

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    Mark M on 14 Feb 2012 #

    Whirlpools good. And although the pirates conference wasn’t all that, I liked the film’s Singapore. In fact, I think they’ve done towns well over the whole series.

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    swanstep on 15 Feb 2012 #

    Good lord, I can’t believe there are actually thoughtful people who enjoyed and are prepared to defend either Pirates 2 or 3. These films are, in my view, staggeringly misconceived in roughly the same ways that Matrix 2 and 3 are: they go out of their ways to miss the good points of their originals. In the original Pirates, the batshit supernatural stuff was seasoning, in the sequels it’s any actual piracy/empire/colonialism stuff that’s garnish (on an arbitrary, supernatural shenanigans main course).

    Part of what anyone wants out a pirate film and what Pirates 1 and the good pirate movies it was most influenced by such as The Crimson Pirate delivered, is action under blue skies on blue seas etc.. *That’s* what we’re escaping to etc.. Pirates 2 and 3, however, mostly look like they’re shot in a dungeon basement from Se7en.

    Moreover, a lot of what we all want out of a pirate story is the story of stuck-up imperial virtue lured/corrupted into naughty privateer free-spiritedness which ultimately is revealed as constituting a higher virtue: in a nutshell, posh girl slums it joins the pirates… huzzah. But Pirates 2 and 3 almost completely eliminated the whole ‘corrupting stuck-up imperial virtue/posh’ side of the genre equation in favor of transactions purely on the pirate side. That’s daft, it didn’t work, the screenwriters should be shot (obviously billions of dollars in ticket sales for these films suggest otherwise, but I’m sticking to my guns).

    Anyhow, Pete B., I feel for you man, having to see all these wretched, wretched films…

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    Pete on 15 Feb 2012 #

    I often want to like the Pirates films more than I do, because there are things in them which I genuinely like. But I think I have to agree with Swanstep that my big problem is that they have turned into fantasy mush rather than there being any piracy at all. The pirates appear to live in a hermetically sealed world where what they do does not affect anything else in the world (which may be why, as suggested above, the city sequences are good – as they hint at some sort of reaction with the wider world). They are also so poorly plotted, my least favourite thing about the third one is a really clear and obvious resolution of the Davy Jones / Calypso storyline which would redeem Davy, explain Calypso’s issues and still allow for a terrific sea battle being jettisoned for an all in effectsathon.

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    really clear and obvious resolution of the Davy Jones / Calypso storyline

    d00d they revert to their vast and elemental forms and have titanic pathetic-fallacy make-up sex = the dutchman plunges down into the whirling vortex amidst amazing chaotic free-form turbulence as far as the eye can sea see! how much more clear and obvious do you want it?

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    Pete on 15 Feb 2012 #

    I wanted a candlelit dinner and no sfx. As ever.

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    swanstep on 15 Feb 2012 #

    One thing I don’t criticize Pirates films (and their ilk) for any more is wasting money/costing too much. When a little James Brooks/Reese Witherspoon rom-com costs $120 million, $200 million for krakens, davy jones, flocks of jack sparrows, depp, knightley, nighy, rush and all the rest of it seems like a steal/model of fiscal rectitude.

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    Nixon on 4 Mar 2012 #

    Late to the party, but I’d just like to echo Mark’s ringing endorsement of Pirates 3. The imagery and staging of it all is beautiful – besides the stuff already mentioned, besides the overall “feel” which makes the film seem to take place in its own dream-world, there are set-pieces like overturning the ship, the pirate town, dead Kraken, sailing past the dead rowing the other way, people losing frozen toes… Plus the scene in the Locker itself, essentially a ten-minute standalone arthouse film that everyone involved felt comfortable enough to insert right near the start of what should have been a formula multiplex blockbuster (as one of my friends put it at the time “if that had been in Hungarian with someone ugly playing the Depp role, I suspect a lot of people would be queueing up to praise it”).

    But the thing I most love about it is that it already takes on swanstep’s criticisms about the pirates operating in a bubble, detached from the real world. The first film set up a universe with an internally-consistent set of rules – monsters exist, Jonathan Pryce is the government, Barbossa is the baddie, Jack is the hero, Norrington is free to let Jack go at the end with a mutually understood wink, Orlando gets the girl.

    But the two sequels are all about what happens when that interacts with the real world. If there’s crazy supernatural stuff going on, and reliable witnesses like Pryce, Norrington and the soldiers have seen it, then the secret is out; the government has a responsibility to investigate, in case it doesn’t end with Barbossa; perhaps all the other myths of the terrifying sea are true. Rather than be scared, reality demands these loopholes, obstacles to commerce, be closed. Pryce and Norrington, whose actions in the first film are pirate-movie acceptable practice, both have their lives ruined and then taken away because they didn’t immediately choose a side – magic or reality – and either join the pirates, or put a bullet in Jack’s head at the first opportunity. Orlando and Keira spend most of the second film bickering. The second film, for me the weakest of the three, actually has much more daylight and sunshine and fresh air and outdoor jungle fun and sea and sand than the first, but there’s a timer in the background that can never be fully ignored, that this is all a distraction, that the serious business is yet to come.

    There are hints – the good honest (serious) merchant who never wanted anything to do with this nonsense, but gets sucked in anyway thanks to Keira, reluctantly decides to engage with the crazy magic pirate world, and is rewarded by him and his crew being horribly killed, for instance. The two worlds are incompatible, and Jack, Orlando, Keira and Norrington spend most of the second film inadvertently trying to prove it by doing Tom Hollander’s bidding against Davy Jones. But the third film is all about what happens when the serious business collides head-on with the magical world.

    That’s what’s at stake; it’s fantasy against reality, the pirates are fighting – and willing to die – to save their magical world in the face of the new, realistic, commercial, *boring* mortal world that has been impinging on their fun year on year . Not even to preserve it, except for a temporary stay of execution (it’s accepted that things can’t carry on like this – it just won’t be ending *today*, thank you very much), but to save some remnant of it for the future. Can’t say there’s no Flying Dutchman, can’t stop that myth, because Orlando’s taken the job, apparently in perpetuity. Every year there’ll be less and less magic in the world, but there’ll never be *none*.

    Pirates 4 is a fairly dull straight sequel to Pirates 1, with none of the crazed experimentation and big questions of 2 and 3, and centred around a stock character we’re getting sick of seeing (by the end, Barbossa is the more interesting and sympathetic lead). Strangely appropriate that it gets bracketed with the shoddy Narnia adaptation, beside the obvious ship-based franchise extension thing – they’re both franchise extensions which miss the point, ticking some boxes but (for me) losing the sense of unpredictable wonder that came with both Pirates 3 and the Dawn Treader book.

    (tl;dr – this would have been better as the germ of a blog post somewhere I suppose… still hopefully the idea comes across.)

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    lonepilgrim on 4 Mar 2012 #

    re 11: not too long; did read – and enjoyed

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    i’ve been mulling a big post on this too, nixon, along much these lines — no longer so urgent, so thank you for this!

    (my original FT post about PotC2 located it between Captain Slaughterboard and Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon: or located its just-discernable potential there, anyway, because after PotC3, PotC2 seems constrained and timidly shaped; it’s the sensibility of PotC1 as it mutates into PotC3, but still neither one thing nor the other…)

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    swanstep on 4 Mar 2012 #

    It’s fantasy against reality, the pirates are fighting – and willing to die – to save their magical world in the face of the new, realistic, commercial, *boring* mortal world that has been impinging on their fun year on year.
    Whatever floats your galleon I suppose, but, honestly, fusing the pirate world with the magical (as opposed to having the latter intrude occasionally on the former’s relation with imperial power) strikes me as a terrible direction to go in. It amounts to the screenwriters deciding that piracy and pirates themselves don’t interest them, which feels to me like a serious lack of imagination on their part (imagine some writers deciding that about gangsters or cowboys or cops). My relative immovability on this point is driven in part by the fact that friends o’ mine had been publishing piracy-related papers and books in both cultural studies and economics since the mid ’90s, e.g., two books here and here. There was, therefore, a wealth of material there for thoughtful screenwriters to draw on, all of which was passed up in favor of more and more supernaturalism, principally, I’m guessing, just because *that* avenue presented unlimited opportunity for big critter sfx and action sequences, which is what Hollywood mainly sees itself as selling these days.

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    It’s absolutely true that there’s a LOT to say about actual real-life pirates also, ancient and modern, and that some of it might work pretty well in movies — though I think it’s vaguely nuts to imagine that the PotC franchise was ever going to be exploring this. It’s based on a flume-ride! Which largely borrows its notion of pirates from Peter Pan — which underlines the point that this is by no means a direction that pirate fiction has only just started going in; it’s pretty much been baked in since Robert Louis Stephenson.

    (I guess there’s some input from Tim Powers too, but I haven’t read any of his books…)

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    swanstep on 5 Mar 2012 #

    though I think it’s vaguely nuts to imagine that the PotC franchise was ever going to be exploring this
    I don’t think it’s so nuts. There are lots of connections between Carribean piracy and slave revolts in Haiti and elsewhere. See, e.g., this guy. Thread underlying subversive ideas about pirates as a source of democracy in the region *together with* Elizabeth Swan and her beau ‘bought off’ with poshness and titles etc and trying to run the Bahamas say (or give Elizabeth a sister in that predicament…), only to have the Pirate and underclass light dawn again as it were, *together with* a fantasia on the intrigues over Florida (which in real life passed very quickly from Spanish to English to American hands – subversive sniping about the Americans never negotiating with Pirates and as a result tolerating slavery for fifty years longer than the British Empire did? yes please!). Somehow jokes about the future location of a Pirates attraction in Disneyworld in Florida could have been worked in…

    That’s a Pirates movie I want to see: much less supernatural, much more political (albeit not necessarily especially realistic or historically accurate) but also more broadly self-aware. I’m not saying it’s easy to write something like that, but it’s a reasonable direction to go in (assuming the writers aren’t just complete hacks).

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    swanstep on 5 Mar 2012 #

    BTW, the ‘this guy’ link in #16 is to a fictional character as far as anyone knows….my apologies.

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    Andrew on 11 Apr 2012 #

    I’d just like to add – it’s debatable, and highly probable that POTC, or at least Ted Elliot, the main script writer, borrowed heavily not just from On Stranger Tides novel or the original Disney ride, but from The Secret of Monkey Island (1&2).

    Monkey Island merged the real Pirate world with the magical – and did so brilliantly. The game was a huge success, adored by many including Spielberg. If this is to be believed, that Ted Elliot did borrow from these games, then the merger of the real with the magical is not only understood – but more appreciated too.

    For the record – I love 1, 2 and 3 – (At World’s End is probably my fav). Part 4 is pretty awful.

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