Sometimes, lightning does strike twice. No, that’s not quite right. Three years ago Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
was an unexpected bolt from the blue, a movie based on a theme-park attraction that unlike Disney’s similarly inspired The Haunted Mansion and The Country Bears turned out to be unexpectedly fresh and buoyant, becoming the surprise summer hit of the year.
A Second Helping of Swashbuckling Fun
The sequel, which reunites director Gore Verbinski, screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, and pretty much the whole cast from the first film, could easily have played it safe, giving audiences a second helping of the first film’s swashbuckling fun and spooky thrills while letting the wonderful weirdness of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow pick up the slack.
And, in fact, in some respects Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest does offer most of what you’d expect: an even more convoluted plot, even more eye-popping special effects and makeup, and an even more powerful supernatural nautical antagonist. Also like the first film, the sequel takes awhile to get warmed up, and winds up running about a quarter hour longer than it ought to (your mileage may vary).
At the same time, perhaps inspired by the eccentric twist Depp gave the material in the first film, the filmmakers have let their imaginations run wild, taking chances, striving to outdo themselves on every level. It’s an approach that can yield self-indulgent, bloated excess or brilliance.
It pays off. Filmed back-to-back with next summer’s part three (At World’s End), Dead Man’s Chest successfully, er, parlays the one-off success of the first film into a sustainable phenomenon, not so much striking like a thunderbolt as rolling crackling along like ball lightning. Not that I’ve ever seen ball lightning, but it must be a sight as singular, and worth looking at, as some of what goes rolling by in this film, one of the most memorably entertaining popcorn flicks in memory.
The first film combined a lighthearted homage to the seafaring swashbucklers of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks with the creepy thrills of a ghost story. The sequel is a far-ranging pastiche of everything from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to King Kong to The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. At the same time, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dead Man’s Chest takes the kinds of things that others have done before, and then does them so inventively that it becomes the new standard.
The Raiders comparison is more apt here than in the original, in which the swordplay and such was more energetic and well-done than inspired. The sequel takes the slapstick swashbuckling to a completely new level, evoking the ingenuity and physical comedy of a Buster Keaton or Jackie Chan set piece, crossed with the Rube Goldberg logic of a Chuck Jones cartoon.
The Middle Movie Template Writ Large
The first great set piece is staged on an island where the heroes are captured by unfriendly natives and face a grim fate a familiar premise recalling everything from King Kong and King Solomon’s Mines to Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Yet the madcap escape sequence, like the truck sequence in Raiders, is an instant classic without any real precedent, at least as far as I know. To the extent that this and other scenes remind me of anything, they recall some of the animated derring-do of The Emperor’s New Groove, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, and The Incredibles.
A second, equally memorable sequence is set on another island, where the action cuts between a sort of musical-chairs swordfight, with an unlikely trio of allies fighting for their lives while armed with only two swords, and a freewheeling three-way duel that ranges from an open beach to the heights of a ruined watermill before going spinning off into uncharted territory. (The puns are just rolling off my tongue.)
Dead Man’s Chest follows the middle-movie template established by The Empire Strikes Back, with a darker, more sprawling story, bigger threats, and a cliffhanger finale. At the same time, it introduces a villain as visually astonishing as Return of the Jedi's Jabba the Hutt was in 1983 (something that Lucas himself couldn’t duplicate in any of his prequels): the fabled fiend of the deep, Davy Jones himself (of “Davy Jones’s locker” fame).
Here established as the literally heartless captain of the Flying Dutchman, a ghost ship crewed by the doomed souls of those lost at sea, Jones (Bill Nighy) recalls Jabba not only by his slimy, invertebrate-inspired character design, but also in his relationship to Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), who is loosely the counterpart to Han Solo.
Jones looms large as a villain not only for Sparrow, but also for heroic Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), for reasons that might be guessed based on the first film, and have to do with one of Jones’ thralls aboard the Flying Dutchman (Stellan Skarsgård, King Arthur).
Sparrow and Will each contend separately with Jones, while heroine Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) pursues them both. Along the way we learn more about the heroes’ back stories as well as Jack’s magical compass, which turns out to be more complicated than it seemed in the first film. As Christian critic Jeff Overstreet commented after the screening, it’s almost a moral compass; and we soon understand why Sparrow is unable to get his bearings from it.
Not only Jones himself, but the whole crew of the Flying Dutchman are a fascinating, fearful feast for the eyes, going light-years beyond the first film’s skeletal pirates. In particular there is one character with a conch for a head don’t even bother trying to picture it that must be seen to be believed. Looking at some of these creations, one is agog not just at the technical achievement exceptional as it is even in this age of high-tech effects but at the imagination that went into these bizarre images, and the fact that they were made at all.
A slight but distinct spiritual vibe runs through Dead Man’s Chest, particularly in regard to an uneasy awareness of judgment after death. “Do you fear death?” Jones asks the sailors of a ship he has taken as he offers them a Faustian choice between death and eternal service on his ship. “Life is cruel. Why should the afterlife be any different? Why not postpone the judgment?” Most of the sailors accept this Faustian bargain, though one sane soul demurs (“I’ll take my chances”) and is quickly dispatched.
In a comic variation on the theme, one of the formerly cursed pirates from the first film has taken a new interest in spiritual matters. “We’re not immortal any more we got to take care of our immortal souls,” he warns his companion while leafing intently through his Bible.
The other eyes him dubiously. “You know you can’t read…”
But the first is undeterred: “It’s the Bible you get credit for trying!” (It will be interesting to see if this minor theme of judgment and life after death continue, perhaps even pay off somehow, in the third film next summer.)
Over the last three years, the original Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl has grown in my estimation and affection, joining the likes of The Princess Bride and Galaxy Quest among the ranks of comic homages that succeed in their own right rather than working merely as camp or farce. Now, against all odds, comes a sequel that goes beyond genre entertainment to jaw-dropping invention. If it’s not in the same league as Raiders of the Lost Ark and its “middle movie” muddle pretty much guarantees that it still comes closer than either of Indiana Jones’s own sequels, not to mention pretty much anything that’s followed.
(c) 2006 Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Steven D. Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register and appears weekly on Ave Maria radio. His website offers in-depth reviews of both contemporary and older films, evaluating them for moral and spiritual worth as well as artistic and entertainment value.
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