“At Self’s End”

Two hours and 47 minutes is a long time to sit through any movie that isn’t billing itself as an epic, much less one promising swashbuckling adventure and thrills. It’s a long time to try and sustain any adventure without feeling the strain of a top-heavy story. My initial thoughts on the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy as a whole compares it to the Matrix franchise: the first movie was a stand-out and stand-alone classic. Parts 2 and 3 were ambitious story-telling, which don’t quite bring what they want to do to a cohesive whole. Interesting messes.

What I enjoy so much about this series is its lack of fear to be darker, especially for a Disney movie. They are pirate movies that remember pirates don’t have the best table, or any other kind of, manners. They kill and are brutal and often find themselves in situation where they have to kill and be brutal. Which makes it quite the juggling act to balance that with a sense of freewheeling whimsy.

The director, Gore Verbinski, and the screenwriters, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, throw in everything but the poop deck in this third installment (you know, the “we have to have more of everything in order to outdo the first two” mentality). So we have an unnecessarily complex storyline, I’m sure meant to be understood under repeated viewings. Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is trapped in Davy Jones locker or hell or limbo and needs rescuing. Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) attempts to free the father he never knew, Bootrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), from the curse of Davy Jones. Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) wants to avenge the death of her father, Governor Weatherby Swann (Jonathan Pryce). Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) doubles as the sea goddess Calypso—putting the magic in magical Negro—trapped in human form wanting to be free. Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) wants, I’m never quite sure what he wants: to be human again, to regain his lost love, to sail the seas. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) wants to unite all of the pirate lords to battle the British, led by Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), to preserve the pirate way of life.

All that and there’s no cool monster.

“Too long my fate has not been in my own hands. No longer.” –Barbossa

Many boys (and girls!) dream of being pirates. They have been mythologized and romanticized to the point of social acceptance, if not heroism – a far cry from how they were treated (and behaved) in their day. Part of their allure, much like the cowboy spirit that has become part of the fabric of American lore, is their self-determination. Pirates want to live life on their own terms, pursue their sense of freedom. Theirs is the anarchist heart that fuels the spirit of punks, Harley riders, and so many other modern day interpretations of that way of life.

The problem with this great myth of individualism is that it tends to only lead to people focused on their own personal agendas; an inability to see past themselves.

“You have corrupted your purpose and so yourself.” –Calypso

Whether they realize it or not, most of the sprawling cast of characters in the movie are on a quest for forgiveness and/or redemption: Elizabeth for having betrayed and killed Jack; Bootstrap Bill for choosing his way of life; Davy Jones for being Calypso’s Judas; and Jack for being Jack. All of them bearing burdens they didn’t know they had.

Despite their claims to living as they see fit, even the pirates are governed by their law. The Code of the Brethren, the old law, ever subject to tradition and interpretation and thus is not enough to keep them from pursuing their own way of life. The pursuit of their individual agendas lead to despair and that despair leads to betrayal (after betrayal after betrayal). In fact, there is such a morass of betrayal and intrigue the movie borders on the nonsensical.

“There’s an evil on these seas …” –Calypso

Adding to the dilemma of the state of their world is a fallen system. The roiling seas were a common image for the political powers of the day, in this case, the British Empire under the guise of the East India Company. Their colonialist mentality is a conquest mentality that works by making other cultures, other ways of life, less than human; debasing “the other” while exalting “their own”.

“I can set you free, mate.” –Jack

Intoning that “the song has been sung”, various signs, portents, and prophecies point to the return of the one who can solve all of their problems: Captain Jack. His resurrection, having died for the “sins of others” in the previous Pirates of the Caribbean installment, takes a bit of work. Trapped in a place of eternal punishment, a Sisyphean sequence that goes on a bit too long in the movie, the crew comes to let him know that it is time for his return. The world needs him back as much as he needs his crew, his brand of disciples, or his Brethren Court, his brand of a church; a motley lot most times true only to their own agendas.

“What is it you want most?” –Davy Jones

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) We don’t trust freedom and we certainly aren’t comfortable with this whole idea of liberation. Too many people want to be told, they want the black and white system of rules and hate (or at least distrust) anything that smacks of gray. Freedom goes against our sense of control, and ultimately, that’s what the extra rules that make up our walk boil down to. Pirates stand for freedom, for standing outside and against how the Empire says we should live.

A gospel of freedom speaks to the disinherited, the poor, the disenfranchised, the oppression of the weak by the powerful. This gospel would also be an offense to the rich and powerful. It’s the death of their ideas of wealth and power, those priorities. Bring new life to men, the scales of their old ways, their old, self-serving mission, falling from them as they get redeemed bodies. No longer bound to their old way of doing life.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
may be the last entry in the successful (and critic proof) franchise. A wonderful spectacle that can entrance you with the richness of its details (like watching Davy Jones tentacles every time he was on screen), one can’t help but think the spectacle and sight gags are meant to distract you from the fact that not much is really going on. Its dense, convoluted plot tries to do too much, the charms of the movie buried under layers of poor storytelling and unclear characterizations. For all of the action they manage to squeeze in, there is a sense of too little swash and too much buckling.

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