About seven hours into Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, someone stuffs a monkey into a cannon, lights the fuse and sends it shooting across the deck to crash into another character. That monkey is like us, the audience -- bruised, confused and unsure what it did to deserve this punishment. We have to endure a hurricane of hooey, a hydra-headed story with more subplots and pointless reversals than a Raymond Chandler tale and more doodad MacGuffins -- a compass that points to this, a key that unlocks that -- than even a parody could endure, all of which leads to a sort of white noise of confusion where a plot should be. Even if that monkey-cannon were pointed at my head, I couldn't explain to you why, for example, the key pirates from the previous two films are now introduced to us as 'pirate lords' -- leaders of some kind of pirate's union, which, judging by Captain Jack (Johnny Depp) and Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) does not offer dental. It's their lordship, and what that means for pirates everywhere, that this trilogy capper is supposedly about.
You'll remember that at the end of the last film, Dead Man's Chest, Depp's swishy swashbuckler was betrayed by Keira Knightley's colonial babe Elizabeth Swann, left manacled to the deck of his ship as it was being eaten by a steroid-squid, in the hopes that a sticky pirate curse would drown with him and his ship. The audience wasn't fooled -- even the most casual moviegoer knew Depp would be returning for part three -- but films that include an easy-breezy transition between life and afterlife often find themselves having to paddle twice as hard to get dramatic tension going, which is one of the problems that most plagues At World's End. After all, if no one can really die, what's the worst thing that can happen? (One of the reasons I've never bothered to read a comic book in my life, by the way) Somewhere around the thirty-minute mark of this one, we're re-introduced to Captain Jack, who is stuck in some kind of Looney Tunes purgatory, commanding a ship sitting in the middle of a desert, and crewed only by multiple Jack Sparrows.
Before that can happen, however, we're whisked away to the land of Singapore, where Elizabeth Swann and Barbossa are improbably on some kind of stealth mission to enlist the help of Chow Yun-Fat in the whole scheme to free Sparrow from his afterlife prison. I can't imagine who thought it was a good idea to have Yun-Fat in this film, and I'm sure he would agree with me -- his scenes accomplish absolutely nothing except to pad the running time of the film an extra twenty minutes or so, and culminate in a bizarre set-up where he thinks that Knightley's character, wearing a triangle hat, is some kind of reincarnation of a goddess and tries to rape her. Don't ask. By the time the 'let's bring back Jack from the dead' part of the film is over, you're sort of hoping that things might get on the right track and liven up, but you're only kidding yourself -- that's when the real complications begin. Maps, keys to help read maps, and maps to help find keys, and so forth.
The big Keith Richards cameo, which we heard about forever, is also a wash-out -- he has one or two lines and is seemingly reading them off cards. It's almost as if he's there under duress. A more significant waste, however, is Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) the octopus-faced underworld captain introduced in the second film, and one of the few memorable characters in the entire series. Where he was menacing and mysterious before, he's now turned into a talky supporting player who absurdly sits down at meetings with the human characters to engage in their discussions about maps and keys. If I followed things correctly, I think Tom Hollander's character, a sort of bureaucratic Little Lord Fauntleroy of the high seas, commandeers Jones' powerful ghost ship The Dutchman, which can dive like a submersible and is crewed by a walking, talking Red Lobster platter, in the hopes of using it to stop an uprising by the union of pirates. Why doesn't he (Hollander) just use his influence to call down the thunder of the British fleet? Oh, forget it.
A few good moments are sprinkled throughout -- the filmmakers were smart to bring back Naomie Harris and Nighy, even if both of them are misused, and Knightley gets a couple of good lines -- but success has spoiled Captain Jack. The first film, perhaps coasting on low expectations, was a whimsical high-seas adventure in which the supernatural elements were well-handled and executed with style. A sense of economy was evident -- every shot was made to count -- but now we've arrived at the opposite end of the spectrum, with minor scenes getting twenty-minute setups and the smallest characters being allowed their own plot resolutions. Remember the guy who was in love with Knightley's character from early in the first film? He gets a good fifteen minutes. We're left with a sea-going Matrix trilogy, utterly superfluous, doomed to be forgotten. There's a moment in this film when one bit player turns to another and says "Do you think he's just making it up as he goes along?" They should have had the decency to keep that in-joke to themselves.