It's funny, as I'm rarely able to do so, but I can pinpoint the exact moment that 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' lost me, the moment where I felt I was watching an inferior knockoff to the original film trilogy. That moment, sadly, was far too early in the film, as the opening sequences concerning yet another daring escape by Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) had that lingering feeling like we've seen it before, some time ago...only better, and in the same series. As the world's most unconventional, seat-of-his-pants pirate works his magic in the heart of London, in front of the King, no less, outsmarting an army at the heart of their strength, I wasn't pulled into the film, I was tempted to look at my watch.
Not a good sign.
'On Stranger Tides,' the first new 'Pirates' film in four years, after the original trilogy wrapped up its characters in a neat little bow and jettisoned their increasingly ridiculous drama for smoother sailing, trades in one set of problems for another. On paper, this fourth film has two great strengths working for it in the amazing Ian McShane and the fitting Penelope Cruz, while the two biggest acting weaknesses, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley are nowhere to be found (they're not even mentioned or hinted at). Then there's the direction, with Gore Verbinski is gone, replaced by Rob Marshall of 'Chicago' and 'Nine' fame. To say there's a change in atmosphere and tone is like saying there's a change in acting: the difference is unmistakable.
Of course the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' series was going to continue, as the massive worldwide box office and home video sales practically assured that the Mouse House could spend any amount of money deemed necessary and still make a handsome profit. One of acting's most beloved current superstars in an Academy Award nominated role beloved by children and adults alike, in a career defining part that has stretched outside of film to children's charity on a number of occasions? The question wasn't if, but when, or how soon, as in how long would it be necessary to wait before starting what may be another trilogy's worth of films?
I'm honestly quite thankful that this film is so far removed from those that came before it. Interestingly enough, the way it has been written, and the way it apes numerous memorable sequences in 'Curse of the Black Pearl,' one can't help but notice that this film seems like an attempt to start the series anew. That certainly would explain the lack of mention of the Swans and Turners of the world. The way in which we have a rafters fight, paralleling the one from the first film, as well as the zany rope swinging escape from British forces, again a callback of sorts, and the manner in which characters are introduced is not all that original. Perhaps that may be why the entire runtime felt like I was watching a poor man's 'Black Pearl.'
Captain Jack is back, and is on his most perilous quest yet, with the character and plot device that fans have been undoubtedly waiting for. The mysterious, long lost fountain of youth? The treacherous Blackbeard (McShane)? This time, without his trusty ship or crew, Sparrow must outwit a man on his final leg, a man with only one leg, and a woman from his past who seems to constantly have the leg up on him. The Spanish Armada and the British Navy are on his tail, and the race is on in the quest for eternal youth and glory!
The similarities between this film and the first are just too much, adding up far too fast. The previously mentioned dog and pony show in the opening sequence that is shameless in its parody is perhaps the most striking, but there seems to be no limit to the nostalgia. You have the brutal new bearded villain, replete with supernatural crew, who at one point take Jack hostage on their ship, in a manner of speaking. You have the damsel on board, this time less in distress, but still ever present. You have the supporting character love story against all odds, the attack of a ship's entire crew in the distance by a non-human force, the climax in the bowels of a glorious, ancient cave, the last second twist, and the desert island, all waiting to be rediscovered. It's like this is a film afraid to carve out its own identity, crafting Blackbeard far too much in the same manner as Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) in the first film, sometimes eerily so. The only thing missing is a massive ship battle, which is a glaring omission. A pirate film without a real ship battle is like 'Star Wars' without some kind of war...in the stars: blasphemy.
As always, Depp is amazing in the role that he and only he could ever portray again, and McShane is appreciable, though never given the opportunity to be purely, deliciously evil. Rush is again a highlight, as the crusty old man now sporting some serious wood (on his leg...) chews up scenes like they're Hungryman dinners. There's no more awful, pretty boy "acting," and with the crew significantly reduced in number, much more time is spent on the main characters. Spent, or mishandled, however you think of it, should I say. Of course, the lack of said developed side characters is another issue, as there isn't any fun scene or standout side character to pay attention to this time around. The only new addition is that of a religious man, trying to save Blackbeard's soul, with a good amount of time spent developing his role that seems so minor but becomes quite pivotal.
I never expected a film with mermaids, zombies, pirates, and Ian McShane to bore me so. The film crawls on by, with little buoyancy, keeping a heavy hand and less mystery to its plot than a book being read backwards. The complex, startling unpredictability of the original films is nowhere to be found, even if countless scenes are stolen. 'On Stranger Tides' is a halfhearted sequel-slash-reboot, one that would not have been anywhere near as successful if it were the first film in the series. Disney captured lightning in a bottle when they first released the themepark-ride-turned-film in theaters, catching the naysayers off guard with an amazingly deep story and an off the wall main character. This time around, you have to wonder, aside from a few fun references to history and legend, if anyone even cared when penning or creating the film. The spark of the original is gone, the wry intelligence of the third film also departed. All that's left is the parody, and a handful of sexual innuendos.
I still wonder one thing: after the way 'At World's End' and 'Dead Man's Chest' showed the growing power of the East India Trading Company, their reach spanning the globe, inescapable, not even on cannibal islands, showing that Captain Jack had nowhere to run, that he must face his problems head on, I have to ask: Where the heck are they here? Where did they go? Do they represent logic, hence their exclusion in this film? They were defeated by the end of the last film, but their influence surely didn't just vanish overnight!
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' arrives on Blu-ray in three different fashions: a standalone two disc set (with a BD50 Blu-ray for the film and a bonus DVD copy), a five disc set (which adds a Digital Copy, a BD25 for added extras, and a BD50 Blu-ray 3D disc), and a massive four film box set in a treasure chest that is probably made out of cardboard. The usual Disney pre-menu content is presented, with the on screen and remote options to skip straight to the menu, which features full motion video and a solid audio loop.
Whether going the 2D or 3D route, 'On Stranger Tides' is Region A/B/C, and should play in any Blu-ray player around the world, firmware permitting.
It pains me to write this section of the review. Pains me dearly. I want to give 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' a five star score, the loftiest perch attainable under our system. I want to, but I just can't do it. I do want to say that Disney has given us an amazing looking disc, absolutely amazing. I also want to say that if every disc looked this good, there wouldn't be any need for Blu-ray reviews at all. Disney's 1080p transfer on their latest 'Pirates' flick is a real gem, clearly defining the top tier as one of the best looking titles to hit the format this year.
I want to change things up a little, and talk about what bothered me about the disc, before throwing all that fun lavish praise at it, because quite simply, if I start the other way around, I may never get to the gripes and may talk myself out of this. Consistency is the killer. 'On Stranger Tides' boasts some absolutely jaw dropping sequences, moments that clearly redefine the definition of "demo material," and even when it isn't at its peak, the amount of detail in the picture is superb. However, in part due to a proliferation of dark sequences in the opening half of the flick, there isn't consistency when it comes to this amazing power. The opening of the film, for example, left me wondering when the "wow" was going to kick in, like I knew it would. There isn't any amazing moment in the opening act of the film, surprisingly, regardless of lighting or setting, as it seems the picture gets better and better as the film progresses. Noise was a big concern in the 'At World's End' review, and it pops up again, but it's nowhere near as problematic to my eyes.
And...well, that's it for the gripes. This disc is awesome. Shadow details are strong, the picture is regularly immensely deep, and textures, there isn't a word to define how truly revolutionary they are here. Black levels don't waver and stay superbly inky, skin definition, from the cuts and burns to the light freckling of Cruz's face, let's just say there's absolutely no complaints there! Colors are bold, from the gorgeous (and amazingly defined) blood red sails of the Queen Anne's Revenge, to the beautifully azure skies and ocean late in the film. Detail levels, a highlight, for sure. The clarity in Captain Jack's dreadlocks and random hair strands, now sporting a more sun-bleached hue, let's just say that something that assuredly smells so nasty never looked so delightful.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track given to 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' is a winner. A smashing, emphatic winner. Of course, those who have read our coverage for the previous three 'Pirates' films would know that the series has earned a five star rating on each and every release.
There really isn't all that much to talk about in this section of the review, because it's all so bloody perfect. There's power up the wazoo in the score, in the effects, there's thunder all over this track. Clarity? Just superb. The swaying and bowing of wood, the rain and wind whistling through the room, even the light sizzling of the tips of Blackbeard's burning...beard...there's not a split-second's worth of distortion, not a single off line of dialogue or a word with improper dynamics. Localization effects are used frequently and accurately, filling the room quite proper, while the LFE has plenty to chew on, with the undercurrent of the score and the random thumps in the film lending themselves to plenty of low end opportunities.
Unabashed power. Pinpoint precision. Deadly accuracy. Again, 'Pirates of the Caribbean' earns its highest marks in the ears rather than the eyes.
The bonus DVD in this set does not seem to have the Audio Commentary on it, despite information online stating it should. For the time being, said extra will be in this section, though if information confirming it is not found on the DVD arises, it will be moved to the Exclusives section of extras.
'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' probably wouldn't have sold as many tickets if it were called 'On Familiar Tides,' since it is pretty shameless about stealing the structure and a number of scenes from the original film in the series. The cast additions are great, the castoffs improve the film with their absence, but no actor could be capable of fixing the wrongs of this film, or even making them less noticeable. I can say this was a very, very long 136 minutes, and an experience I'm not so thrilled to experience again...oh wait, there's still a 3D disc to review...
This 2D edition has absolutely spectacular presentation qualities, though it comes up way short in the extras department. On the strength of disc and acting alone, this one comes recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.