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
The five disc set for 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' may very well be the best way to go. If you haven't bought any of the films so far (unlikely as that is!), the treasure chest edition isn't a bad idea, but this Blu-ray 3D edition contains two BD50 discs (2D and 3D films), a BD25 exclusively for extras found on this release, and then DVD and Digital Copy discs, the computer copy being another exclusive to this release and the treasure chest.
The 3D menu on this release, which mimics the one on the 2D Blu-ray, is quite nice, with zero problems. There are two pre-menu trailers in 3D, one for 'Cars 2,' the other for the upcoming 'John Carter' film. The Blu-ray discs in this set are all Region A/B/C. DVD discs are coded per region.
Foreign readers may want to take note, that while the 2D edition has two (Spanish and French) DTS-HD HR (high resolution) 5.1 tracks for the film, the 3D release only presents both languages in Dolby Digital 5.1. The English options stay the same between releases.
Filmed in native 3D, 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' was made to shine on Blu-ray 3D. This isn't another one of those dark, crummy conversions, no sir. Disney's 1080p MVC encoded transfer for the film is almost on par with the gorgeous 2D edition, with a few added issues that put this release a steps back from the heavy hitters.
In all honesty, due to how dark the opening half of the film is, I had little expectation or hope going into this release, but oddly enough, while they weren't shining examples of depth, the dark opening actually had the least amount of issues in the film, save for the fog not coming through all that convincingly. It's actually quite interesting how well this disc handles the dark sequences, with detail and clarity always shining through. Of course, since there's little color loss in this release, even with the shutter glasses adding that fun little darker tint, this release wasn't doomed to fail like, say, 'Thor.'
When London comes a'calling, this disc shines. Depth goes from mediocre to fantastic, colors become quite powerful, and detail remains strong and constant. Stray hairs leap amazingly well, while textures, man oh man are they sweet as can be. The underwater shot featured after the bar fight, as the two leads escape, it's a real stunner, showing how well those silly little bubbles can make a throwaway scene look. Once the Queen Anne's Revenge appears, there is another layer of excellence, with the random sails and ropes all adding some serious intricacy to the picture, with the tiers of the ship adding that much more depth and layering.
This disc has issues on top of what the 2D disc had. Yes, detail levels aren't exactly consistent, but the noise is seemingly gone, or at least not noticeable anymore. There are a few random edges that go jaggy, particularly the tip top of Jack's captain's hat, while some shots aboard the big baddy's ship have problems, with colors going flat, detail becoming tough to see, while depth becomes borderline non-existent. Ghosting does pop up from time to time, usually minor, with a random leg (the scene with the king), bonnet (in the trial sequence), flame (aboard the ship) and pulley (again on the ship) ghosts standing out more than others. What's really odd, or at the very least ironic, the corpse of Ponce De Leon, which doesn't quite stay exactly dead, has major ghosting concerns in shots where it is in the background.
3D fans, this film was designed with the format in mind, so if you're a big fan of pop out effects, there are a few moments made for you. The sword through the door in the mutiny scene works quite well, with the blade retaining details, while the shot of Blackbeard thrusting his extra wide weapon towards the camera brings a light pop that also retains detail levels. Considering how converted titles often lack this effect, and those who enjoy it feel cheated, the way these moments are spread out surely will please, especially since they don't seem gimmicky.
This disc does not impress in the same manner that the 2D disc does. That doesn't make it a bad Blu-ray 3D title, but it most certainly isn't as consistent as the 2D disc whose consistency is already a little questionable. Got all that? The peaks are high, but the random shots with little to no 3D depth or effect can be a real bummer.
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.
Viewing this film a second time in two days most certainly didn't make me "get" anything I missed the first time around, and there wasn't any moment that suddenly made more sense knowing what was to come. Actually, this second viewing became a bit of a chore, since the film was even more boring this time around. That said, I wonder how much replay value this title will have; I know around this household, the only film in the series that gets regular play is 'Curse of the Black Pearl,' so this may end up as shelf filler.
The Blu-ray 3D release isn't quite as visually stunning as the 2D edition, but an exclusive disc of extras helps justify the price increase. Is it fair to force viewers to buy a 3D version, when they don't even have 3D, just to get extras? I don't think so. Would it have been so hard to put the BD25 disc in with the Blu-ray and make it a three disc set, or even just jettison the DVD? Not really. Ah well. The price is right on this release, and the inclusion of the superior 2D disc makes this set a solid release all around. In a year, ask me if this title has been renamed 'On Dusty Shelves,' or if I ever got the nerve to watch it a third time...
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.