I’ve never been a big fan of the term, “guilty pleasure,” especially because of its use in popular culture. Obviously, it implies the presence of guilt when enjoying something — movies, music, food etc. But aside from legal and moral codes, should anyone have to feel guilty about liking something?
Most examples include your one friend who likes Justin Bieber or maybe the person who enjoys the regular McDonald’s meal. Or, in the context of this website, maybe it’s the person who likes Michael Bay movies. Critical consensus tends to dictate or follow the tastes of a select group. But not everyone has the same tastes. See the comments section of our recent Colossal review for one example.
I say all this as a prelude to the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, because many people would consider them my guilty pleasure or as the Apostle Paul would put it, the “thorn in my side.” With the latest edition there are now 5 movies in the Pirates universe, and I have to say… I quite enjoy 4 of them — I still can’t get on board with Dead Man’s Chest. After The Curse of the Black Pearl, critical consensus has waned to the point of abject dismissal — Dead Men Tell No Tales currently has a 31% on Rotten Tomatoes. And yet, I find myself drawn to each offering, charmed by the seemingly never-ending charisma of Captain Jack Sparrow and his not-so-merry band of miscreants.
“Dull, Gruesome, and Obnoxiously Loud”
Those were some of the words from the New York Post’s take on Dead Men Tell No Tales. And the latter two aren’t quite wrong.
Unless you’re the Harry Potter franchise, the fifth movie in a series will need to be a spectacle. And there’s no denying the latest Pirates is that. The explosions are brighter, the hijinks more unbelievable. And the treasure? I won’t spoil anything, but the film’s final treasure is so big and bulky, it looks like a giant children’s toy. To be honest, I found it all sort of fun. I’ve never liked using pure “escapism” as justification for a bad movie, but Dead Men Tell No Tales feels like escapism at its most childish — again, not derogatory. Whereas some movies can feel over polished and too technical, the fifth Pirates feels slapdash and messy, but in a fun way. It’s like when a child presents you with a finger painting, but one that’s way better than you expected. Is it good? Not really. But is it impressive? Somewhat, yes.
It is also quite gruesome. Javier Bardem — a surprising addition to the universe — is deliciously dark and charming as Captain Salazar, the franchise’s best villainous turn since Geoffrey Rush’s original Captain Barbosa. And Barbosa himself is back, as bawdy and brash as ever. Even if you’ve soured on Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, you have to admit Rush still has it. And while the film’s central conceit is dark — a crew of undead pirates roaming the sea, destroying everything in their path — it is quite familiar to anyone who’s seen any of the first 3 movies.
So to recap: is it dull? The film’s fast pace and big effects make it anything but dull. Is it gruesome? Sure, but no more so than the film’s recent history. And obnoxiously loud? How could you go into a Pirates of the Caribbean movie expecting anything but noise?
Treasure at the End?
Of course, a pirate’s life is more than booze, gunfights, and sailing on the high seas. At the end there’s always a treasure to be found, literal or metaphorical. The latter is what we’re concerned with here at Cinema Faith. Dead Men Tell No Tales unfortunately falls in line with its predecessors by being big on fun and visuals but coming up short in heart. The franchise runners long ago left behind the idea that Johnny Depp would bring that. Instead, we’re back to the old William Turner story line.
For those who need a recap, Will Turner, Jack’s best mate through the original trilogy, is captain of the Flying Dutchman, cursed to round up the souls of those lost at sea forever. His son, Henry (Brenton Thwaites) is literally hell-bent on finding a way to break his curse. While searching for an answer, he runs into Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) a young woman looking for the answers to her mysterious past. Neither Scodelario or Thwaites are really up to the task of carrying a big budget summer blockbuster, and the writers seem to agree. Their romance and backstories are, in my opinion, the least interesting part of Dead Men Tell No Tales. And Carina serves as the punching bag for a barrage of casually sexist jokes, a misstep never really corrected by half-hearted attempts at feminism.
There are however some admirable things to be said about family, specifically the role of fathers in the lives of their children. Like I said, the two young cast members never quite live up to their billing. But the stories they’re involved in offer the most emotional payoff. They also offer yet another chance at redemption for Captain Jack Sparrow. I won’t tell you if he turns out to have a heart of gold. I’d assume you already know.
High Seas Fatigue
The question for cinephiles now is whether or not Disney will turn its eyes to another Pirates sequel. Critics are sure to be rolling their eyes as the film turns an expected profit of around $300 million dollars. And if you believe the post-credits scene, executives already seem to be looking ahead.
But the real thing I want to address comes from one of my latest reviews. While reviewing Kong: Skull Island I wrote, “Should we as audiences be content with ‘good enough?’ I don’t want to nitpick, but it seems like film consumption has reached a point of stasis where the ceiling doesn’t have to be too high if the floor isn’t too low.”
For a while, I felt guilty for liking Dead Men Tell No Tales as much as I did. I’m giving it the same grade I gave Kong, claiming, “We shouldn’t settle for ‘good enough,’ on one hand and, ‘It was good enough for me,’ on the other.” So you can see the predicament I’m in here. Part of this comes from expectations: I expected Pirates to be a big, dumb blockbuster while I expected Kong to be a high quality monster movie.
But I think the latest Pirates movie reminded me of a beautiful thing about film: each moviegoers standard will be different for any given movie. And ultimately, that’s OK. In fact, it’s one of the best parts of appreciating art. There may be a general consensus about any given movie, but the best part is dissecting and discussing our thoughts. As different as it is to my own, I’ve enjoyed going through the harsh reviews of Dead Men Tell No Tales and learning what other people didn’t like. I enjoy reading our reviews on this site and finding ones I disagree with.
So to answer my own internal question, no we shouldn’t settle for “good enough.” I’m standing by that assertion. But we should also recognize that, “good enough,” looks different for every person. For me, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, came up short in the heart — and sometimes head — departments. But in the end, I felt my money was well spent. Guilt-free, I might add.