OnScreen Review: 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

In the interest of full disclosure, there are few franchises I actively dislike more than the Pirates of the Caribbean.  Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed Curse of the Black Pearl.  It was genuinely fun and adventurous.  But for me, it remains the lone highlight of this now five film tale of the adventures of Jack Sparrow.  Dead Man’s Chest, the subtitle of the 2nd film, is a title I had to look up.  Coupled with At World’s End, it represented a completely botched attempt at a trilogy and was so inane and convoluted that they bored me.  I’m hard pressed to recall anything about 2011’s On Stranger Tides aside from there being mermaids at some point.  I completely forgot that Penelope Cruz was in the film or that Blackbeard was the villain until a quick look at Wikipedia.  Now, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales brings back Johnny Depp to his (once upon a time) iconic role.  In a world where some franchises (The Fast & the Furious) have found new leases on life later on in their franchise run, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is following the usual arc of sequels that slowly sink into the arc of diminishing returns. 

Normally, I would give a brief plot synopsis, but as is usually the case with these movies, the plot really doesn’t matter and if you think about it for more than a minute it just unravels.  In short, though, Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the grown son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), is looking for the trident of Poseidon, the latest mystical artifact of these films that will allow whoever possesses it to control the seas.  He believes Jack Sparrow can help him find it.  Eventually their paths cross and they also cross paths with a young woman named Carina (Kaya Scodelario) who is also searching for the trident.  Hot on their heels is the villain, Captain Salazar, an undead pirate hunter who seeks revenge on Jack.  Also, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is back.  Beyond that, nothing in the plot is really that important in pointing out because it’s as flimsy and nonsensical as the previous three films, maybe even more so.

This film is the epitome of mindless action, because it is completely mindless.  This is the type of film that feels satisfied answering any potential questions and plot holes with the simple answer of, “Because, magic!”  And I had plenty of questions.  Why are Salazar and his crew cursed to be undead and trapped in the Devil’s Triangle as opposed to any other ships that entered it?  Why does Jack’s compass keep them trapped in there?  Why does Barbossa have the power to free the Black Pearl from the bottle it is captured in?  What exactly is the chain of custody regarding the map/journal that Carina has to the trident?  Why does Paul McCartney show up as Jack’s uncle?  These are just some of the many questions that the film hopes to distract you from with Johnny Depp prancing about like a loon while his crew makes forced jokes.  There was literally one joke I laughed at in the whole movie, and it was a quick throwaway line that I chuckled at.  Every other attempt at humor, every visual gag, and every slapstick moment involving Jack elicited a groan, a head shake, or an eye roll.  And while this franchise is based off of a Disney ride, the way in which Jack, Henry, and Carina end up in an uneasy alliance is inspired by another famous Disney ride.  The happenstance and convenience of how their paths cross has to be inspired by It’s a Small World.

Taken in tandem with the forgettable On Stranger Tides, Dead Men Tell No Tales seems like it is serving a few studio purposes.  First, it’s providing a tentpole franchise sequel that has broad/lowest common denominator/mass appeal.  Second, though, it’s serving as a feeder system of sorts for the big budget studio system.  Even though his Captain Jack Sparrow has slipped completely into self-parody, Depp is still a fairly reliable box office commodity that can serve as a safety net with young up and coming talents.  In On Stranger Tides, it was Sam Claflin (or at least IMDb says so, I absolutely cannot picture him in my mind in that movie) and Astrid Berges-Frisbey.  This time around it is Thwaites and Scodelario.  Thwaites has had some promising breakthrough roles over the past few years, most notably the Aussie film Son of a Gun, but also in Maleficent as Prince Phillip and the horror film Oculus.  Scodelario is someone who has been in the Maze Runner series and this seems like the next step up for her, I guess.  At any rate, it seems like these last few films serve as a chance to see if they can catch lightning in a bottle with any of these younger actors and actresses and hope they really connect with the audience.


As for the returning Depp, like I said, at this point is completely self-parody.  At points, it’s painful to watch.  Bardem brings little to the table.  His Salazar is difficult to understand at times, mainly because on top of his accent the character wheezes because he drowned when he became undead.  The CGI effects to make him look like he is continually underwater and drowning may be technically impressive, but are visually unspectacular, along with the rest of the crew.  If there is one redeeming quality of this film it is that they attempt to rectify the incredibly unsatisfactory manner in which Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann’s story wrapped up in At World’s End

The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has been in a steep decline ever since the original.  I found each successive sequel more tedious, unimportant, unfunny, and a chore to sit through.  If Captain Jack Sparrow were in any way still a compelling character on screen, it would be far easier to enjoy these films.  But he is not, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a slog.  I have zero interest in future installments of this franchise.  They give themselves an out with the ending here, but there is apparently a post-credits scene that leaves the door open for more.  I for one hope we’ve seen the last of Captain Jack Sparrow and that he and his crew are lost at sea, because I am done.  I thought King Arthur Legend of the Sword was the worst movie of the year, but now I’m not so sure.  They’re neck and neck with one another.  Given the ridiculous length of the title Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, I’m inclined to give it the slightest edge for worst movie.

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars