After the nadir that was Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, it was clear that the most lucrative movie franchise of the new millennium needed some freshening up. So, out (reportedly by their own choosing) went director Gore Verbinski and co-stars Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. In their stead, new helmer Rob Marshall is relied upon for his eye for grandiose theatrical imagery and staging, while Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane are meant to add spice and character to the proceedings. Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is, well, Captain Jack.

Yet On Stranger Tides, the fourth Pirates flick, proves an age-old maxim: the more things change, the more they stay the same. However much the franchise has cosmetically shifted, the new picture is rooted in the familiar: Supernatural-tinged storytelling, murkily-shot battles fought against pristine backdrops, colonial-era costumes and the admittedly unforgettable protagonist, who has become an icon thanks to Depp’s epicene, offbeat take.

It is by now a tired formula, rendered in such a way that emotional investment is muted and the more adventuresome aspects are diluted by their adherence to this static aesthetic. Character and atmosphere are sacrificed to spectacle, and the spectacle — sprightly chases, dull sword fights and sweeping, zooming shots of the lush Caribbean sea/countryside — has worn down.

The screenplay by returning writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio follows Captain Jack as he competes with two other teams of explorers (Spaniards and Brits led by Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa) on a race toward the Fountain of Youth. However, it’s a quest without import. Only Blackbeard (McShane) appears to actually need a taste of the Fountain’s powers. For everyone else, the journey is a lark to be had seemingly because the screenwriters couldn’t conceive of a narrative that put more at stake.

Captain Jack has not evolved over the course of these four films, while the other new characters are no less one-dimensional than their dewy-eyed predecessors. There’s probably not much further for Jack, the proverbial jokester fool, to go, but future installments must offer more than the tepid plotlines attached to Cruz, McShane and, most perplexingly, the romance novel-caliber explosion of feelings between a missionary (Sam Claflin) and a mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisby).

Marshall gets the occasional chance to indulge in his favored brand of eye popping, operatic visuals, most notably in a haunting shot of dozens of bodies strung above a darkened ship set against the ocean’s vast expanse. Mostly, however, he’s confined to the cut-and-dry, constant motion approach that Verbinski introduced. The dark, muddy qualities inherent to 3D pose a considerable obstacle when molded to the stock ghostly gray exteriors and flickering candlelit interiors. The film ends up looking rather consistently drab, if not all-around obfuscated, because of them.

The 3D is problematic in other ways. For example, close-up dolly shots have an air of outsized unreality about them that turns the characters into chess pieces. At times, one grows bored enough by this all-around shrunken show to remove those pesky glasses for a brief, albeit distorted, glimpse of what this movie should look like.

These stylistic flaws, even the disastrous viewing format, still would be forgivable had the filmmakers concocted a story that achieved more in the Pirates universe than simply wasting time. But the quest for the Fountain is weightless filler that means nothing, with little broader ramifications. Sure, Hans Zimmer’s driving score, Depp’s shtick and the lush setting offer some entertainment return, but we’re still waiting for someone to make these movies resonate where all worthy films do: in the gut.

The Upside: The movie offers everything you’d expect from a Pirates movie, no more and no less.

The Downside: See the upside.

On the Side: As long as Depp wants to do these movies, there will be an audience for them, so hopefully something is done differently for the inevitable fifth installment.


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