First, a history lesson: Movies with the designation “3” in the title simply aren’t good. None of them. But since money trumps quality in Hollywood, and plenty of suckers ponied up for Police Academy 3, the sequels kept coming. Then the studio marketing got crafty and started using the much classier “III”. Rocky III. Superman III. The Karate Kid III. Surprisingly, that helped a little, lifting the quality from execrable to mere dreck. However, naming movies like popes can’t disguise the sordid attempt to cash in on the waning popularity of a movie franchise.
Yet audiences still turn up for sequels, so budgets escalated in a vain pursuit of quality, and studios got the bright idea to shoot two movies at the same time. If you “set up” characters properly in one movie and build in a cliff-hanger, then the crowds will flock to see the resolution, they figured. Hogwash. Two part sequels are just bigger, noisier, and shallower spectacles. Usually, they start off by retro-fitting the main character with some brand-new emotional baggage that will then require state-of-the-art special effects to unravel. Then four to five hours later, they generally leave the characters right back where they ended the first film.
What a surprise, then to see that Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End follows that template and still might be the most intelligent, nuanced, and politically resonant three-quel ever made. Certainly there isn’t a third installment of a film trilogy that even comes close. For the high-minded literati out there, take special note, because this might be the closest we’ll ever get to seeing a Pynchon novel get successfully filmed. (Except for occurring in the wrong century, At World’s End could be an excised subplot from Mason & Dixon.)
The stark opening sets the tone immediately. A noose hangs in stark relief under a grey sky, while underneath it bodies are unceremoniously piled up. In the background, a voice of authority is repealing the local Bill of Rights, citing the war on piracy to justify the vicious crackdown on liberty. There’s something oddly familiar about a business driven government cracking down on civil rights in the name of security. It could just be a coincidence, but these are some pointed jabs.
From there the scale of the film goes epic, tracing an elaborate sequence of double-crosses across some impossible landscapes. There are a number of vistas, all of which are computer enhanced, but are nonetheless breathtaking. Every location has a majestic sense of place that a lot of effect-driven spectacles lack. The effects work here feels nearly seamless, creating this world where magic hasn’t been mapped entirely out of existence and the wondrous still flickers in the margins.
Matching the landscapes is a plot so epic that the nearly three hour running time has very little slack. The deluge of alignments, double-crosses, and backstabbing is so Byzantine that you’d need a map to get a handle on it all. Following the specifics of individual betrayal is not what At World’s End is about. The heart of the film is power. Appropriately enough, it’s the heart of the ghost pirate Davy Jones which is the most powerful relic in the film. Whoever controls the ghastly Flying Dutchman can control the seas. Everyone in the film covets that power for a different end. Over the course of the film power will be bought, sold, lost, earned, negotiated for, abused, and betrayed. It’s the intricacies of those bargains that elevate the film. The pleasant surprise is that the script is willing to work hard to give every character something to strive for.
Through the entire trilogy, the “pirates” of Disney creation are not the raping and pillaging sort of pirate. If anything, piracy is a not a team sport, and more of a state of iconoclastic rebellion. Jack Sparrow is more fey than bloodthirsty. Geoffrey Rush has a blast with his resurrected Captain Barbossa, and his swaggering pirate dialect rolls out of his mouth with a giddy glee. The piracy here is more of a free-wheeling anarchy, while the malevolent corporate entity is the ruthless, butchering villain. Not that there’s any real life analogues to this situation at all – where rival groups are plunged into internecine conflict (not a civil war, mind you) at the instigation of a wealthy, remote imperial power – but there’s a clear demonstration that power without restraint or balance always destroys itself, and imperial power can never conquer with tyranny. Unusually heady subtext for a popcorn movie that has as much slapstick as it does drama.
It doesn’t qualify for masterpiece status, and might barely crack any “10 best of 2007” lists, but At World’s End should rank high on any “10 best achievements in 2007” lists. A fine distinction, but a necessary one. This is the kind of high-adventure epic that could only be attempted by the Hollywood studio system. More often than not, these bulked up spectacles choke on their own ambition, which makes it even more miraculous that Pirates is a well-balanced success. Will there be another sequel? Will Disney try to push their luck with a “IV”? As the vain Lord Cutler Beckett repeats, “It’s just good business.”