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24 May

Review: Pirates of the Caribbean 3 – I’d like to start off today’s entry by wishing my brother Brian a happy birthday. Yesterday Brian celebrated his thirty-first birthday, a rather auspicious occasion. 31 is not only a prime number, it also happens to be a Mersenne prime and a lucky prime. So even if the rest of the world should collapse into a shambles, at least he has that going for him, which is nice. (Incidentally, world-collapsing is usually not as bad as it seems—just a little birthday tip.)

“I can say this much: if you are a fan of the franchise, you will not be disappointed.”

Today is the birthday of another important person whose name also begins with a “B,” namely the Buddha (although his friends know him as “Sid”). Buddha’s birthday here is pretty much like Christ’s birthday in the West, except without the presents. And the commercialism. And the carol-singing. And a fat guy in a red suit. They do hang up strings of lights (in the form of lotus lanterns), though, and everyone gets the day off from work or school. Yup. Just like Christmas.

Yesterday, in addition to being my brother’s birthday, also happened to be the opening of the third Pirates of the Caribbean film, so Hyunjin and I decided that going to see it would be the perfect way to honor the big B’s birthday. Apparently a lot of other people had the same idea, because when we reserved tickets on Sunday for the early show today, there were only a few seats left. We got two seats in the far back corner, but the view was still fine.

Hyunjin has been looking forward to the third Pirates for quite some time now—pretty much since the first time we saw the second one. I was actually a bit concerned about how much she was looking forward to it. I try not to go into a film with expectations set too high, because it is harder to be disappointed that way. I asked her, “Well, what if it’s not good?” She replied, “Are you kidding me? It can’t not be good!” I couldn’t really argue. I had seen the trailer—what more could you ask for? You’ve got boatloads of pirates, which right off the bat kicks it up several notches of awesomeness. Then you’ve got Chow Yun-Fat (Ju Yunbal, as he is known here) as a pirate lord from Singapore, the return of Captain Barbossa (one of my favorites from the first film), ships sailing off the edge of the world, a sea battle in a maelstrom, and lots of cannons firing. I have to admit, I was looking forward to it as well.

But it wasn’t just the spectacle that I wanted to see. I was also interested in seeing how they tied up the threads of the story and how the various characters’ complex relationships would be resolved. I was particularly interested in seeing if Jack Sparrow was going to remain true to his nature. He is a fairly accurate rendition of a trickster figure, and I was desperately hoping that he wasn’t suddenly going to turn goody-goody—basically, that Elizabeth’s proclamation of him as a “good man” wasn’t going to be proven true.

I’ll start with my verdict: Pirates was in many ways what I expected it to be—a spectacle that is very fun to watch with a complex (some would say convoluted) plot that can be a tad difficult to follow at times but as a result always keeps you on your toes. Could it have been better? Probably. But then it wouldn’t have been Pirates. I can say this much: if you are a fan of the franchise, you will not be disappointed.

Now for the specifics—and here I find myself in an unusual position. Usually when I see a film, it is long enough after everyone else has seen it that I’m not too concerned with letting a few spoilers slip. But even though the film opened here yesterday, it doesn’t open in the States until Thursday night (which will be tomorrow morning for me). For probably the first time in my life, I have seen a major picture before most of the English-speaking world. Thus I will save all the spoilers for the end and talk briefly about the film in general first (I will, however, be talking about stuff in the first two films as well as information that can be gleaned from the trailer for the third film).

Over at Rotten Tomatoes, Pirates currently stands at a very lackluster 50%. Much of the critical griping has to do with the plot, so we might as well start there. It is indeed complex, and I’m still not sure if certain parts actually make sense (more on that in the spoilers section). The way I see it, though, Pirates operates on two levels in terms of story. The “action” story basically consists of the action that is occurring on screen—who is going where, doing what, betraying whom, etc. When you have a number of characters all working at cross purposes, it can get difficult keeping track of who is on whose side at any given moment. But I think this uncertainty is just a reflection of what the characters are going through. Who can be trusted? Who is going to stab me in the back when I turn around? When even those closest to you don’t tell you the whole truth, can you really rely on anyone? I don’t think it is a bad thing that the audience is a bit confused when it comes to the shifting allegiances.

The rest of the action story is pretty much straightforward. Yeah, there’s a lot going on, and we cut back and forth between the principals quite a bit, but the driving plot is not that hard to understand. In fact, anyone who has seen the trailer will already know what that driving plot is: Lord Beckett, now in possession of the heart of Davy Jones and thus in command of the Flying Dutchman, is bent on sweeping the Caribbean of every last pirate, and the nine pirate lords from around the world must band together if they are to survive. That’s pretty much it. If you can focus on that, it should be pretty difficult to get lost.

The part that gets confusing, at least for me, is what I’ll call the “lore” story—that is, the legends and background behind the action that is taking place on screen. This may not seem too important compared to the action, but there are a lot of stories that underpin the Pirates world, and some of them appear to be contradictory. I’ll talk about more specifically about one of these stories (a very important story) in the spoiler section, but suffice it to say that if you stopped to puzzle out every bit of confusing lore, the film would fly by you. Perhaps this is what the critics are talking about when they say the story is hard to follow.

As an occasional writer of fiction myself, I am always very conscious of consistency in my stories. I try to avoid inconsistencies and contradictions if at all possible, even if I am making things up as I go along. My NaNoWriMo novels, for example, are written and posted on a day-by-day basis, and there is no going back to edit, so sometimes I find myself with choices that I made early on that lead to consequences I hadn’t foreseen at the time. One of the things I pride myself on is my ability to resolve these difficulties and make the story gel. The writers of Pirates did a good job finding hooks in the first film to connect it to the second and third films (the idea of Davy Jones’ locker, the idea of Jack being made a chief, etc.). But I think some of the lore got a bit twisted, and it bugs me a bit. All told I think it is a relatively small black mark (Pirates joke!) on the film. Had I been one of the writers though, you can be sure that the lore would have been clearer.

I remember that one of the things that surprised me about the first film was how dark it was. I knew it was based on the Disney ride (something I remember fondly from my childhood), so I expected it to be, well, Disney-fied. And then we were treated to cursed gold and undead pirates, with a helping of existential angst on the side. The second film took these even further, introducing the tragic character of Davy Jones and continuing with the darkness. The third film doesn’t let us down in this respect, starting off with a slew of executions by hanging ordered by Beckett. But it also goes beyond the darkness into the weird and surreal. As you will know if you saw the second film (and the trailer for the third), at the start of the third film Jack is stuck in limbo—Davy Jones’ Locker, to be more precise. This was one part of the film that I really enjoyed. I was looking forward to seeing how they would envision Davy Jones’ Locker, and I have to say that I think they did a great job of it. This is just one example, of course—overall they managed to get the mood just right. It sucked me right into the world of the film.

I guess I should say something about the special effects as well. It’s funny, but as I was watching the film, I thought that I would spend a lot of time writing about the special effects, but now that it comes to it I don’t really know what to say. That doesn’t mean the special effects weren’t good—they were great. The battle in the maelstrom? As awesome as I hoped it would be. But what else can you say, other than that they did a really good job and I’m really looking forward to the special features on the DVD? When it comes right down to it, what stays with me now, hours after leaving the cinema, is the conclusion of the story. I’ve heard hints that there might be a fourth film, and they most certainly set themselves up for a sequel, but there was definitely closure to this story. And here is where I have to give kudos to the writers—it was not the closure I was expecting. I can only say “Bravo” for not taking the easy way out. And thus I have mixed feelings about a sequel. Before going into the cinema I felt that I wanted it to end here and not drag out until it died a gruesome death. But as I watched the film I realized that, yeah, I would probably go see another Pirates. Now that I’ve seen the whole film, though, I am torn. Part of me feels that this is as good a place as any to end it, but another part of me isn’t quite ready to say goodbye yet.

I know, I know—I’ve become emotionally involved in a pop culture film that is getting a tepid reception from critics. You know what? Stuff the critics. Maybe the story was a bit confusing at times, but I really enjoyed this film, and I found myself caring a lot about the characters and their choices. Maybe that makes me uncool. But that’s OK, because I stopped caring about being cool years ago. I said it above, but I will say it again here by way of wrapping up this non-spoiler review: if you are a fan of the Pirates franchise, go see this film. Then again, if you’re a fan you probably don’t need me to tell you that. But maybe you’re a bit concerned that it might not live up to all the hype—if so, rest easy. It may not be a perfect film, but it is a fitting successor to the tradition.

OK, what comes next is pretty much for me, because sometimes I just need to write things out to think them through or get them off my chest. If you haven’t seen this film yet but are planning to at some point, please do not continue reading. I’m serious. There are some major spoilers to follow, and I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to read them before I saw the film. I just want to make sure we’re on the same page here.

If you’re still reading at this point, I can only assume that you have either already seen the film and are interested in hearing my ideas on some of the plot elements, or you have no interest in the film and/or have no problem with having stories ruined for you. Scroll down to read the rest.

Beware... here there be spoilers...

OK, here we go. That bit of confusing lore I alluded to above has to do with the heart of Davy Jones. The heart of Davy Jones is a critical plot element in the second and third films, so you would think that the lore behind it would be rock solid. But when the film was over, I was scratching my head. I’m pretty good at following plots and piecing stories together, so I was able to answer most of Hyunjin’s questions about some of the more confusing parts of the film, but when she got to the heart of Davy Jones I had to admit that I was stymied as well.

So here’s the story as told by Tia Dalma in the second film: Davy Jones fell in love with a woman “as harsh and changing as the sea,” but this woman betrayed his love and he cut his heart out and hid it away from the world so he wouldn’t feel any pain. Then we learn that whoever controls the heart of Davy Jones controls the Flying Dutchman (and, by default, the Kraken). This is all information we are given in the second film. In the third film, however, things get a bit more complicated. When Elizabeth is in the brig on the Flying Dutchman, she meets Bootstrap Bill and tells him that Will intends to save him. Bootstrap Bill is happy at first, but then he grows somber and says that this is not the road Will will choose. Why? Because whoever kills Davy Jones must take his place, as the Flying Dutchman must have a captain. This is actually a reflection of a very primitive rite of kingship, where kings were succeeded by their assassins. Sounds like a pretty good way to discourage interest in politics.

Anyway, this new bit of information is obviously very important, but it comes out of the blue. Why didn’t Bootstrap say anything about this to his son in the second film? Will tells him exactly what he is planning to do (plunge the knife into the heart of Davy Jones), and the only thing he says is that Will doesn’t owe him anything. I find it hard to believe that he didn’t know this before and only learned about it later. The only logical explanation is that he knew but chose not to tell Will because he desired his freedom. But that just doesn’t ring true. He was desperate for Will to be free of the Dutchman—why would he doom him to an eternity on it through his silence?

The only possible reason that no one in the second film mentioned the rather important fact that whoever stabbed the heart of Davy Jones would have to take his place at the helm is that the writer’s hadn’t yet thought of it at the time. A closer look at the lore behind Davy Jones makes this apparent. As mentioned above, the story in the second film was that Davy Jones cut his heart out because he couldn’t deal with the heartbreak. We find out in the third film that Tia Dalma is the woman he loved—something I had suspected since I first heard her speech about Davy Jones in the second film—and that she is no mere woman. She is, in fact, Calypso, portrayed in the third film as the fickle goddess of the sea (in Greek mythology, Calypso was a naiad who kept Odysseus on her island for seven years). We also find out that it was Calypso who charged Davy Jones with the duty of conveying the souls of the dead to the next world. If he completed this duty, he would be allowed to set foot on land once every ten years. Apparently he was faithful for the first ten years, but when he came ashore to see Calypso, she was not there. She explains that this is her nature—she is, after all, harsh and changing as the sea. It would seem that it was at this point that Davy Jones cut out his heart and hid it away from the world.

We need to backtrack to Calypso for a bit to straighten things out. It was at the first court of the brethren (a council of the pirate lords) that she was bound in human form, and it was Davy Jones who told the pirates how to do it. Calypso obviously saw this as a betrayal, but apparently (we’re not told this, I don’t think) Davy Jones did it because he wanted to keep her for himself. This is the reason she was on land and not at sea. But there’s a problem with the timeline here. The legends of Davy Jones are already a part of the culture by the time the events in the film occur, so he’s obviously been around for a very long time. But the first court of the brethren (and thus Calypso’s binding) couldn’t have been much more than two decades prior, since all the pirate lords present at the fourth court (the one we see in the film) were present at the first. If Calypso gave Davy Jones his mission and forbade him to set foot on shore but once every ten years, why would he tell the pirates how to bind her in human form, thus putting her beyond his reach? I have to admit that my memory is a bit foggy on this, but that’s only because the story isn’t really explained fully. We hear bits and pieces of it from various characters, but all the pieces don’t make a unified whole.

The real problem, of course, is the whole “he who kills the captain of the Flying Dutchman must take his place” theme. I got sidetracked on the whole love story with Calypso because it is supposedly the reason why he cut out his heart in the first place, and so it’s important in seeing the larger picture. In the third film, though, we are almost led to believe that the cutting out of the heart is something akin to the way wizards will hide away part or all of their life essence to make themselves harder to kill. Davy Jones is stabbed a number of times but is unharmed because he has no heart to kill. Ultimately we have conflicting reasons for Davy Jones cutting out his heart and hiding it away from the world.

Another confusing piece of the puzzle comes at the end, when Will stabs the heart and becomes the captain of the Flying Dutchman. His father and the rest of the crew emerge to cut out his heart and place it in the chest. But if Davy Jones cut out his heart to avoid heartache, why would they need to cut out Will’s heart as well? It doesn’t jive with what we are told in the second film. As I said above, I think the reason for this is that the writers were making it up as they went along, but there may be a way to reconcile these conflicting statements—some of the characters were either lying or misinformed. I don’t think this is what the writers had in mind, but if I were a writer, that’s how I would have explained it. I would also have made sure I had Davy Jones’ back story straight—there are just too many inconsistencies. But most of these inconsistencies are not ultimately reconcilable, it just would have required spending more time on Davy Jones in a film that was already nearly three hours long (although some of the elements of the relationship with Calypso may be well and truly tangled beyond repair). I wonder if there was some key background information that got cut from the final edit. Maybe it will be on the DVD.

Speaking of Will becoming the captain of the Flying Dutchman, that was obviously the ending I didn’t see coming. Despite everything I said above about inconsistencies in the lore, I was willing to let it all slide in the heat of the moment. We knew Davy Jones was going to die, it was just a question of who was going to take his place. I thought it would be Jack, but when Bootstrap picked up the knife I thought, “Ah, they’re going to take the easy way out and make Bootstrap the captain of the Flying Dutchman.” Jack would be free, Will would marry Elizabeth, and they would live (more or less) happily ever after. It’s kind of what you want to see, but at the same time it’s a bit of a let down when they take the easy way out. The world had grown too dark for it to end that neatly. When Davy Jones stabbed Will, I have to admit I was shocked. And then when they cut back to Will’s hand on the knife in Davy Jones’ heart, I was speechless. A silence fell over the theater. I think there might have been a humorous moment with the monkey shortly thereafter, but no one laughed, not even the kids. Everyone was still coming to grips with what had just happened. And I thought that was kind of awesome to end it like that. It was sad, and I’m man enough to admit that I got a lump in my throat, but I think it was a good way to end it.

And I suppose that’s the real question now: is it really the end? They left it wide open for a sequel, and anyone who saw the movie can tell you what the title will be: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Fountain of Youth. But can we really have another Pirates? Will is bound to the Dutchman and doomed to wander between worlds, while Elizabeth (who is presumably still the pirate king(?)) is raising their child. Norrington, a principal player in all three films, though more so in the first two films than this one, is dead. Both Jack and Barbossa are alive, and once again Barbossa has Jack’s ship. But all of the enemies are gone—no Davy Jones, no Beckett, no Norrington even. I have to wonder what a fourth film would look like. Will I go see it if they make it? Heck yeah. But I also won’t be sad if this is the end. It is not easy to make three good films, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a series of films that has gotten consistently better past the third. No, I don’t think I would be sad at all if this were the end.

One more thing to add: it was great to see Chow Yun-Fat as the Singapore pirate lord, but it was a shame he had to die so early. I realize that this was necessary to thrust Elizabeth into the spotlight as a pirate lord—and it was great to see her continue to be strong character—but it was still something of a shame. Chow is a classic actor, and it would have been nice to have seen more of him.

There is much more I could say—I could, for example, talk about all the parts I loved, like the depiction of Davy Jones’ Locker as a desert (makes sense when you think about it) and Jack’s multiple personalities. But I have written over four thousand words as it is. I did not intend to write so much here, but this spoiler section has turned out to be as long as (if not longer than) the non-spoiler section. I guess I just had a lot I needed to get out of my system. I focused on the elements of the story that didn’t make sense here, but while watching the film I was only vaguely concerned with these elements—they in no way ruined my enjoyment of the film. I would have liked a cleaner back story, but I still give it three thumbs up. Oh, wait... that one’s not a thumb.

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