The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Taking Stock of Dead Man's Chest

Written by Owen Weetch.

Photo from the article ‘It was a blockbuster summer. Moving Pictures got us through to September.’

- The Hold Steady, The Swish

What makes a good summer blockbuster? It’s a difficult question, and quite probably a pointless one. Because it’s hard to define what actually defines a blockbuster in the first place, there’s no concrete way with which to assign it value - no matter how often the suits try to persuade us that bigger and darker and more socially networked equates better. Even more frustratingly, it’s especially troublesome when the object of criticism is something of which the writer could quite reasonably be described a product. You see, these large scale Hollywood spectacle adventure films where huge sums of money have often been invested or at least intended to be earned (so, yes, there’s a go at defining them, but look how clunky and insufficient it turns out) are uniquely and seriously influential - or rather the good ones, whatever makes them as such, can be.

Why so serious? The Hold Steady quotation above is a play on words, and it refers to the Rush album entitled Moving Pictures as opposed to the visual media discussed by this site. So why start with it? I’ve chosen to do so because it’s indicative of how communal and constructive an experience the summer blockbuster, at its finest, can be. They’re markers for chapters in our lives, just like a great album reminds you of a particular phase of your existence, whether you want it to or not: when you were ecstatic; that month where you just felt despondent; that time you tried to get into Rush. A good blockbuster functions similarly to one of those notches which your parents carve into the doorframe right above your head, once a year, to indicate your height, to show how you’ve grown, if you’re a fictional character. There was the time I was five, when I went to see Hook with my Dad, and I consoled myself with the knowledge that he at least went to work and built aeroplanes, which was a sort of flying - and with more practical planning acumen to boot. There was my first date with my first crush when I was twelve - we went to go see Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, and it turned out just as well as that treatment of Toho’s property.

And there are all those transcendent, impossible blockbuster memories. They’re of movies released far too long ago to be seen theatrically, but they were watched time and time again in youth, on VHS, and they were memorised and inhabited, screened in theatres of the mind holier than any Odeon. All this could be said of any film, but there’s something about the scale of the Summer Blockbuster, and its release at a particular time of year, that make it a rite. Good Summer Blockbusters are life experiences as much as they are texts, really, and if - they’re good enough - they’ll get you through to September.

Or at least, that’s what I always wanted them to be. In 2006, they didn’t seem to help that much. I’d been through a breakup, and, being 19, I revelled in being quite the melodramatic young Werther about the whole damned thing. Adopting a brooding air and smoking Marlboro Lights (not yet Golds) beneath the shanty shadow of Blackpool Tower, I thought I’d take in a movie and cheer myself up. It all had the potential to be very nouvelle vague, but the local multiplex wasn’t showing anything that Jules or Jim would’ve fancied. The new Pirates of Caribbean movie, Dead Man’s Chest, was on, though. I had enjoyed the first one, taking pleasure in its popcorn predictability. Added to that comfort, the camp Captain Jack Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp, seemed to be doing a Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). He laced a big mainstream movie with a dash of sauntering sedition, and it helped the movie to no end. So I bought one concession ticket for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, sat in that darkened screening room, and hoped for the best. It was 3 p.m. on a Tuesday, and it had been out a few weeks, so there weren’t many people around with which to share that communal experience so vaunted in the previous paragraphs.

And I hated it. It was long and overblown and it seemed to lack any narrative clarity. Jack had taken over the movie, and the franchise had capsized under his anarchic ballast.

But then that was cynicism that provided that response. I lacked the imagination to appreciate the thing. My personal issues at the time, or, rather, the inflated sense of their importance, were to blame for this - not to mention a lingering, adolescent impression that to peremptorily dismiss something out of hand is to demonstrate that hand’s sophistication. But then the potential joy offered by the blockbuster is anathema to such pretension, and we need to remember that.

I so regret my unwillingness to engage with this barmy cacophony of a film, filled to brim as it is with imagination and verve. And thank God the movie hitched its wagon to Sparrow’s Black Pearl - can you imagine if it had been tethered to Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley? Not that they’re not as bad as Mark Kermode’s nicknames for them would suggest. But the performers have done better things since and Elizabeth Swann Turner and Will Turner are engineered to be colourless, really, so that they may throw the colours of Jack’s flag into more vivid relief. There are spectacular sights here, too. Fish people and barnacled buccaneers rub dorsals with giant squid. The Kraken lays waste to dhows and galleons alike, its tentacular suckers thwumping down onto decks and dousing them with supernatural brine. There’s a healthy sense of irreverence to the whole shebang too - two characters spend a good five minutes discussing in academic detail the pronunciation of the behemoth’s moniker. Is it ‘kraken’ with a short ‘a’, or a long one? It’s not really important, in the grand scheme of things, but I’m glad that the issue was raised.

The way the film laces sea lore and folktales throughout its narrative, and the ways it plays with accepted history and myth, are worthy of mention. This functions as a testament to imagination, the ways in which the creative mind can turn history into story, and vice versa. The film plays with history and classic fiction with knowledgeable and greedy irreverence. The father of Jim Hawkins, the orphaned hero from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, is cut down in an early sequence, setting that canonical narrative off onto the high seas. Consider Davey Jones, a miracle of computer technology and conceptual planning, a kalamarinthropomorphic mix of that book’s Long John Silver and H.P. Lovecraft’s cyclopean squid god Cthulhu. Mariner’s tales of Davey Jones’ Locker are given narrative function here, as well as emotional backstory which is filled out in the series’ bloated but bravura third entry, At World’s End (2007). The Pirates movies represent a historically indebted but distracted attitude to the Golden Age of Piracy - as if writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio were listening in history class to their teacher talking about the East India Company but were so busy daydreaming about wisecracking swashbucklers that they wrote it down in their jotters as the East India Trading Company. Any classmate who motived this gaffe, you can imagine them thinking, high on their imaginative powers, was probably a worse kind of dweeb than they were.

And that lack of clarity I so despised is key to the movie’s project. There’s a great preoccupation with character’s allegiances, goals, and their ability to dissemble as to those first two states of affairs. All Gore Verbinski’s Pirates movies are concerned with deception, the protagonists lying about their disparate intentions to the extent that it becomes quickly difficult to ken what anybody actually wants. That is, it is until they admit that they’ve been lying, doing so simply by muttering the word ‘pirate’ by way of explanation - an economy of complexity. In this second entry of the series, selfishness runs rife as characters backstab others, one-upping them in order to achieve their own petty, greedy desires. It’s like watching a nautically themed episode of Seinfeld. But sometimes - not often, but sometimes - the lies told are truly heroic. Over the course of the series characters goes from telling lies to save themselves to doing so to rescue those they have come to call friends. As Gabriel García Marquez put it, sometimes a lie is ‘more useful than love, more lasting than truth’. This is especially the case if the lying is done in good faith, for the betterment of others. The pirates become heroes in these films because they understand and master the productive and altruistic qualities of the lie. They’re the opposite of the thieving East India Trading Company, who never acknowledge the self-serving deception that constitutes their moniker.

I think this, perhaps accounts for the reaction I initially had in 2006 (aside from my self-indulgent brooding, which also stopped me from initially seeing the merit of the gentle and melancholic Superman Returns - released that same Summer and simply one of the most beautiful big-budget movies to have ever come out of America). Allegiances were unclear, and I was unsure of who to root for - this was less Indiana Jones, more a confederacy of Belloqs. The movie’s project dovetailed with my cynicism, but I failed to see that the film’s devious attitude was a constructive deconstruction whereas mine - which was, when I get down to it, really, just a teenage proclivity for shitting on everything. I thought the film sloppy when I should have realised its playfulness, its willingless to manipulate and humorously experiment with storytelling, both intra- and extratextually. Lies are stories, and how lucky we are to be told a good one.

The term ‘tentpole’ is often used to describe the films the studios intend to be the big earners, props to hold up and spike the line signifying dollars earned over the graph of Hollywoodland’s fiscal year. Dead Man’s Chest was a tentpole for me, but in a different way. It serves to still measure my receptivity to stories, my willingness to engage my imagination, and how that can change over the years. That’s what all good blockbusters are, really - they’re an opportunity to take stock, to consider our imaginations and whether or not they’re being put to good use.


Owen Weetch is one of the Head Editors of Alternate Takes and teaches in the Department of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick. He recently completed his doctoral studies on 3D cinema and continues to research stereoscopy’s unique expressive potential. He also writes criticism, of films and TV and books and whatever else interests him, over at WeetchNotes.

This article was published on August 03, 2014.

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