Back when Pirates of the Caribbean was a mere amusement park ride, you had to travel to Orlando, sit in a little boat and soak up some buccaneering color, with requisite shanties, for less than 10 minutes.
As a massive movie franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean now comes to you – or at least, the closest multiscreen movie theater to you – to offer a swashbuckling spectacle with duels, explosions and pitched sea battles for at least two-and-a-half hours. Real pirates never had it so good.
It seems more appropriate to judge Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, supposedly the final film in the trilogy, by the standards of theme-park attractions rather than other films. At World's End scuttles such trivial matters as story and character, but puts on such a lavish show with just so much to see and hear, it sweeps you away in spite of yourself. You don't so much enjoy At World's End as surrender to it, but you receive merciful terms once you wave the white flag.
In case it skipped your mind, the cliffhanger finale of Dead Man's Chest featured the death of staggering scalawag Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). Fortunately for Sparrow, being dead hasn't stopped Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) from returning to roll his arrs in the latest film. Barbosa joins forces with estranged lovers Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightley) to rescue Sparrow from damnation in the afterlife in order to protect the institution of piracy itself. Corporate-minded Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander) plans to conquer the seas in the name of mercantile interests, with the help of oceanic demon Davy Jones (Bill Nighy disguised in CGI tentacles).
At World's End abandons much of the labored slapstick of Dead Man's Chest, but the mystical mumbo jumbo remains as choked as the Sargasso Sea. You miss the relatively simple ghost-story rules of the opening installment, Curse of the Black Pearl. The new film now makes room for a mysterious goddess and "nine pieces of eight" entrusted to the major pirate chieftans. Fortunately, director Gore Verbinksi sets the pace at such a clip and crafts such dazzling visuals that we don't have time to ask inconvenient questions. We're too busy soaking up sights such as the city made of wrecked pirate ships.
More than the first two films, At World's End finds epic inspiration from the likes of The Odyssey and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," from a ship literally sailing off the edge of the world to two vessels locked in combat while swirling down a gigantic whirlpool. Verbinski seems particularly energized by Captain Jack's nightmarish consignment in Davy Jones' Locker, a sunstruck wasteland marked by such surreal visions as a virtual flock of Sparrows.
Given the relative ease with which characters can come back to life, it's difficult to invest much emotion in At World's End. Caring for the characters becomes even more difficult when their motivations prove so mixed. Not just Sparrow and Barbosa, but supposedly "pure" personalities such as Will and Elizabeth constantly betray each other or vacillate between goals without consistency. Cinema's best pirate movie, The Sea Hawk with Errol Flynn, never misplaced its moral compass.
Nevertheless, Pirates of the Caribbean in general and Depp in particular still get comedic mileage from Sparrow's blend of cowardice, greed and spasms of nobility in spite of himself. The romance ends on a surprisingly bittersweet, supernatural note that helps justify some of the plot's prior contortions and gives the vehicle a little depth.
At World's End will inevitably plunder the national box office, but there's something weird about our culture's veneration of pirates. By definition, it's not a nice profession, and it's hard to imagine people lining up to see Liars of the Caribbean or celebrating National Talk Like a Murderer Day. Maybe pirates just have better costumes.