Friday, July 7, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

The film that started this series, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, achieved the only goal that matters in a summer movie: it was just plain fun. Everything about it was designed to give the audience a good time, most notably the performance of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. In this second installment, the entire cast returns, but the film carries a much more ominous tone. Part of what made the original film so fun was the lack of real danger. It possessed a sense of adventure, but never became truly intense. The stakes are somewhat higher this time.

The film opens intriguingly, with rain drops pattering onto settings of fine china. Elizabeth Swan’s (Keira Knightly) wedding has been interrupted as both she and her fiancee, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), are arrested for having helped Captain Jack Sparrow escape from the gallows (think back to the first film). Meanwhile, Captain Jack has a run-in with Will’s father, the sort-of-dead “Bootstrap” Bill Turner (Stellan Skarsgård). Bootstrap informs Jack that Jack’s time is up; he owes his soul to the sea’s most fearsome pirate, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). Suddenly, the race is on as Will desperately needs Jack’s help in saving Elizabeth, and Sparrow hunts after the mysterious contents of the legendary Dead Man’s Chest.

While the film has a considerably darker feel to it, it also has its fair share of humorous moments. I think most fans will enjoy this sequel and appreciate it’s numerous allusions to the first Pirates film, as well as some fresh character developments. Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport), for example, was a fairly stereotypical and unexciting villain in the original film. In Dead Man’s Chest, Norrington has lost his job and has become a desperate loser, willing to do anything to regain his military status. There are other character developments similar to this that are both surprising and fitting. Bill Nighy plays Davy Jones with a cold sincerity, even though most of his face has been computer-enhanced to resemble an octopus. In fact, every member of Jones’ crew has physically bonded with the sea in some way, allowing for some creative visuals; Bootstrap Bill has barnacles growing on his face and small hermit crabs crawling across his body.

There’s plenty of adventure and swashbuckling fun, but both the content and color-palette of the film suggest darker, heavier themes. Apart from the devilish Davy Jones, the East India Trading Company emerges as the film’s other villain, spearheaded by Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander). Beckett desires the contents of the Dead Man’s Chest for himself, adding another major player in the film’s events. It’s strange that this film should feel more tense; on the one hand, it makes sense because more characters’ lives are in danger. On the other hand, if this franchise has taught us anything, it’s that no one ever really dies. Even the characters we thought were dead (like Bootstrap Bill) can appear in some mystical half-dead form.

This film doesn’t exactly live up to the first, but I think it wisely avoids any such attempt and just moves the story ahead. Unlike the original film, Dead Man’s Chest doesn’t stand completely on its own. It’s obviously dependent on a third installment, and can therefore be compared to sequels like The Matrix Reloaded or Back To the Future: Part II. This isn’t a complaint, so much as an observation. Without disclosing any plot details, Dead Man’s Chest ends with a wonderful surprise that will leave viewers excited about what awaits them in Pirates 3. In fact, the whole film feels like something of a setup for the series’ inevitably epic finale. That’s not to say that this movie doesn’t carry any weight of its own; Dead Man’s Chest works, but mostly it sets the stage for what should be a spectacular conclusion to the Pirates saga. I left the theater looking forward to it, already anxious to climb aboard for one last ride.

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