The fifth installment in this series is a demonstration of the law of diminishing returns.
According to the series’ writers, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies take place during a heavily fictionalized version of the mid-1700s. Now, if all those old Econ 101 books are correct, that’s roughly the same time period in which real world number crunchers such as Johann Heinrich von Thünen and Thomas Robert Malthus were developing the concept of diminishing returns. If Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is any indication, that’s not a coincidence.
Even diehard fans of the series will admit that each consecutive Pirates movie has failed to measure up to the one which preceded it. Dead Men Tell No Tales does nothing to break that cycle. The storyline isn’t as involving. The characters aren’t nearly as interesting. Even the action isn’t as exciting. About the only thing Dead Men Tell No Tales does better than the first four installments is tie up all of the dangling plot threads left over from the previous films.
Were you wanting to know if Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) managed to get The Black Pearl out of that bottle Blackbeard imprisoned it in, undead monkey and all? Now you can find out. Were you curious about what Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush ) was going to do with Blackbeard’s sword and ship? Look no further. And what about Will Turner (Orlando Bloom ) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), were you wondering whatever happened to them?
The answer to that last question turns out to be the driving force behind the narrative this time around. It seems that Will and Elizabeth conceived a son on their lone night together all those years ago. Now grown to be a strapping young teenager, Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) is determined to break the curse that enslaves his father to eternal service aboard the Flying Dutchman. To accomplish that, he needs the legendary trident of Poseidon. And to locate the trident, he needs Jack Sparrow.
Or so Henry believes. You see, things haven’t really gone poor Jack’s way since we last saw him, so he’s not really in much of a condition to help anyone. He’s completely broke, has no ship, and is utterly disrespected by what’s left of his old crew. Worse than all that, he is being hunted by the vengeful ghost of Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), an old adversary whose spirit clings to this world solely to bring misery and death upon Jack Sparrow. Despite all that, Henry still decides to enlist Jack’s aid in his quest. Along the way, they cross paths with Barbosa and Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), both of whom are seeking the trident for their own reasons.
Henry and Carina are obviously intended to fill the rolls of the young lovers previously occupied by Will and Elizabeth. For his part, Henry is honorable and hunky, which is about all the script asks of his character. Carina, on the other hand, is a bit more problematic. The original movie found some clever ways to show Elizabeth dealing with the restrictions society often placed on women in the 18th century (sometimes literally in the case of corsets). Dead Men Tell No Tales takes a somewhat lazier approach, halting way too many times so Carina can lecture everyone that just because she’s a woman doesn’t mean she can’t do everything a man can.
The movie also overplays the trope of having everyone Carina meets, especially those with religious leanings, declare the girl to be a witch simply because she has a basic understanding of science. In case you miss the point, she even carries a notebook once owned by poor persecuted Galileo. In case you really miss the point, the movie halts a couple of times so that Carina can lecture everyone on how she only believes in things that can be proven scientifically. Fortunately, this all ends up being a setup for a joke as Carina’s vaunted scientism quickly crumbles in the face of the supernatural Salazar and his ghost sharks. Like another famous doubter, Carina eventually comes to believe because she has seen.
Even with all these criticisms, Dead Men Tell No Tales isn’t really a terrible movie. It’s more like the later seasons of a favorite TV series that’s passed its prime. It’s fine if you just want to hang out with familiar characters for a while, but nothing you’ll rush to discuss at the water cooler the following morning. It is the law of diminishing returns in action, which if I remember the Pirate code correctly, means that it is time to close up shop and move on to other ventures.
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