The final film of the original 'Pirates of the Caribbean' trilogy was released 15 years ago, and for anyone who hasn’t seen this film since its berated theatrical release, it can be quite startling to see the opening shot of the film is a noose (it’s worth noting here that I will only ever refer to this franchise as a trilogy, with the less said about the sequels the better). Darker opening shots have been seen before, sure, but have any followed a mere ten seconds after the Walt Disney Pictures title card? The first scene follows a young boy on his way to the gallows, intertwined with footage of pirates en masse being hanged, their dead bodies being wheeled away in a cart. It’s dirty, visceral and confronting, with nothing on this scale seen before or since from this now-dominant studio.
Before the keyboard warriors crack their knuckles and get to work on proving me wrong, I too was scared my rose-coloured glasses were preventing me from seeing this film for what it really is: a convoluted mess. Alas, I rewatched the film recently and tried to keep my bias away as much as possible. After all, the first film in the trilogy, ‘The Curse of the Black Pearl’, is one of my all-time favourites. I am pleased to announce that not only does ‘At World’s End’ hold up, but its status seems to be significantly hoisted up in retrospect of what has been released since.
Discussing the plot of a film from 15 years ago seems redundant, but it would be remiss not to at least refresh the memory - mostly because the plot is pretty wild. Released the summer after ‘Dead Man’s Chest’, the follow up ‘At World’s End’ opens with Beckett (Tom Hollander, ‘In the Loop’) holding Davey Jones' (Bill Nighy, ‘Love Actually’) heart ransom, and thus controls the seas. He is brutal and unsympathetic, which ignites the flames of the worried pirates, who are compelled to convene at Shipwreck Cove to hold the Brethren Court - a last stand. The original gang of Will (Orlando Bloom, ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King'), Elizabeth (Keira Knightley, ‘Atonement’, ‘The Imitation Game’) and Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush, ‘The King’s Speech’) will need the help of recently deceased Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, 'Finding Neverland', ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’), who is trapped in Davey Jones' Locker. The fate of piracy lies in the hands of the nine Pirate Lords as they prepare to fight Davey Jones and the East India Trading Company.
It’s a fairly heavy plot, so no surprise that it runs for almost three hours - but remember when runtimes weren’t reported as news? Remember when nobody cared about the runtime if the film was good? Well, this is one of those times - for me.
Where did the bravery of studios dissipate, and why have we as a audiences been dealt a hand of summer blockbusters, each perpetually more streamlined and mainstream than its predecessors? It was the biggest movie of 2007! Perhaps the audacity of ‘At World’s End’ was too much for viewers at the time, which started a slippery slope of initial negative reviews, leading studios to slam on the brakes rather than sticking to what they know. There’s a reason so many of these big-budget franchise films feel like an algorithm. Of course this is not the case every time, but I am yet to be convinced otherwise that no film since ‘At World’s End’ has matched the scale and wildness in this realm.
It seems that every decision director Gore Verbinski (‘Rango’, ‘A Cure for Wellness’) makes is daring. He challenges the characters, and by doing so also challenges the audience. It doesn’t always go as expected, and even the “happy ending” is not exactly all rosy. For those who don’t remember, Will and Elizabeth get married at last, but are destined to stay apart bar one day every ten years - not exactly ‘When Harry Met Sally’. What’s more, for the majority of the runtime, the lovebirds are barely on speaking terms, each ridden with more guilt and independent drive than the next. And it’s not just them. It takes a really confident - if not gutsy - director to rip up the play book and turn things on its head.
When a film is as successful as ‘The Curse of the Black Pearl’ truly was, then often any sequels will do their utmost to hit all those same notes. But these sequels - starting with ‘Dead Man's Chest’ - seem to grab those notes, cut them up, mix them around and see what happens. Of course that means not everything will work, but the sheer dare and determination are for me, what separates this film as a triumph that is under appreciated.
Audiences should delight in glee at the forces ‘At World’s End’ throws at them. And yet, while history may be kinder to the film, this was not the case 15 years ago where said forces turned people away. The argument does not stand as much here in Australia as it does oversees where the ratings vary, but this film in the UK is rated 12, and in the United States 13, and there are scenes in this film that are truly dark. If hanging lines of people wasn’t enough, there’s an image in the final act where Davey Jones squirms his tentacled extensions through an officer’s orifices (that’s a tongue twister) until he drops dead. As a young high school student at the time, I fell head-over-heels for such imagery, but the affection hardly stopped there.
It seems that every decision director Gore Verbinski makes is daring. He challenges the characters, and by doing so also challenges the audience. It doesn’t always go as expected, but it takes a really confident - if not gutsy - director to rip up the play book and turn things on its head.
The third and final act of this trilogy is truly something to behold. The CG is breathtaking, and 15 years after its release, still looks better than a lot of the stuff recently produced. Pause any frame and stare into Davey Jones' face, Sparrow imagining himself as a crew member of the Flying Dutchman, or the spiralling ships hurtling towards oblivion side by side and you will be amazed. The entire action set piece is remarkable, laying down the laws early and always knowing what’s happening. There's a method to it all, and a reasoning behind any decisions, which is proof that you can build huge sequences and not lose the soul of your film. How many times have you heard the complaint that everything was good until the final battle when everything blew up and nothing mattered? Well, stuff blows up here a lot, and there are even supernatural beings dictating the environment, but the film never loses its way and keeps the viewer engaged throughout. It’s beautifully choreographed, where characters are all given something to do, the stakes are incredibly high, and audiences have space to breathe whilst taking it all in. It’s a masterclass of action directing, and Verbinski deserves much credit.
The villains in this film are likewise unmatched. We get the backstory because it’s relevant, not because it tries to add empathy. The bad people are bad and stay bad. It’s enough that front and centre of this franchise is the anti-hero Sparrow, who is a lot. So not only do we not need villains who see the error of their ways or are misjudged after a trauma, but are simply rotten characters. And how does ‘At World’s End’ do away with one of its villains? With a slow-motion melancholic walk through the ship, debris flying everywhere, the crew jumping overboard, and Beckett accepting his fate as it all comes crumbling down. It’s outrageous, and maybe 15 years ago was a stretch too far, but looking back at it now, you dream of seeing anything half as daring in your summer blockbusters.
Can we talk about the music now? It’s hard to fault recent theatrical scores of the big budgets, but come on, Hans Zimmer pulls out all the stops with this one. The 10-minute masterpiece that is 'I Don't Think Now Is the Best Time' was played on repeat for me during my VCE studies. I don’t remember maths, but I remember this. It takes you on such a journey. The fact that you can feel every emotion and ride all the action through the music alone is a wonderful achievement. Does it match the soundtrack of the first film? Probably not, but praise should be given to the song Zimmer wrote, 'Hoist the Colours', an eerie, nightmarish yet rousing pirate anthem that thematically links so much of the film.
Everything just feels so big and weighty. Decisions all seem to be on a knife's edge, even though there’s more double-crossing than a hot cross bun. Verbinksi spent the two previous films building his character arcs, so even the often lambasted portrayal of Sparrow from Depp is cultivated here in such a way that it isn’t annoying, but honoured. Two films later this isn’t the case at all, and he’s certainly annoying, so perhaps only Verbinski knew how to handle it (or perhaps too much of a good thing is just bad).
Of course, ‘At World’s End’ is very far from perfect. There are obvious flaws and it has a slight pacing problem towards to end. There is far too much going on in terms of plot, and it sometimes feels as though the ambition is fighting against the characters rather than with them.
I never set out to convince readers that this is the next 'Paddington 2' with this article, nor is it intended to deploy attacks on all recent big studio blockbusters. The message here is simpler than all of that, and that is that fortune favours the brave. It may not have been loved at the time, and perhaps not many have revisited the film, but the sheer willingness of Disney to back Verbinki's vision has put ‘At World’s End’ on a mantle it may never have dreamed of - a retrospectively breathtaking and captivating film that dwarfs its copycats. This big, bold, dark and funny film demands more respect and more recognition as part of one of cinema's great trilogies.