Cannes (Out of competition) – We know Johnny Depp can delight as Cap'n Jack Sparrow, but can Rob Marshall's supporting movie match up to its main attraction? And, wonders Paul Martin, can this blockbuster be the one to span the treacherous sea that's opened up between Tinseltown and its critics?
Most movie reviewers that one meets are, politically speaking, a pretty right-on bunch. Those in the UK like to tweet up a storm against the scissor-handed policies of the Cameregg coalition. Those in the US tend to regard Sarah Palin and the Tea Party with the same visceral animus that Garfield reserves for Mondays. And there are few issues where left-leaners – such as the majority of my fellow hacks – all fall into line with as much rigid uniformity as they do on the subject of war, they quite rightly chiming with the late, foghorn-tonsilled Edwin Starr as to the null value of its usefulness.
But while film critics might be likely to be found yelling “Stop the war!” in connection to the ongoing farrago in Afghanistan, they tend to ignore the fact that they themselves are engaged in an ongoing campaign of mutual attrition with a foe towards whom they are growing increasingly antagonistic – the Hollywood studios.
The pattern of battle is, by now, as predictable as the opening exchanges between two chess grandmasters, as first a studio announces its latest blockbuster project, and the critics pour scorn on it. The studio then announces said project will be in 3D, and the critics pour scorn on it. Next, the studio releases the first trailer for its film, and the critics pour scorn on it. Finally, the studio releases the film, and the critics pour scorn on it.
'Tis a scenario which seems to be benefiting few. The studios feel the press are living on another planet, one where the ebb and flow of the tides isn't dictated by money, and they consequently get the hump when all their gifts of set access and star interviews are thrown back in their faces via a slew of scathing reviews. In turn, the critics themselves get increasingly angry, as they try to posit themselves as the standard-bearers for the legacies of Truffaut, Eisenstein, Fellini and Welles, and apply the standards set by filmmakers of that illustrious ilk to movies made for 14-year-old-boys, only to get all weepy and maudlin when millions of those 14-year-old boys then turn the movies they've just slated into monsters of profitability to surpass even a paparazzi shot of Pippa Middleton's bare behind.
And so the cycle of bilateral aggravation begins anew with Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. The fourth in Disney's uber-franchise, already the rumblings from critics suggest that this is a nautical failure to rival the Titanic (certainly not James Cameron's Titanic), just as they reckoned the second and third films were before it (combined theatrical gross: about $2b).
Yet, while On Stranger Tides is certainly problematic, it is not demonstrably worse than Marvel's recently-released Thor. Both films feature a plethora of awful gags. Both feature a slow-moving mid-section during which the prospect of a quick doze beckons to the viewer as if the Sandman himself had sprinkled his magic slumber-dust on their popcorn. Both feature a central romance that fails to spark (yes, disappointingly, Penélope Cruz's Angelica makes a tepid playmate for Jack Sparrow). Yet one is praised, the other is pilloried. Those within the studio machine again gnash their teeth in frustration at the arbitrary inconsistency of it all.
On the other hand, the reviewers can feel justifiably furious at Pirates' glaring examples of focus group-driven cynicism. For example, the introduction to the series of Sam Claflin as stoic missionary Philip and Astrid Berges-Frisbey (poshest name ever?) as Syrena, the mermaid the former falls for. This romance is to Rob Marshall's movie what a helping of rat droppings are to a nice dinner, and is blatantly only included in an attempt to render On Stranger Tides more palatable to a younger demographic.
Then there's the 3D, which delivers a couple of shots where cutlasses jut out of the screen (and one of those was in the trailer) and absolutely naff all else, meaning that Disney is basically charging the viewer a premium on the admission fee so they can sit for nearly two-and-a-half hours with a pair of funny-looking specs pressing down on the bridge of their nose. Like, thanks, mouse-douches.
So where does that leave us? Hollywood feels bad. The critics feel bad. The problem lingers, the boil goes unlanced, with On Stranger Tides merely adding to the woe and further muddying the waters.
Rating on a scale of 5 watery graves: 2
Release date: UK = 18 May; US = 20 May
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Screenplay by: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, suggested by the novel On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers
Cast: Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush, Sam Claflin
Cert: UK = PG; US = PG-13
Running Time: 137 minutes