Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides [**]
It seems, given the box office receipts, that not nearly as many people are/were clamoring for a fourth installment as was expected. $90 million is nothing to sneeze at, but perhaps it foreshadows the diminishing returns that a sequel laden summer should eventually suggest. However, money making acumen aside, the fourth film has taken a refreshingly simplistic approach in its storytelling: now we have three disparate groups (Spaniards, Barbossa leading the Navy, and pirates) looking to reach the same goal (the Fountain of Youth) for their own ends. A mermaid's tear is also needed to enact the life expanding properties of the fountain and a golden chalice. It's no more complicated than that despite a couple of betrayals which are necessitated less by plot demands than the weaselly nature of being a pirate.
Johnny Depp as per usual goes big as Captain Jack Sparrow, but he plays the role with such ease and old hat non-chalance it's hard to tell if he's still being game or just sleepwalking through the role. All of that said, no one seems particularly committed. No one is bad, but the revenge that Barbossa seeks has lost all weight while the threat that Ian McShane's Blackbeard should imply is diminished to about five minutes worth of CGI trickery and a couple of lightly evil deeds. It's a peculiar waste of McShane's charisma, but also a waste of a lot of other opportunities: a zombified crew and a ship that does Blackbeard's bidding when he touches his magical scabbard are curiously under-utilized. Blackbeard also has a daughter who seems to ground and humanize him in a way that voids him of any menace. Her entrance which obscures her face in shadow is a reliable cliche meant to mask that she is a woman, but also underscores how woefully ordinary the whole affair is. It's a fourth adventure, but it isn't big, game changing or anything like that. It is designed simply to be one of the forgettable adventures in a pirate's life. When reflecting upon this year's later Jack Sparrow might say: "Did I ever tell you about the killer mermaids and the Fountain of Youth? Well, it happened once and then life went on."
It's a fine two hour diversion and considering how little of our time and money the franchise deserves after parts two and three it's nice to see them cut the clutter and try to get back to the basics of telling a story that doesn't rely on exposition. However, they accidentally diminish the fun of the spectacle by not giving us enough and ignoring some of the more intriguing elements they've left in play. I can't help but wonder if this is a way of testing the waters to see if there is life left in the franchise. Are there are plans to truly blow us out of the water with a fifth installment? I can see them trying to figure out what audiences really want and cutting the fat, I doubt they'll succeed but as far as part fours go they've totally succeeded at making a quick buck while improving on the efficiency of a franchise in the slightest of ways. I didn't hate the movie so maybe it doesn't secretly hate me and want my money. Maybe it wants to please me and is just too exhausted with its own part fourness to care? I guess I'll just have to wait until the next wholly unnecessary sequel to figure out if complacency is the deliberate modus operandi of every number four.