There is a moment in Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg’s film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, in which one character expresses the desire to possess the body of another character. A third character protests the idea, reminding Character 1 that were he to posses the body of Character 2, Character 1 might be trapped inside that body forever. Character 1 assures Character 3 that the Trident of Poseidon, the artefact that every character is seeking, will be able to solve the problem.
The issue here is not so much that this is the first we’ve heard of Character 1’s capacity to gain the control of someone else’s body, although the revelation does arrive relatively late in the film. It’s the flippant manner in which we are informed of the complications involved in such a process, and the ease in which those complications are to be overcome. The Trident is very much a multipurpose MacGuffin. You could be forgiven for remaining confused as to what it actually does as the credits start to roll.
The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has been at risk of collapsing under the weight of its own mythology for some time, a consequence of stacking one sea curse on top of another more than once. At the end of the first film, The Curse of the Black Pearl, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) had reclaimed his ship, – reportedly the fastest in the Caribbean – from the evil, cursed pirate, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). There were more pirate curses however, and more formidable ships, because the sequel scriptwriters opted for repetition rather than progression, and somewhere along the way the series became less fun as a repercussion of unimaginative filmmaking.
The most recent of curses has attached itself to Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), once a fierce high ranking commander in the Spanish navy, now an undead pirate hunter with a bone to pick with Jack Sparrow, because don’t they all? The particulars of Salazar’s curse are murky, especially in relation to the host of other supernatural plot details, including that Trident, a magical ruby that has a vague connection to the stars and a witch that drinks green goo and disappears almost as soon as she arrives. Jack Sparrow’s compass, one of the series’ least interesting recurring elements, also returns. In many ways, the film is a congregation of now weary cornerstones that established the franchise.
Dead Men Tell No Tales might have overcome the dearth of inspiration had it been assembled with a sense of joy, or even coherence. When characters in a film have a better gip on the plot elements than the filmmakers, its a problem. Ridley Scott once said that when you get the script right, everything else will fall into place, advice that Scott hasn’t always followed himself. Dead Men Tell No Tales fails at that fundamental level. Everything about Jeff Nathanson’s script functions as a disservice to the film, from the narrative progression, to the unwieldy dialogue and the flat humour.
Early on in the film, Salazar, who is dead, asks Brenton Thwaites’ character, Henry, to deliver a message to Sparrow. The reason Salazar gives is that dead men tell no tales, although what that means and how it corresponds with anything else in the film is left to our unstimulated imagination. The real reason that Salazar uses the phrase is because it’s a term that has long been associated with pirates, and is also the title of the movie. Imagine if Jack Sparrow had turned his crew in the first film and declared, ‘and that’s the curse of the Black Pearl.”