This review was originally published at Christianity Today.

Would you book passage on a doomed ship if you knew Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley, and Orlando Bloom would be along for the ride?

Millions of moviegoers will say “yes” and climb aboard for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, the conclusion of Disney’s pirate trilogy. Some will even go in hats, dreadlocks, and heavy eyeliner, cheering for their favorite scallywags. And they’ll reward director Gore Verbinski and company with enough treasure to fund another whole franchise.

But that may be fool’s gold they’re spending. Not even a dozen Captain Jack Sparrows can save this overstuffed ship from sinking. If less really is more, Verbinski must have missed the memo. (In last summer’s Dead Man’s Chest, he proved that excess can be a good thing; it’s hard to have too much fun with slapstick sequences as inspired as those. But here, it’s just chaotic action, a lot of shooting and swordplay without character development to give it gravity.)

If you choose to join this rowdy cruise, plan to purchase a couple of meals’ worth of popcorn and soda. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End packs more characters, more action, more surprises, and more metaphysical nonsense into 168 minutes — yes, that’s right, almost three hours — than most adventure trilogies contain in their whole series. (I know, I recently said the same thing about Spider-Man 3. But trust me: At World’s End makes that movie look as simple as a Saturday morning cartoon.) And you’ll have to sit through twelve minutes of closing credits to see the movie’s predictable epilogue. But most moviegoers will have already walked the plank, emerging seasick, full of strange tales, and drunk on plot-twists, double-crosses, and baffling revelations.

Wait — I take back what I said about popcorn. Verbinski and the effects team work overtime to spoil your appetite. The previous Pirates movies have shown a flair for the grotesque, and this time, they pull out all the stops. In fact, they dismember them. Characters have a troubling tendency to snap off digits, gouge out eyes (and suck on them), rip brains out of craniums (and lick them), and yank out beating hearts (and maybe even stab them). It’s like touring the popular “Bodies” exhibit (featured in Casino Royale), only to see the corpses come to life and dissect themselves.

And the film’s mad revelry in violence reaches troubling extremes. After the opening scene of a child being hanged, impalings and shootings come at a dizzying rate.

You’ll notice I haven’t summarized the story yet. That’s because it would take hours to diagram the crisscrossing currents of this narrative. Screenwriters Ted Elliott and Ted Rossio fail to rekindle the chemistry of the characters in Dead Man’s Curse, and their turbulent pacing sinks the storyline’s coherence rather spectacularly. We’re left flailing about, grasping at pieces of the narrative’s wreckage, while it all eventually goes down in a whirlpool of chaotic action as powerful as the Charybdis.

Here’s a sketchy summary:

Manifesting the world’s greatest evil — a corporation — the malevolent Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander) has obtained the still-beating heart of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). In doing so, he’s gained control of the fearsome, barnacle-skinned crew of Jones’ ship, The Flying Dutchman. With this advantage, Beckett plans to cleanse the world of pirates.

Thus, our “heroes” — Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), the recently resurrected Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), and the mysterious Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) — set out to rescue their only hope: that rascal, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp).

Sounds like another famous third episode? Replace Jabba the Hutt with Chow Yun-Fat, and you’ve got the idea. Barbossa, Elizabeth, and Will must outwit Captain Sao Feng (Yun-Fat), a Chinese pirate, in order to free Jack from his underworld purgatory. Verbinski even pays tribute to poor Princess Leia, as Elizabeth is stripped to her skivvies. (“More steam,” demands Sao Feng, but I think those were stage directions.)

Why do “the good guys” need Captain Jack so badly? Well, to ensure box office success, for starters. But Sparrow is also necessary for the reassembling of the Nine Lords of the Brethren Court — the world’s foremost pirates. If the Nine can pool their resources, they can muster a mighty last stand against Beckett and his East India Trading Company.

Wait, the Nine what? What is this, The Lord of the Rings? No, not even close. The Nine pirate lords are even more culturally diverse than the fellowship of the ring, and show more personality than Yoda’s Jedi council. But I’ll take the Jedi, or the Middle-Earth fellowship, any day. The Jedi boasted in honor and ethics. And Frodo kept company with inspiring heroes. In this franchise, it’s every man — and woman — for him or herself.

Three hours is a long time to sit watching self-centered buffoons scrambling about the deck of an unsteady ship. For all of the talk about love and freedom, these “mateys” are as fickle and reckless as a cafeteria full of juvenile delinquents. Everybody lies to everybody. Understanding their motives and grudges is like trying to comprehend sectarian violence in the Middle East. The movie’s most telling scene involves a super-sized Mexican standoff, in which the gunslingers can’t decide who to shoot. Who can blame them? They’re all losers. Moviegoers might as well root for Lord Beckett.

Thus, the movie ends up like Davy Jones himself — many-tentacled, full of bluster, and devoid of a beating heart.

Even Depp’s Captain Jack can’t rescue the waterlogged storyline. Sure, he’s as entertaining as ever. The screenwriters give him some of the series’ funniest lines — Shakespeare would have howled to hear Jack fumble that famous quip about “a woman scorned.” But while Jack’s moral dilemmas in Dead Man’s Chest were a giant step toward meaningful storytelling, here he’s not much more than a delusional wisecracker stumbling about on the edges of things. When Will and Liz come to the rescue, they find him lost in a delirium. And once they drag him back into the action, he never really recovers. He’s too busy arguing with the voices in his head—or, hair, as the case may be. (And that gag isn’t nearly as funny as Verbinski thinks it is.)

Most disappointing of all — what should have been a tragic romance of mythic proportions is little more than a footnote. We finally learn the truth about Davy Jones’ broken heart, but that melancholy melody is lost in the din of battleship shootouts. And Jones, a magnificent specter inDead Man’s Chest, is just another action figure in the mob this time around. That deserves a resentful “Arrrrrrr” from all pirate fans.

If any of the stories actually tugs at the heartstrings, it’s the story of Will Turner’s desperate quest to save his father from slavery. Just as Sean Bean’s supporting turn as Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring rang out powerfully, so Stellan Skarsgård conveys remarkably poignant emotion in his role as “Bootstrap” Bill. And yet, even that melodramatic tale is overrun by the tidal wave of chaos turned loose by the special-effects team in the sea battle to end all sea battles.

Is there any reason to buy a ticket at all? Oh, yeah. The budget bought some remarkable imagery: the Black Pearl sailing an ocean of sand; an aerial view of a boat sailing through starfields; an underworld of doldrums full of despondent ghosts; and the awe-inspiring return of the goddess Calypso to the ocean. A couple of action sequences — including the intentional capsizing of a ship by its crew — achieve a certain mad brilliance. In the pandemonium of the pirates’ climactic war for independence, you’ll witness one of the big screen’s most ludicrous love scenes. And the ships rock and roll to Hans Zimmer’s score, which is as stirring as a storm at sea.

The special effects are on par with last year’s spectacular Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. (It’s a shame that such life-like action feel so heart-less.) And the greatest special effect in the entire series isn’t a special effect at all: It’s Keith Richards’s impossibly fantastic face. Yes, that’s the Rolling Stones axe-swinger himself — the true inspiration for Depp’s Jack Sparrow — playing a gravel-voiced veteran of the high seas.

In fact, Richards delivers one of the movie’s best lines: “It’s not about living forever; the trick is living with yourself.” It’s a flicker of meaningful thought in the madness. And it might have resonated more powerfully if the movie hadn’t felt like “living forever” in an out-of-control amusement park.

Most moviegoers will agree: At World’s End shivers our timbers far too much. “Close your eyes and pretend it’s all a bad dream,” advises Captain Jack. “That’s how I get by.” Not bad advice. But wait — the dream may not be over yet! The closing scenes suggest that at least one of the characters might live on … and on … and on …


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