Chris's Film Reviews

Pirates of the Caribbean - The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

A review by Chris Harris, who has been going to the movies for half a century, so he's seen quite a few films in his time.

Written: 12th September 2003

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Directed by: Gore Verbinski

Starring: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Pryce

I must admit I'm surprised it's taken this long to make a movie out of a theme park ride. There's been considerable traffic in the other direction, of course: Jaws, Earthquake, Backdraft, Back To The Future, the Terminator franchise - they've all been turned into spectacular presentations. Even if, at their lowest level, all that's going on is that you're being driven in a cart past a lot of showroom dummies that move, speak, catch fire, or blow up. I hadn't really got that much of an idea about what I was letting myself in for when my mate Matt and I walked into the Showcase Cinema down here in Bristol. Would a crossover in the opposite direction stand any chance of working? I'd heard the buzz, of course, and seen a brief clip on the TV. But the whole thing started off as a pleasant surprise, and kept getting better and better.

You may have heard that there's no extended credit sequence at the beginning of the film. This is laudable: no pretentious statements of "A film by..." What? Well, I'm sorry, if you're heavily in to Auteur Theory then I apologise; but personally I don't see how the hundreds of people listed in the end credits of most films can't each have some effect, however minor, on the end results... Here, there's just the film's title, and then bam! we're off and running. Great! That's what theme park rides are about!

The film looks gorgeous. The cinematography is superb, and while there's obviously a lot of computer-generated jiggery-pokery going on from time to time to produce the environment, it never slaps you in the face. It's the Caribbean. It's supposed to be vibrant blues, lush greens, blazing sunshine or thunderous storms: and it's all there, with sprawling sea ports and triple-masted sailing ships duly installed.

The first ten minutes of the film equate to being pulled up the ramp before the brakes get let off and we go roaring into the first loop. The main characters are introduced, we're shown who the heroine and hero are and the reasons why they aren't together, we're shown the main threat to their happiness, and the spooky overtones of the Black Pearl are laid out. Considering we're talking about a theme park ride here, the plot actually hangs together remarkably well. It makes a certain amount of twisted sense, in a "zombies and Aztec gold" kind of way. I didn't come out of this film starting sentences with "But how come..." like I have with some other blockbusters recently. A definite bonus is that the script is knowingly written, taking the mickey out of many pirate movie cliches: "They never leave anyone alive," says one character. "So who tells all the stories about them, then?" retorts another.

Keira Knightley is obviously going to be a huge star; Orlando Bloom is well on his way already, having played Legolas in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jonathan Pryce has a role that is so him that casting anyone else in the part would have been ridiculous. In fact, you can imagine the screenplay describing the heroine's father as "looking rather like Jonathan Pryce." But when you think you've got a handle on what sort of film this is going to be, Johnny Depp arrives on the scene.

Given that fans of The Office and 'Allo 'Allo will see some familiar faces here, and acknowledging Mr. Depp's well-known fondness for the BBC comedy series The Fast Show, it was no surprise that he goes for laughs. But the levels to which he pushes things are extraordinary.

Yes, I caught the Fast Show catchphrase "and then they made me chief of their tribe..." (and like half the audience, Matt and I were waiting for the traditional follow up of "...which was nice...").

Yes, I know he stayed with Keith Richards to research the role, so I was expecting the beads and dreadlocks thing.

But I wasn't prepared for the flamboyance, the debauched, sniggering insouciance of his performance. It owes much to the silent movies (remember his Buster Keaton routine in Benny & Joon?) in the way that everything is turned up to 11. And that's what you want on a theme park ride - you're not looking for subtlety or fine nuances. In all its demented glory, it could well be the performance of his career, and that's saying something: with the possible exception of The Ninth Gate I've never seen him in a film that's disappointed me. Depp even overshadows Geoffrey Rush, which until I saw this film I would have thought was completely impossible, and Rush gives a wonderful performance here, make no mistake. But only Orlando Bloom gets anywhere close to Depp's level. It would have been nice to see his character acquire more of Jack Sparrow's flamboyance as they interact. There are glimpses of this, especially where he mimics the pirate's mannerisms while talking to the Cap'n's crew. That boy's going to go far.

Just like a theme park ride, just when you think things are over you get another jolt. You know the sort of thing: those "Ah, and so they're all going to live happily ev - Eeek!" kind of moments. Then we're off and running again. The only trouble is that as a result of all this the film is quite long - and it's not the sort of movie to be watched with a full bladder, I can tell you.

So - it's great fun, and I will be getting the inevitable DVD to watch it again and again and again. Oh, and if you don't already know - sit through the end credits. Given Hollywood's fondness for recycling successful formulas, it's quite obvious that this won't be the last time we see these characters on screen.

And I will be in the queue with the everyone else when the sequel comes out.

Chris's rating: Five Stars

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