What decade-old movie-going experience do you still remember most fervently, so potently in your mind that you remember the precise sensation of it, ecstatic and embarrassed, as though it were yesterday? If you’re older than me, edging on 25 years now, but only an outgoing freshman in 2007, you probably recall the robust revelations of There Will Be Blood, Zodiac and No Country for Old Men less as DVD-discoveries than as the big screen opus’ they deserve to be.
Obviously my film tastes weren’t so well developed at the time. I was also unconsciously masquerading as a hostile, gregarious teen boy at the time, but that’s a languorous coming-of-age story for another time; possibly another medium too. I had a decent time with Disturbia, wasn’t alienated by the demented motion-capture of Zemeckis’ Beowulf and watched Juno as addictive gospel, though that, too, is a coming-of-age story for another time. All those have faded greatly in terms of depth and gratification. One that’s persevered pretty perversely over the years is Gore Verbinski’s maligned maximum-capacity trilogy-topper, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.
Coming at the tail-end of a month of overstuffed threequels, At World’s End seemed par for the course in terms of trilogy climaxes biting off more than it could chew. Spider-Man 3 had its funky charms, but couldn’t find its predecessors’ poignancy amidst its haphazard plotting. Shrek the Third was… well, horrifying and dreadful, as could be reasonably expected after the first two. I’ve honestly blotted it out of my mind for the sake of my sanity – for whatever reason my mom thought it was a good idea to give me it for Christmas. At World’s End was just as critically ill-received as those, but the key difference here is that Verbinski is at his best when he’s given free creative reign, here crafting a grand romantic opus, stitched surprisingly together by mutual betrayal.
At World’s End opens to a world of devastating fascist control, with long processions of poor, impoverished people being marched to their deaths for the most petty offenses in an attempt to stamp out any trace of piracy. This is what happens when a power-hungry industrial loon inexplicably becomes the most powerful man in the world. “It’s just good business,” Tom Hollander’s posh wannabe autocrat Cutler Beckett says more than once, ignorant that the world isn’t meant to be run as a business. Revisiting in the midst of this year’s presidential inauguration, the eerie, haunting echoes of the real world are impossible to ignore. It’s a shame we couldn’t live our whole lives believing this kind of catastrophe could only happen in a world of cartoon fantasy.
Originally seen as the ugly duckling of the franchise, too crazed to believably function, there’s a passion underpinning At World’s End finale that eludes even Verbinski’s bombastically adventurous original. Curse of the Black Pearl was stunningly efficient blockbuster entertainment; a film based on a Disney theme park ride that somehow had texture, character and political dimension. Its followup, Dead Man’s Chest, was a moody, occasionally thrilling meander, its characters thrown into random situations that strained credulity too often to feel streamlined. Every character is on their own haphazard journey, often leaving the audience disoriented, at one point literally to the point where the camera is rotating concurrently with a mill-wheel. I won’t even go into detail on At World’s End‘s misbegotten follow-ups, from the mealy escapade of On Stranger Tides to the artificial, repetitively titled VFX extravaganza Dead Men Tell No Tales.
At World’s End represents a grander artistic statement of a world gone mad, the most feral, traitorous and repulsive outlaws suddenly possessing more dignity and humanity than the ostensibly civilized government officials, shockingly given absolute supernatural power to govern its people with a slimy tentacled fist. To explain the plot beyond that point would only serve to confuse. Each character still has their own conflicting agendas, but somehow they find a kind of chaotic harmony and grace in their instinctive double-crosses. As Johnny Depp’s eccentric, alcoholic Jack Sparrow says in the first film, “you can always trust a dishonest man to be dishonest. It’s the honest ones you have to watch.” The heroes of At World’s End are united by lies and mistrust, with the unspoken agreement that eventually their counter-intuitive traitorous indiscretions will add inexplicably up to an agreeable end, either in grand defeat or slim-chance victory.
The convoluted plot is only ever a tool for Verbinski to explore his most ludicrous Pirates movie dream, throwing every idea he has at the board, not doubtfully held back by how demented or dumb they may be. This is a film where the lead romantic couple stages an impromptu wedding in the midst of a maelstrom battle, where the only way to return from the land of the dead is to turn a ship upside-down before sunset, and where a man’s hallucinations continue a conversation well past their host leaving the room. In At World’s End, insanity has become a gloriously self-sustaining condition, not to mention best conditions for Verbinski to work under. When logic and reason are thrown necessarily out the window, what kind of unbound spectacle can be achieved?
The decade since has been artistically, if not always commercially, kind to Gore Verbinski. His animated western Rango gave him the freedom to explore the western genre more richly in The Lone Ranger, a financial catastrophe that nonetheless maintains a nice pocket of admirers, myself included, for its reclamation of the western genre within a tragic native american history. By the time A Cure for Wellness hit, Verbinski had attained a rare cult following for grandly orchestrated visual and narrative puzzles, often wherein a luckless buffoon gets consumed by some larger mythology. At World’s End eerily follows the same path, with Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann playing out a mirror version of the gender war myth of Davy Jones and Calypso. Elizabethan romance is already a kind of warfare; Verbinski just makes it literally so.
In a lot of ways the corporate and political dimensions that Verbinski started to explore a decade back have been dwarfed by subsequent work. The ways that Rango and The Lone Ranger extrapolate progress as a regressive machine, destroying culture in the process of achieving wealth and ostensibly civilized perfection, far exceed the sillier sketches of totalitarianism put forth in At World’s End. Verbinski’s Pirates finale endures most, though, as an official artistic statement of his interests. As the sophisticated, dreamlike horror fun-house A Cure for Wellness proves, he still has as much to say about the potentially morbid places we’re headed as the golden era’s they’re violently paving over.
As for my own personal experience, I still remember being so caught up in the absurdist glow and mist of Verbinski’s joyously convoluted vision, Dariusz Wolski’s stunning compositions and Hans Zimmer’s grandly pulsating score, that it was 40 minutes before I noticed my dad’s car parked at the far end of the lot, fuming in rage at my blindness to his presence. He refused thereon to drive me home from the movies anymore. If only he’d taken to heart the theme at the core of At World’s End: mystifying betrayal can sometimes be the purest expression of love.