This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
DoctorDoom’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Climax: The Movie™
This is going to take a while, and yes, you absolutely can take that as a joke about the running time. Overall I like this movie but there's some things we need to talk about
1) Jack Sparrow
Jack Sparrow does not work when he doesn't have other characters to bounce off of. This is the mistake 4 and 5 made; as a solo lead, he's just chaotic antics with no anchor. This is why the Sparrow-Will-Elizabeth trio is so important to these films. But here, there are several scenes where Jack hangs out with mental "clones" of himself and they're all annoying and pointless and add nothing to the story. We already know he's loony, and it comes off like these scenes have been shoved in because by this point the marketing team knows he's the most popular character with the audience. Since the base premise is "the rest of our heroes have to go find and rescue Jack" seeing him before that happens also undercuts the weight of his return. All these empty scenes trivialize his character and make him seem less important to the proceedings than he otherwise would.
2) Sao Feng
Nothing but respect for Chow Yun-Fat, who does a good job playing the part, but Sao Feng as utilized here feels like a huge missed opportunity. Not only does his portrayal from a writing and design standpoint feel dated and racist, but his heavy presence in the film's screenplay and marketing is undercut by his strangely marginal role in the plot: he seems to exist only so that there is someone in the Brethren Court to name Elizabeth as their successor. His death midway through the film serves no other discernible purpose, yet the film presents him as if he will have a significant role in the story. It's not like the heroes needed him for their quest; they were only looking for the navigational charts and a ship, and that could have happened with any other interchangeable character, or even before the film began. We simply don't learn enough about Sao Feng for his presence to feel warranted. He either should've been given a larger role, including a part in the finale, or dropped from the film entirely. This weird middle ground doesn't suit a character who the film treats as a major player before so casually discarding him.
This is the real sticking point for me. I understand the base logic of revealing Tia Dalma to be Calypso even if I don't think it completely tracks with her character's portrayal in Dead Man's Chest, and it was clearly the plan from the beginning since her heart locket that matched Davy Jones's was seen in her home in the second film. What I don't get is why this revelation doesn't actually have any impact on anything else going on in At World's End besides providing some background pathos for Davy Jones's death. It's a strangely disconnected plot thread that leads to a dead-end goal for Barbossa that doesn't meaningfully connect to the rest of the characters. I *get* that the whirlpool in the final battle is "her fury" or whatever but it doesn't give either side an advantage so what's her motivation? I feel that an abstract effect on the finale like that would be more palatable if Calypso herself was kept abstract and unseen. Either that, or make the Davy Jones/Calypso love story far more pivotal to the plot, so that the intended parallel with Will and Elizabeth is grounded in the actual film instead of something the audience has to infer for themselves. Her whole subplot needed to either be streamlined or reworked to be more important, because as it stands, it takes too much time for no real payoff.
4) The Double-Crosses and Deals
In the first two films, the web of bargains and schemes was complicated, but it was never convoluted. The script machinery in 1 and 2 had a lot of moving parts, but everyone's motives were clear and what was being exchanged wasn't hard to follow, so the complex nature stayed fun and engaging. Here, the same gimmick is deployed but the effect is diminished because it's damn near impossible to keep track of all the interconnected pieces as the film is actually playing out. Near the end of the final battle, Jack does something and Beckett says "he expects us to honour our agreement" and I had no idea what the hell he was referring to. This wasn't the only time that happened either (I also have no clue what was going on between Will and Sao Feng), and I've seen this film on several occasions. This kind of plotting can only enhance the story if it's rooted in character motivations we can immediately understand. Here, it ends up detracting from the experience because it's too much information to process at once.
5) James Norrington
Norrington got such a short end of the staff in this movie. I'm not really sure why, since he was a major character in both 1 and 2, but here is reduced to essentially a background extra as part of Beckett's faction despite not agreeing with his methods and having a personal stake in our main characters, particularly Elizabeth. Someone with that kind of history with the rest of the cast feels like he should have a big role to play, but he's killed off after only one big scene where he helps Elizabeth escape the Flying Dutchman. It's a weirdly anticlimactic end for his character, and I can't help but feel that he should have had some kind of impact on the final battle. His role doesn't really subtract from the film, but it doesn't add anything either. It's just kind of a weird footnote, and he definitely deserved better.
6) Governor Swann
I only learned this recently, but apparently there was a deleted scene where Governor Swann learned how Davy Jones's heart worked (that the person who stabs the heart must take over as Captain of the Flying Dutchman). I don't know why this was cut, because him knowing that information is why Beckett kills him. Instead, he dies off-screen and it's not 100% clear why. Not that Swann was a major character before, but he is related to one, and avenging her father is a primary motivator for Elizabeth leading the pirates into battle against Beckett's forces. This movie is almost three hours long but doesn't have the time to fit in a short scene to clarify why Swann is killed? I'm really not sure how that happened. They needed that real estate for another scene where Jack talks to clones of himself, I guess
Despite these not insignificant issues, this is still a highly entertaining movie that closes out the trilogy in truly epic fashion. Verbinski's technical skill is remarkable, and the visuals, production design and music are all in top form. Cutler Beckett takes the main antagonist role this time, and not only does Tom Hollander make him an excellent bad guy, but he gets what's probably a top ten caliber cinematic villain death. The thirty minute long (!) final battle is one of the all-time great action finales; I can't name a better swashbuckling setpiece. And the ending for Will and Elizabeth's love story is beautiful, tragic and a perfect note for the characters to end on. It doesn't take the easy way out, instead leaving us with a conclusion with genuine emotional weight.
So yeah, At World's End is probably too cluttered and unwieldy for me to give it top marks, but I'll always take Verbinski's big swings over the anonymous and empty filmmaking of the later Pirates sequels.