Movie Review: “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”

Somehow, like its characters, this franchise just won’t die.

The “Pirates of the Caribbean” saga is the consummate example of “making it up on the fly.” The first film didn’t demand a sequel, nor did the third…or the fourth. But with billions of box office dollars on the line, I should’ve known a revival was inevitable.

Picking up roughly two decades after “At World’s End,” “Dead Men Tell No Tales” introduces Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), who’s out to save his father Will (Orlando Bloom) from the curse of the Flying Dutchman. Along the way, he joins forces with Carina (Kaya Scodelario), a pretty astronomer who spends most of the film being indignant about one thing or another. (Let’s just go ahead and call them Budget Will and Budget Elizabeth, because that’s what they are.)

Enter Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), fresh off a somewhat unsuccessful bank robbery (and I do mean that literally). This time around, Jack’s being chased by Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem), a seafaring ghost with a haunted ship and a fierce vendetta. Budget Will, Budget Elizabeth, and Jack subsequently team up in search of the Trident of Poseidon, a mystical artifact that possesses the power to control the sea (and break any curse).

“Dead Men Tell No Tales” is not a good movie—in fact, it’s probably the worst of the “Pirates” quintet. More than once, the movie morphs from a sequel into a “soft reboot” of sorts: pretty much everything significant here—a plucky young lad and lass, a crew of undead pirates, Jack’s shenanigans—is a retread of the original flick. It’s a shame “Dead Men Tell No Tales” plays things so safe, because a lot of interesting pieces are already in play. There’s tons of potential in any plot focusing on Will Turner’s son’s quest to break his father’s curse: not only does it bring the story full circle (recalling Will’s own attempt to save his father “Bootstraps Bill”), but it raises questions of free will, destiny, and penance. “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” however, goes off in unnecessarily duller directions. It’s unclear, for instance, why this movie needed to introduce Salazar at all. Yes, he’s a cool CGI creation…but as far as the core characters are concerned, he’s nothing more than a cheap plot device used to get things moving.

But I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t mention the movie’s highlights. In a creative inversion of roles, the spunky Carina basically plays the dashing hero to Henry’s “damsel-in-distress.” Jack’s quirks are far less irritating when he’s not trying to carry the whole movie. The soundtrack revives a whole batch of musical cues left out of “On Stranger Tides.” The effects are appealing (particularly Salazar’s ghost ship, which has the ability to rear out of the water and strike down like a snake). And despite the saga’s endless pretensions to unearned grandeur, the ending this time around is emotionally satisfying on a very deep level.

In sum, though, “Dead Men Tell No Tales” takes no risks, and accordingly reaps no rewards. It’s not unwatchable, and there are definitely worse ways to spend a couple hours. But when all’s said and done, you won’t miss much by waiting for the inevitable rerun on TNT.

A creaky fifth installment that never quite justifies its own existence.

Normalized Score: 0.5

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Posted by on May 27, 2017 in Fantasy


Movie Review: “Alien: Covenant”

The gleaming black Xenomorph of the “Alien” franchise—eyeless, serpentine, a creature of claws and dripping fangs—is certainly one of sci-fi cinema’s most recognizable creations. And the creature’s had a long lifespan since its first appearance onscreen. Its best outings—Ridley Scott’s initial space-slasher flick and James Cameron’s shoot-‘em-up sequel—are indisputably genre classics, even if its later movies were pretty lackluster (we don’t talk about “Alien vs. Predator”).

With “Covenant,” Scott aims to bridge the time gap between 2012’s woefully underappreciated prequel “Prometheus” and his original 1979 movie. And, true to form, the first third of “Covenant” feels like a straight-up remake of the first “Alien.” We first meet android Walter (Michael Fassbender), who’s in charge of managing a spaceship of outbound planetary colonists. The ever-appealing Katherine Waterston turns up as Daniels, this installment’s protagonist and requisite Wide-Eyed Brunette. James Franco, Guy Pearce, Danny McBride, and Billy Crudup also make appearances, but they’re largely background scenery. (This is an “Alien” movie. You know most of these people are gonna die.)

A mysterious radio transmission unexpectedly draws the crew to the surface of an alien world, where they discover a crashed spaceship filled with traces of a mysterious civilization. People get infected with extraterrestrial spores, monstrous creatures erupt in gory explosions from human bodies, and general carnage ensues.

And then “Covenant” shifts gears, abruptly veering away from its horror-film sensibilities and revisiting topics last seen in “Prometheus.” As it so happens, the planet is actually the burned-out homeworld of the Engineers, the nine-foot-tall aliens responsible for seeding the galaxy with life (and, in the process, creating humankind). Some old friends from the last installment also show up,

(Spoilers ahead. Without them, it’s impossible to do this movie’s themes justice.)

It quickly becomes clear that David (also Michael Fassbender), the castaway android of “Prometheus,” has set himself up as king of the necropolis around him. Obsessed with the concept of creation, he’s labored for years to manipulate the “bioweapon” of the Engineers—the spores that birth proto-Xenomorphs. His goal: spawning a “true” Xenomorph—the sinuous dark monster of the original film quadrilogy, which he views as the “perfect organism.”

This is relatively cerebral stuff, and “Covenant” often feels like an uneasy attempt to blend the narrative styles of two very different movies. The grand themes of “Prometheus”—creation, power, human destiny—are a lot more highbrow than the earthy nastiness of the original “Alien,” and it’s quite clear that Scott’s much more interested in the former than the latter. Thus, “Covenant” ends up tacking on a third act that quickly turns into a retread of the original flick—a xenomorph is stalking crew members through the spaceship!—rather than striving for some suitably operatic height of horror. (Call me overly baroque, but I’d say the climax should’ve been a blood-soaked, hand-to-hand battle against David, fought in a charnel house of creation, decomposition, and rebirth and set to a classical music score.)

That said, “Covenant” really does have some genuinely visionary moments. The destruction of the Engineers’ homeworld, depicted in flashback, is a Boschian nightmare come to life: a sea of twisting limbs, insectile carapaces, and dark mist. David’s laboratory is a bone-chilling, Da Vinci-meets-Leatherface vision of deconstructed human forms. And whether or not his ideas are completely lucid, Scott’s clearly trying to say some very interesting things about God, the body, and sexuality.

If “Prometheus” had Gnostic overtures—disengaged, somewhat malignant creator-beings, or demiurges—“Covenant” doubles down hard on those themes. An important part of Gnostic philosophy was the idea of “emanation,” or a chain of subordinate beings interposed between God and the world. That idea of emanation is the narrative backbone of “Covenant”: from the Engineers come humans; from humans come androids; from androids come xenomorphs. And despite David’s talk of increasing evolution toward perfection, it’s plainly apparent that what plays out is a steady deconstruction of the idealized superhumanity of the Engineers. Humans are more biologically fragile than the Engineers; androids lack the ingenuity and freedom of humans; xenomorphs are nothing but soulless killing machines. Any attempt at subcreation has its limits.

And I’m certainly not the first to note the eerily sexual imagery that characterizes the franchise’s art design. Here, Scott’s seemingly suggesting that the disintegration of human identity goes hand-in-hand with the amplification and exaggeration of human sexuality (in the form of the xenomorph, a being of pure appetitive id). That’s a pretty heady idea, even if it remains only an undercurrent.

(Spoilers end here)

Technically, “Covenant” is satisfying but not groundbreaking, and leans very hard on its computer-generated effects. Occasionally this is great (we get a bang-up, three-dimensional alien battle on a wildly careening shuttle), but most of the time it’s a serious letdown. I’m firmly in the camp of folks who think special effects have actually gotten noticeably worse in the last decade or so: CGI creations move with unnatural speed and fluidity, breaking the illusion of reality. It’s hard to believe, but the prosthetics and rubber monster suits of the 1979 “Alien” really were much, much scarier than anything seen here. (The same could be said of other films in the genre: the gooey effects of John Carpenter’s 1982 monster movie “The Thing” were vastly superior to anything in the CGI-drenched 2011 remake).

When all’s said and done, “Covenant” is a middling sixth installment in a longstanding franchise that’ll almost certainly keep trucking for years to come. As a fan of the series (yes, even the crummy installments), I have to confess my disappointment: Scott simply doesn’t let his ambition carry “Covenant” to the heights it demands. Love it or hate it, “Prometheus” really went all-in on its Big Ideas. I only wish this chapter had been willing to aim as high.

VERDICT: 6.5/10
Not the finest “Alien” series outing, but certainly not the worst.

Normalized Score: 2.4

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Posted by on May 23, 2017 in Sci-Fi

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