Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Brief Critical Analysis of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" Film Trilogy

Originally published on Jun 14, 2007.

Every film or work of textual literature has two lives: that which is surfaced and literal, and that which is implied or can be derived. Each can overlap, and each individual film places a different priority upon them. Whether or not the thematic structure (as the “anti-surface” shall hitherto be referred) is implied, it will manifest itself once gazed upon by an observer: the audience. Therefore, the thematic structure cannot be denied, even if not intended, if supported with inarguable fact referenced from the work itself. This allows an interpretation to be false, and another, in turn, to be legitimate if not ignorant of the film’s content. The film’s content is of my concern, for actual intent to be derived would necessitate information outside the content of the film itself: a derivation this analysis has little use or interest in. Be forewarned.

Cinema has a long history of films that harbor ambitious themes, be them mythological or philosophical, veiled behind a commonplace genre. Star Wars reinvigorated classic mythology for a new generation. The Matrix contemporized countless philosophies and religious concepts while striking its immediate audience as little more than an innovative set of action films. (An achievement, in and of itself, not to be sniffed at.) The Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, now complete with the release of At World’s End, might seem to be just another blockbuster action/adventure leviathan. Herein will be presented an interpretation of the ambition these movies carry – the scrutiny they hold up to – including a complex and literarily potent portrayal of freedom, choice, responsibility, and love through the philosophy of existentialism.

The first film in the series, The Curse of the Black Pearl, sets the stage while standing alone as a complete work. (A feat that all three films are, amazingly, able to achieve.) We are introduced to the primary characters; each introduction indicative of that character's position in the story. The trilogy itself begins and ends with a detached interval of time, beginning with a scene set eight years before the action of the film. Therefore, our first introduction to two of the primary characters has them played by younger performers; in line with this, the second appearance of these characters necessitates ANOTHER introduction, not of the new character, but new performer. Elizabeth Swann, first shown to us a young girl, is fascinated by the concept of piracy, shown effectively through her childish enthuse: “I think it’d be quite exciting to meet a pirate.” The first of the other two primary characters she comes into contact with is Will Turner, shown floating in the ocean next to the wreckage of an attacked ship. When this initial scene ends, it is implied that it may have just been the dreamy recollection of the now seventeen-year-old Elizabeth Swann. This dream serves double duty (as does almost everything in these films), not only introducing a back-story for the characters, but also as reference to push the characters and plot forward. For example, when older Will is introduced, we see him clumsily break a candelabrum (character bit!) while delivering a newly forged sword (follow that sword!) for Elizabeth’s father, the Governor of Port Royal, to present to the newly promoted Commodore James Norrington.

Will and Elizabeth’s relationship is set up meticulously in the first film, and carried throughout the subsequent two. Will’s dedication to Elizabeth is the first indication of his overarching function in the entirety of the trilogy. Will makes every major decision in his life based on Elizabeth. Elizabeth is captured by the dreaded pirate Barbossa, captain of the legendary ship The Black Pearl. Will makes every effort to find and save her. His choices throughout are entirely objective, based entirely on those around him, and not of himself. Which brings us to the third in the trifecta of primary characters:

Captain Jack Sparrow is a man obsessed of his own notoriety. “CAPTAIN, Jack Sparrow, if you please,” he responds when referred to sans his title (despite his complete lack of a ship to ... captain). Jack is Will’s polar opposite. He acts entirely subjectively, basing his decisions solely on himself. Jack’s own viewpoint on life is blatantly stated by him, to Will, in the first film: “The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can't do.” Jack is the epitome of individual freedom, the quintessential pirate for this tale. He seeks the Black Pearl, of which he was captain, until mutinied upon by his first mate Barbossa.

The Curse of the Black Pearl wraps up its immediate concerns; that of a curse on stolen pieces of Aztec gold, placed upon it by the Heathen Gods. (This is the initial reference of a supernatural plotline that reaches its zenith, along with so many others, in the final film.) This curse deprives Barbossa and his crew of human delights, taste, passion, warmth. He is the first of a recurring trend in all three pirate movies: an antagonist who is depicted initially as unfeeling and detached in one way or other, only to be given an inordinate amount of depth and compassion. The other two are introduced in the second film, each having their own of the two pictures for prevalence of this trend.

Davy Jones is an antagonist introduced in the second film of the trilogy, Dead Man’s Chest. He is caretaker of those lost at sea, a cruel man and collector of souls. His appearance and actions initially do present that harsh image, but as his back story is further painted, the poetic nature of his being is revealed. Harsh only because he ripped out his own heart after the loss of his lover, he is the personification of ill-fated love. It is in movie two that the parallels between Davy Jones’ relationship with his own (yet unidentified) lover and Will’s with Elizabeth begin to materialize.

Will’s own situation begins to seem ill-fated as another plot device is introduced: a compass that points to whatever the holder wants most. This compass falls into the hands of Elizabeth, with results surprising to her. Several times she sees its needle point to Jack Sparrow, an attraction not unfounded: her fascination with piracy is established time and again in movie one. Elizabeth’s position as the main character of this trilogy is more clear when the issues of movie two are considered. The clearly subjective Jack and objective Will pivot around the confused Elizabeth, trying to find herself in her conflict between an upper-class upbringing, and in inborn fascination of piracy. It is also in the second film that Will’s objective objectives (forgive me) shift from Elizabeth to the freeing of his father, Bootstrap Bill, from the damned crew of Jones.

The first film has so much on its plate (character introductions, establishing the world, etc) that only when given the time of the second and third films could the thematic structure really begin to take shape. The peak of these character interactions is not fully reached in the first film. Hinted at are the conclusions that can be fully made regarding these characters. The second film also has, sprinkled throughout it, inventive use of foreshadowing. Jack is introduced this time around escaping from a coffin, and during the final duel, he humorously falls into an open grave. Sure enough, come film’s end, Jack is devoured by the deadly beast THE KRAKEN. (Typed in caps for fear of being eaten by an offended KRAKEN.)

The third film, At World’s End, passes the antagonist baton over to Lord Cutler Beckett, introduced in movie two. Of the three, this use of the "unfeeling baddie" has a much more subtle depth in the form of a hinted history with Jack Sparrow. In fact, any blatant compassion for Beckett would deprive his “double duty.” Beckett, quite simply in the continuity of the movie, represents the East India Trading Company. A hitherto unmentioned conflict between The Company and piracy is hinted at in the first film (“had a brush in with the east India trading company, Sparrow?”), shown in the second (the invasion of Elizabeth’s wedding, and subsequent arrest), and brought to full force in the third (the outright hanging of pirates in the film’s opening). Beckett is the face of the unfeeling corporation; the ultimate enemy of individual freedom, that which Jack Sparrow stands for. Beckett’s disconnect is shown perfectly in his final scene: unflinchingly walking the deck of his ship as it is brutally demolished. Hauntingly beautiful, the scene illustrates his character more than any dialogue could.

The Company also helps illustrate one of the most potent themes: freedom. One may think that simply by its opposing the individual freedom, it helps illustrate, but yet again, the plot has helped aid theme. The Company branded Sparrow a pirate, as if he were condemned to his freedom. Not only does this create interesting character nuance, but it also echoes back to existential philosophy, which indicates that humans have absolute freedoms: even the freedom to limit one’s own freedom. The Pirates films take place in a world of absolute freedom, where choices and responsibility rule supreme. Even the film’s supernatural elements are tied into this analogy. Come the third film, it is revealed that long ago, the Pirate Brethren captured the Goddess that ruled the Seas, Calypso, returning rule of the sea to man. Even the supernatural mythos supports a world of absolute human freedoms. In this world (our world?) what is the measure of a good man? The subjective Jack? The objective Will? Perhaps Elizabeth? This is a questioned posed to the audience by the very plot and character of these films. It is primal and epic. How does desire factor into choice?

These films ask the audience questions. They demand the involvement of the viewer. They are a puzzle that needs decoding, and the casual viewer will likely be unable or unw. The complexities of the plot suggest the thematic richness. In order to free his father, Will must sleigh Jones. To sleigh Jones, you must stab his removed heart. If you stab his removed heart, yours must take its place; the ship, the Flying Dutchman, must always have a captain. The Dutchman’s captain can only set foot on land once every ten years, to see the one he truly loves. These plot constructs are a setup for the staggering choice facing Will: he must limit his own freedom to save his father. However, saving his father will detach him from Elizabeth for ten years. (Depending on interpretation, EVERY ten years) Will does stab the heart of Jones, and become the Dutchman’s captain. Tragic? More like the most touching and poetic analogy for love I’ve ever witnessed: two people, choosing to limit each other's individual freedoms for the sake of pursuing freedom as one. What is that, but love?

And even then, there is hope for those who seek it. When Davy Jones approaches his lost love, revealed to be Calypso, he is furious because he said he “did the duty she charged him with” for ten years he ferried lost souls at sea to the land of the dead. Jones is infuriated that after then ten years was up, she wasn’t there! That is the moment at which he broke from his duty, and become the sea life encrusted heartless monster. If indeed the curse was forever, why would he do the job for the first ten years, only to abandon it when she skipped on their date? Curious, but also addressed later in the film. During Jones’ final battle, Jack holds the chest containing his heart and says “I can set you free, mate,” implying that he would stab the heart (a decision Jack had been postulating the entire film). Jones responds: “My freedom was forfeit long ago!” Wait, what? This is new. When considered in conjunction to Jones actions with Calypso, one can interpret that if she DID wait for him, the curse would be broken. THAT would defiantly piss Jones off to the point of quitting his job! This is corroborated by a scene placed AFTER the films end credits: Ten years later, Elizabeth waits with child, and at sunset THE GREEN FLASH appears, and Will sails toward them. The Green Flash was set up previously as the passing of a soul from the land of the dead. For those who seek it, it can be interpreted that the curse was broken, when Elizabeth was true.

Those who seek will be rewarded. If the audience in unwilling to step up to the task, disappointment is imminent. Every word is important, every gesture a story element of its own. Yes this is the paragraph where I answer those who quickly deem these movies not of quality. Of what quality? Sure, it may not be of a quality that can be appreciated in passing. It is of a quality that challenges you. It requires the involvement of audiences who have become passive; audiences who overlooked, in all likelihood, almost everything previously discussed and noted here, and this is just a preliminary analysis. I wrote this from memory. Volumes could be written by those with the drive. Volumes could be written in its defense, and naysayers  often offer incomplete phrases. Want to ignore the thematic structure? Then just stare at the pretty moving pictures, and pipe down. Movies are made for those who actually watch them, not those who just see them.

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