Summer’s other shoe dropped last weekend, when Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest singlehandedly revived a moribund box office, proving that people do, on occasion, still want to go out to the movies. Dead Man’s Chest isn’t much without Johnny Depp, who’s given the lion’s share of screen time on this go-round — Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley barely register as more than set dressing — and the terrific VFX work by ILM, which continues to pour on the R&D where computer-generated characters are concerned. But it is a triumph of the Disney marketing department, which, having taken the spaghetti-flung-against-the-wall approach to so many projects lately (remember that other feature-film franchise based on a theme-park ride, The Haunted Mansion?) finally found something that sticks.
The script has several amusing-enough scenes — and it’s much less convoluted than the first film in the series, which is a big plus in my book — as well as all the winking elements of a half-parody, half-homage to classic Hollywood adventure films, from Tarzan the Ape Man all the way up through Raiders of the Lost Ark. But Gore Verbinski is no Steven Spielberg, and he can’t invest this thing with much personality or panache. The action scenes, some of them replete with physical and visual gags, feel stagebound rather than truly kinetic, and the characters are curiously restrained. Is it fun? Kinda. But it’s also two and a half hours long, which spreads the fun that exists fairly thin. The sense I got was of a very expensive rush job, the first of two big-time sequels hustled through production to meet an arbitrary mid-summer release date and help put blank ink in the corporate accounting books.
It makes me wonder, given the current business rigors of blockbuster filmmaking, with box-office numbers more visible in the media than ever before, if anyone in Hollywood these days is being given a chance to develop their skills. It’s not that it’s impossible to make a somewhat personal film in the context of the big Hollywood studio picture. Brian De Palma and John Woo put their unmistakable stamps on the first two Mission: Impossible movies, and although the third installment was an exercise in TV-ready blandness, it was at least made by a director (J.J. Abrams) who specializes in TV ready blandness. Poseidon was basically ridiculed, but I admired its grisliness as well as Wolfgang Petersen’s ability to get mileage out of big water in small spaces. (It’s a fine B movie.) Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was personal in its way — you felt Singer really identified, somehow, with Big Supe floating up there in outer space — but, a single terrific action sequence aside, it lacked the breezy sparkle it needed and was way too reverential toward its 1978 predecessor.
But the biggest surprise of the summer for me was that Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand, while certainly nothing special, didn’t suck as much as I expected it to. Singer’s version may conceivably have been a little more thoughtful or coherent — and, granted, Ratner had two fairly successful films to build on — but on the whole X-Men 3 just seemed to demonstrate that, at a certain level, high-octane VFX work and cinematography can basically obscure, or make irrelevant, a director’s personal style (or lack thereof). Maybe Kevin Smith’s Superman Returns wouldn’t have been a disaster area after all.
I know movie critics are supposed to disdain big-budget, mass-market blockbusters, but it always disappoints me to see a whole summer go by without some big, glossy air-conditioned entertainment winning me over. The last big-budget tentpole release I remember really admiring was Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (the first half of it, anyway), and it was Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 before that — neither of them directed by spring chickens. Maybe my taste in film is ossifying along with my old bones, but it doesn’t seem like the new generation of directors is measuring up to guys like those in terms of the kind of thrilling, violent, meticulously constructed action film that only a hundred million dollars or two of Hollywood studio money can buy.