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More is less in ‘At World’s End’

At 168 minutes, this film is just too much of the same tired ‘Pirates’ shtick. By John Hartl

Cliffhangers aren’t what they used to be. Did anyone really consider that Johnny Depp’s Capt. Jack Sparrow might NOT survive his battle with a ferocious sea monster at the end of last summer’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”?

Did we really have to wait a year to find out if the next “Pirates” film would be Depp-less? Could the many-tentacled villain, Davy Jones, played by Bill Nighy, be triumphant, kick Depp out and take over the franchise? (That’s actually a pretty cool idea but ... nah.)

The low-budget Saturday-matinee serials that inspired those last scenes in “Dead Man’s Chest” were often more suspenseful and worrying because the B-movie actors who appeared in them were more expendable than Depp. They weren’t top box-office draws appearing in blockbusters expected to hit the $1 billion mark.

For that reason, there was never much question that Depp would rise again, if somewhat worse for wear, in “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” the No. 3 installment in the franchise that began four years ago with Disney’s surprise smash, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.”

No “spoiler alert” is needed before acknowledging that Sparrow survives the battle with the squid-style Kraken. Or that he goes on to star in the longest (168 minutes), most convoluted, most experimental and probably the most expensive entry in the series.

Whether it’s the best or worst will be a matter of heated debate over the next few weeks, though even the most enthusiastic Depp fans may be put off by the length and the emphasis on action and special effects over story. It begins to feel like punishment, especially in the final reels, when the narrative appears to wrap up half a dozen times.

While Sparrow is definitely back, the movie begins not with him but with a brutal mass hanging. This is accompanied by the announcement that habeas corpus has been suspended and apparently no one has any rights at all. Could this be producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s attempt to introduce contemporary politics to the franchise? If so, he doesn’t follow through, though there’s a suggestion that the chief heavy has a New World Order in mind.

Sparrow’s old enemy, Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) of the East India Trading Co., is up to his usual tricks, abusing his authority by indiscriminately stringing people up. He also means to do away with all pirates, including Sparrow. As in the second film, however, allegiances can shift and motivations may be fuzzy.

“Pretend it’s all a bad dream,” advises Sparrow. “That’s how I survive.” Maybe that’s the best way to get through “At World’s End.”

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Opposed to Beckett’s plans are Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), his girlfriend Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and the vampirish Capt. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). Stellan Skarsgard turns up again as Turner’s father, and Naomi Harris makes the most of a key role as the ambiguous Tia Dalma.

The freshest touch is here is the introduction of Keith Richards (the acknowledged inspiration for Depp’s performance) as Sparrow’s father, Capt. Teague. He drops by for a few minutes to give Sparrow advice about survival, and he has a memorably eloquent response to his son’s question, “How’s Mum?” If you take a bathroom break, you may miss his big scene entirely, but he turns up later for a curtain call.

Also new to the franchise is Chow Yun-Fat, playing a Singapore pirate, Sao Feng, who paws at Swann but otherwise has shockingly little to do. The original director, Gore Verbinski, teamed again with screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rosio, fails to develop the characters or encourage the relationships to grow and count. At worst, they risk turning sentimental.

Fortunately, Verbinski has not lost his gift for gallows humor. The makeup effects are as ghoulish as ever, and an episode about frostbitten toes is delightfully squirm-worthy. Computer-generated special effects make possible several cartoonish episodes, including one with a monkey blown out of a cannon and another with a little pirate who finds himself launched with his own gun.

Of the actors from the first two films, Bloom has most improved by avoiding self-consciousness and relaxing into his role. Richards, leathery and self-mocking at 63, is such a natural that you can’t help wishing he had more to do.

This time around, Verbinski seems more interested in creating stunning visuals and playing games. A nighttime sequence, in which the stars merge with the sea, while a ship stirs up the mirror-like water, is especially beautiful. Just as gorgeous is Verbinski’s dramatic use of the “green ray” (celebrated in such movies as “Summer” and “A Flash of Green”) that takes place under certain conditions at sunset.

Depp co-stars with several versions of himself in a couple of hallucinatory episodes, much like John Malkovich in “Being John Malkovich,” but these are show-off moments. Just because Verbinski can do it doesn’t mean he’s found a good reason for doing it. And there’s already too much of Depp camping it up as Sparrow. This may be the third time, but the charm’s worn off. No. 4 would really be pushing it.

Creating a successful sequel can be like trying to make lightning strike more than once in the same spot. It can be done, but it’s especially hard to pull off a “threequel.” Neither the new “Spider-Man” nor the new “Shrek” quite managed to do it, and the latest “Pirates” is even less successful.

In the summer of 2006, “Dead Man’s Chest” set a new opening-weekend box-office record that has since been eclipsed by “Spider-Man 3.” No doubt “At World’s End” will give the latter a run for its money in the opening-weekend category as well.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean audiences or critics were satisfied with what finally made it to the screen. “Pirates” No. 2 was a good sales job, and “Pirates” No. 3 is expected to duplicate it. No. 1 may trail both films in total box-office receipts, but it’s the one most people will remember.