If you show me a movie genre that's tired and worn out, I'll show a movie genre that's due for a comeback. Like everything else in the free market, when the conventional wisdom tilts one way, the contrarian goes the other way. If the contrarian is wrong about the market, he loses everything and gets laughed at, too, for defying herd-wisdom. But if he's right, he wins big -- and gets the last laugh, all the way to the bank.
Exhibit A, opening Friday, is "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." In recent decades, duds such as "Cutthroat Island" and "Yellowbeard" seemed to put a peg-leg through the heart of the pirate genre. And let's not forget "The Pirate Movie," a sort of pop-music updating of "The Pirates of Penzance," featuring the irresistible tagline, "Buckle Your Swash and Jolly Your Roger for the Funniest Rock 'N Rollickin' Adventure Ever!" Well, audiences did resist. Yet despite that bomb, co-stars Kristi McNichol and Christopher Atkins went on to bright careers in Hollywood -- oh, wait.
Yet as everyone knows, the pirate movie is back, and Johnny Depp has got it. Director Gore Verbinski, credited with such undistinguished-to-unsuccessful fare as "Mousehunt" and "The Mexican," managed to talk actor Depp (best known for arty but un-moneymaking films) and producer Jerry Bruckheimer (best known for non-arty but much-moneymaking flicks) into participating in a new pirate movie. Verbinski had some good angles for his flick: For one, he envisioned Depp playing a pirate who would in turn be playing Keith Richards, with a little Steven Tyler and Axl Rose thrown in. It was a brilliant idea: Today's rockers, like yesterday's pirates, see themselves as bad boys, outlaws, marauders -- and they hope to get rich, too, as they roam the four corners of the world, looking for dolls, drink, drugs, and dollars.
And speaking of dolls, Verbinski snagged a young teenager, who had been in only one notable film, "Bend It Like Beckham" -- that would be Keira Knightley, before she got hot. That is, a couple of years before she was nominated for an Oscar, before she posed nude on the cover of Vanity Fair. Which is to say, Verbinski spotted her true star-future early on; Knightley's skinny hips have helped pull his pirate movies up the up-escalator, in tandem with her career.
Yet precisely because her newbie career was still fragile -- Kristy McNichol was once on the way up, too -- Knightley was reluctant to sign on. She told The New York Daily News,
"I was like, wait a minute, you're doing a pirate movie, something that hasn't worked in about 50 years. And it's based on an amusement park ride?" -- that would be, of course, the ride at Disneyland. Nobody has ever accused Verbinski of failing to make potentially profitable tie-ins, but at the same time, the linkage to a 40-year-old Disney ride was not without risk. Disney is a great brand but it's not exactly YouTube in terms of teen-buzzing cutting edginess. Would 22-year-olds want to see a movie about a ride they went on when they were eight?
But as everyone knows, the "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," was a huge hit, grossing some $650 million. Depp made the film cool, Knightley made it sexy, and Orlando Bloom -- well, he was sexier as an elf in the "Lord of the Rings." In addition, the special effects were effective, the action was well-paced, and the script was a well-balanced content-platform: romance, humor, and hoary sea-lore, all focus-grouped to profitable perfection. No wonder it made money; in addition, Depp was nominated for an Oscar, all of which proves that even jaded Hollywoodites are suckers for lines such as "I confess: It is my intention to commandeer one of these ships, pick up a crew in Tortuga, raid, pillage, plunder, and otherwise pilfer my weaselly black guts out" -- if the actor can deliver them with a sufficient amount of slurry, campy, brio.
And since the contrarian vision of Verbinski was vindicated, it's no surprise that the same team is back for a second installment of making money -- I mean, making a second film, with a third movie already in the can, due for release next year.
So, how's the new movie? Actually, it's pretty good. It keeps the same elements from the first, and then adds some more -- more special effects, including lots of CGI (thank you, Moore's Law). Most spectacular is the computerized visualization of Davy Jones, of Locker fame -- you know, the guy who haunts the briny deep, hoarding lost souls in the hull of his ghost ship, "The Flying Dutchman." Actor Bill Nighy plays a great bad guy; in "Constant Gardener," he was silkily evil using his own face, but in the new "Pirates," he is slimily evil, his handsome mug covered with octopus tentacles. It may sound gross, but it's cool, because the tentacles never stop twitching, sort of like Jack Nicholson's eyebrows.
OK, so the special effects are good -- but what's the movie about? To tell the truth, I'm not sure. It is heavy with references to the first movie; director Verbinski is obviously counting on kids having the seen the DVD of "Black Pearl" a dozen times. Suffice it to say that beautiful young Elizabeth (Knightley) and handsome young Will (Bloom) are scheduled to be married in Ye Olde Caribbean, but are instead arrested by an evil fop of an official (Tom Hollander). Elizabeth and Will break free, but now they need the help of Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp).
Yet Depp has problems of his own: First, he is nearly eaten by cannibals, who are simultaneously funny and scary -- which is to say, they are not p.c. noble savages, but rather fearsome but not-to-bright man-beasts. (This illiberal depiction of Third Worlders, so notable also in the new "King Kong," is yet another reminder that Hollywood may like to preach about getting along, but when it comes to screen depictions, it likes to depict adrenaline-pumping savagery.) Second, and more seriously, Sparrow has sold his soul to Davy Jones. And now the cephalopod-ic Jones, snarling and blustering through his suction discs, is bent on collecting. So what happens? Well, I couldn't give the ending away if I wanted to, because all the plot strands are to be tied up, not in this movie, but in the next.
And as for "next," it's a safe bet that there will be more pirate pictures to come -- Verbinski has once again made the movie world safe for piracy. And that's a part of capitalism, too: The bold contrarian takes a risk in defying the conventional wisdom, and then he finds that he has company, in the form of not-so-bold follow-arians. So the boom will become a bubble -- and, eventually, a bust. Whereupon the genre will go down again, running silent and deep until the next contrarian revival.
But since I confess I'm a fan of pirate movies, and sailing-ship movies, here's my own from-the-peanut-gallery suggestion: Put "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" onscreen. Everybody has heard of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1797 poem, and they might even have heard of some of the lines, e.g. "water, water everywhere/nor any drop to drink!" Still, not too many folks have any idea what the poem is really about, other than shooting an albatross. And yet the visuals are potentially stunning; if Gustave Doré could do this with engraving tools in the 19th century, imagine what Hollywood could do with computers in the 21st century.
And yet the poem ends with a great message:
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
In other words, there's a potential movie here to touch lots of different "demos": Christians, nature-lovers, neo-Romantics, plus the usual shiver-me-timbers types. But is it a bit risky to start with a poem? Well, Coleridge died in 1834, so he's in no position to complain about his poetic material being repurposed into something hipper and jazzier. So a film version of "Rime" could be yet another hit, further proof that there's box-office life yet in those barnacled old bottles o' rum.
And if you don't believe me, I'll prove it to you -- I'll make "Rime" myself. I'll keep the pirate-esque genre keeping on, and even expand it a little. Just give me a couple hundred million dollars and some talent, please. I don't ask for much.
James Pinkerton is the TCS Daily media critic.