At first, At World’s End doesn’t seem to differ much from the world outside, since the government has stripped citizens of their rights in response to the threat of terrorists — the pirates of the title. In the film’s downbeat opening, we find that the East India Company, the Halliburton of the 18th century, has reduced its colonies to a prison, sending ranks of suspected pirates and collaborators to the gallows. East India has also commandeered the heart of the cephalopod-faced Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), compelling him to hunt down his freebooter brethren on the invincible Flying Dutchman and make the world safe for, if not democracy, at least Adam Smith–style capitalism.
So much for escapism. But what Gore Verbinski’s second sequel to his adaptation of the themepark ride is really about, I believe, is eternal damnation. That’s what’s facing Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), who opens this episode in a Dantesque afterlife on a ship in the desert surrounded by copies of himself. It’s a Philip K. Dick nightmare as painted by Magritte with a whiff of Tantalus thrown in. Not only does Verbinski push special effects into the realm of the poetic, he borrows from a half-dozen mythologies to construct a fitting punishment for the culture of narcissism, compulsive consumption, and greed that makes movies like this one necessary.
Such inspired conceits — and a number of them are slipped seamlessly and subversively into At World’s End — justify the film’s bladder-challenging (especially with all that water on screen) 168-minute length. The maze of plot lines proves less rewarding. I lost track of what was going on in the series even before the 2003 original was over — what is the curse of The Black Pearl, exactly?
As far as basic conflicts go, however, it’s pretty straightforward. The good guys — feisty English rose Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley and her beloved Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) — are in favor of love and freedom and opposed to the bad guys, like Lord Beckett (Jack Davenport) of the East India Company, whose only interest is reducing everything to a commodity and making a profit. Then there’s the gray area: Sparrow and Jones and Captain Barbarossa (Geoffrey Rush), charming and amoral forces of nature. All they want is eternal life and the satisfaction of their desires, and they’ll ally themselves with whoever offers the best terms. (You suspect, of course, that they’re good guys at heart and will take the right side in a pinch.) So what passes as a story is a curiously static series of deals and betrayals — not unlike the deals and betrayals that went into creating this movie franchise, one imagines — that seem to surge forward with exhilarating energy but in fact go nowhere at all.
Hence the film’s circular structure and its motifs of repetition and grandiose futility. Will’s father (Stellan Skarsgård), a human barnacle bonded to the Dutchman, delivers a touching monologue about his son that becomes truly horrifying when he repeats it verbatim with no recollection of having done so already. Given this installment’s ending and almost certain box office, the Pirates project promises to be an eternal recurrence of its own.