Wadding through a roster of blockbuster wannabes can feel less like watching than rummaging, a scavenger hunt in which one scans every corner of the frame for something striking—a shot, a camera movement, a swell of emotion—to justify the overriding inanity. Some recent findings: Branagh’s Thor flashed some of the crimson-and-bronze designs from Mike Hodges’s Flash Gordon before dissolving into a marsh of witlessly canted angles, while Judd Apatow’s Sucker Punch (a.k.a. Bridesmaids) offered the gleeful sight of Kristen Wiig doing a roadside foxtrot to some wild brass band only she seemed able to hear. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise used to understand this glaneur side of movie-watching. Scattered junk drawers of CGI swarming and dervish star turns, the earlier installments knew how to refresh the lenses by turning the screen into a bazaar of shifting images, with details hawked hurriedly and noisily and sometimes rather beguilingly. (The alliances and betrayals of Dead Man’s Chest are a blur, yet I’ve retained its opening vision of an abandoned wedding, with teacups overflowing with raindrops.) There may not have been substance, but there was always stuff. The newest chapter, On Stranger Tides, has a mermaid rampage shot like Ovidian Piranha outtakes, variously mummified cameos by Ponce de León and Keith Richards, and heightened contrasts between sandpapery skin and powdered perukes. In 3D! And it’s entirely useless.
These aren’t auteur works—producer Jerry Bruckheimer surely concurs with Michael Eisner’s definition of the ideal filmmaker as a coin in a vending machine—yet this plunge in worth can only be attributed to the change of director. Gore Verbinski, who used the previous three movies to sharpen his sense of liquid space and surreal slapstick (which he put to good use in Rango), is replaced by Rob Marshall, the paltry stager behind the least cinematic musicals in recent memory. How to film a frigate? A Curtiz will incorporate its continuous heaving into the tracking-dollying camerawork (Captain Blood), a Walsh will morph it into a transitory, undulating haven for roving adventurers and mismatched lovers (Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N.), a Tourneur will steer it in and out of his characters’ uncanny spiritual states (Anne of the Indies). Marshall shoots it the way he shot a celebrity-besotted housewife's tuneful flights of fancy or a blocked artist’s chimerical visualizations of the muse: with the rectangular proscenium as the sole shape, his back to the wall, his camera recording rather than discovering space. With imagery this weightless, Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow becomes more than ever an actor’s private gig, a party trick, a neutered Groucho suddenly realizing he has to sing the damn opera instead of taking the piss out of it. (Glowering in the sidelines, Geoffrey Rush and Ian McShane shrewdly stylize themselves into masses of muskets, wooden legs, swords and scraggly beards.) Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides tugs at the franchise’s dry udder for a couple of hours, and then hopes you’re ready for two more installments. It makes one yearn for Bay’s upcoming Transformers cannonade, which should at least come up with arresting new ways to pollute the eye.