Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Jedi

at 8:49 PM
This is a pretty timely observation for anyone who's just watched the second Pirates of the Caribbean film, Dead Man's Chest. Maybe your new girlfriend is trying to get you into the series, maybe you've just time-traveled here from 2006, or maybe, like me, you've been reading co-scribe Terry Rossio's fascinating column on Hollywood screenwriting, Wordplayer, and were interested to see one of his most successful films. I've never been a Pirates fan (if you couldn't tell from the fact that I didn't watch the second movie until ten years after the first), nor do I particularly understand its place in pop culture history, but it was at least sort of a big deal. See, I was discussing this with Greg L. the other day, and we agreed that the franchise doesn't seem to have had much longevity - if you liked it then, you probably really liked it, but no one [I've ever met] goes back and learns about it now, makes jokes and references, or demands spinoffs. I mentioned to my brothers that I was considering watching the second movie (we had seen the first together way back in ~03) and they were truly perplexed why I'd even consider it. Then again, the series gross box office is calculated in the billions of dollars, it transformed Johnny Depp's critical/indie appeal into an all-ages mainstream cast-him-in-anything-and-it'll-sell IP, and it got a line of Legos and according (Lego) video game. Yes, somehow, consciously or subconsciously, I judge a property's cultural penetration by whether or not it got a Lego video game. Think about it - you've got Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, Batman, Harry Potter, and Pirates of the Caribbean. Except for those last two, those franchises are all 30+ y.o. Nerd Holy Grails, and Harry Potter is easily the most famous piece of English literature composed in the past two decades (sorry book-heads, it's true).

Regardless of why, what, and how I watched it, my main takeaway from Dead Man's Chest is that Good Lord is it exactly Star Wars. This is the second time in two weeks I've done a list of comparisons, and again I'll point out that this isn't intended as a criticism, nor am I insinuating that Rossio, Elliot, Verbinski, and co. pirated from the classic franchise. I had plenty of problems with DMC (Devil May Cry?), but the Star Wars parallel wasn't one of them. Let's start with the cast of characters - without them, this is little more than storytelling tropes 101.

William Turner - Luke Skywalker
The dinky "true" hero that is too plain and do-gooder-y to truly empathize with. Not only do these characters function identically in the movies, they get the same fan reaction as well - tepid disregard in favor of the more obviously conflicted and, well, badass 'other' lead. I've never truly understood the Luke hate (he's not nearly as whiny as people make him out to be), but I suppose seeing the same role in a shallower movie made me sympathize a bit.

Captain Jack Sparrow - Captain Han Solo
This is where it all starts to click. They're both snarky, sarcastic, roguish, and of questionable (but in the end, decidedly good) moral character. They're in it for the material goods, until the going gets rough, in which case they stick their neck out for our hero. One's a pirate, the other a smuggler. They each own a prized ship which ferries the main characters around, and re-possession of this ship plays an important role in the story. These characters provide the cliffhanger between the second and third movie of the trilogy - they are taken away from us at the end of the second (Han is frozen in carbonite and Jack is eaten by the Kraken) and the remaining heroes set out to rescue them (with a fill-in captain, no less). 

Keira Knightley - Princess Leia
Sassy (sorry, it's true), motivated, and willing to take the reigns, these leading ladies are torn between the main heroic lead (Will/Luke) and his tough-guy counterpart (Jack/Han). They both hail from noble families and are the daughters of important political figures (one a governor, one a senator). 

Davy Jones - Darth Vader
The main baddies, both turned evil by lost love. One of the final developments of Dead Man's Chest reveals that Jonesy is gonna be working for the Empire next time around - kinda like Darth Vader, u no? On paper he's got some similarities to Darth, but on screen his presence doesn't demand comparison (especially with that ridiculous Scottish accent... god I want to shoot whoever decided that should be the villain's voice). But that's why we've got...

Boothead Bill - also Darth Vader
The fathers-who-were-never-there of the heroic leads, these characters have turned to the dark side and joined the ranks of villainy - but wait, there's still some good left in them! Will and Luke are on a quest to redeem their fathers, risking the dark side themselves to do it.

Those two guys that are exactly like R2-D2 and C-3P0 - R2-D2 and C-3P0
The two bitchy comedic relief tagalongs are a hallmark of Kurosawa-influenced film-making, first made famous in his The Hidden Fortress. Star Wars fans know that R2 and C3 are perhaps the most fundamental narrative device borrowed from that classic - they serve as skeptical, grounded intermediaries through whom the audience can approach the grand scope of the saga. The two trashy bottom-feeders that stick around through Dead Man's Chest are even more reminiscent of Kurosawa's cynical, opportunistic, and cowardly peasants than are Star Wars' droids.

Tia Dalma - Yoda
More a concurrence of plot than character, these are our wise sages that live somewhere out in the swamp. Kinda humorous to continue the parallel lines beyond sight on this one - we're told Jack Sparrow and Tia Dalma had a romantic fling once upon a time. What does that say about Han Solo and Yoda...? Also, maybe it's just me, but I can't understand a damn thing Tia Dalma says, which I guess could be considered Yoda-esque.

James Norrington - Lando Calrissian
This is the weakest of these character parallels, but considering it's basically the only remaining main character, I may as well point it out. Both Norrington and Lando are figures from the past with some long-standing grudge against our captain. Of course, while we meet Lando flying sky-high with power and money, Norrington arrives on scene just in time to hit rock bottom. The main point of comparison is that these characters betray our heroes, leading respectively to their capture. 

There's also something with that Barbarossa guy where I bet he's the real Lando, since he takes Jack's place in the third movie and was also a former owner of the Black Pearl (Millenium Falcon). But since the movie I watched didn't have him at all, I can't much say.

Now let's look at some of the films' broader plot actors and their similarities.

The British Empire/East India Company - The Empire
Well, the bad guys are a big gigantic empire that rule the entire filmic world. Their omnipresence provides more of a lurking threat - ya never know when an Imperial ship is gonna show up! There's no equivalent to the Rebellion in Pirates, cuz, you know, history, so the overall tack of the story is more about evading the Empire than overthrowing it.

Cannibals - Ewoks
Hey, it's a long sequence where a tribe of natives takes our heroes captive! Yup, both the cannibals and the Ewoks catch the hero party in a hunting trap and drag them back to the village, presumably for some kind of feast/sacrifice. They both make one of the heroes their new king (Jack in Chest, C-3P0 in Jedi), although this plays out differently in the end (turns out it's a bad thing to be King of the Cannibals, and instead of teaming up with our heroes for an epically weird battle against a comically inept battalion of Imperials, the cannibals... chase a dog over the horizon). 

The Kraken - the Death Star
Unstoppable superweapons. The Death Star destroys planets, the Kraken destroys ships. While ostensibly a living creature, the Kraken displays no will of its own - it obeys Davy Jonesy and blows up the things he tells it to blow up. The superweapon is what transforms our antagonists from a malingering threat to an aggressive force, forcing the need for direct confrontation. And the Death Star Plans macguffin is pretty similar to Davy Jones Heart, in that it's the one thing that can stop this destructive force - but that's inherent to any narrative where a hero has to destroy something.

The Black Pearl - the Millenium Falcon
This goes without saying - it's the mobile home base of the heroes, a bit of a macguffin at times, and sort of a character of its own. Well, at least I think the Pearl was supposed to take on some kind of life - in practice it never really occurred to me that it was different from any other ship.

And to top that, here are a few near-identical scenes. These are just what I remember off the top of my head - the Star Wars comparison didn't occur to me until almost a week after watching Dead Man's Chest.

Han/Jack being prepared as a meal
a.) In Return of the Jedi, when the Ewoks have captured the party, they've got them tied to logs and are parading them towards a fire pit for a celebratory feast. As Han Solo hangs from the the log and the fire is lit below him, he comically and futilely tries to blow out the spreading flames. 

b.) In Dead Man's Chest, when the islanders have captured the party, they've got them tied to logs and are parading them towards a fire pit for a celebratory feast. As Jack Sparrow hangs from the log and the fire is lit below him, he comically and futilely tries to blow out the spreading flames.
Sorry, this was the only screen-cap I could find
The last kiss before Han/Jack's capture
a.) In Empire Strikes Back, Han is captured by the Imperials and shackled in the freezing chamber. As he is being walked to the trapdoor, Princess Leia steals a long, passionate kiss and confesses her feelings for Han. She is pulled away, and this is the last any of the heroes see of Han.

b.) In Dead Man's Chest, Jack is tricked by Keira Knightley and shackled to the Black Pearl's mast. As he is being walked toward the mast, Keira steals a long, passionate kiss, subversively expressing her feelings for Jack. She pulls away and heads for the lifeboats, and this is the last any of the heroes see of Jack.

The part where they're stuck in a net
It's made of rope in Return of the Jedi and bone in Dead Man's Chest, but come on. Same trap. Again, if nothing else was the same, it'd be one thing, but....

And let me reiterate that the second movie of the trilogies have the exact same cliffhanger. Han/Jack is captured by the villain and the rest of the heroes join up to get him back. Greg L. tried to tell me "yeah but every second movie in a trilogy has that cliffhanger" and then proceeded to name exactly zero.

So it's really that these are character-driven stories, and with a very similar set of players, the rest of the events become eerily familiar. There are a lot of adventure epics, and of course all stories derive from the same basic archetypes, but these aren't basic archetypes anymore. If you think I'm reaching, come back with another movie that has the exact same tripartite lead structure (hint - it's deeper than "love triangle"), AND the same hero-villain dynamic (father-son, lightside-darkside), AND the same setting (swords, seas/space, ships, islands/planets, empires), AND the same major plot beats (captured by primitives, hero goes off by himself to find father, love triangle, the betrayal, running from a superweapon, and of course that cliffhanger). And considering that the filmmakers know a whole lot more about film than me, it's probably intentional - and if it isn't, someone at some point has to have said "hey guys - you realize we just made Star Wars, right?"


  1. The Smokey and the Bandit trilogy. The elephant is Han Solo. Think about it. Then don't.

    1. I think if anything, Bandit would be Han - he leaves at the end of the second movie. Only difference is, Bandit never comes back in the third.