The Moral Nihilism of “Pirates of the Caribbean”

Written for Acculturated

June 19th, 2017

There are many, many things wrong with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. It has a meandering plot, too many characters, and a near fatal dose of storyline clichés. The movie attempts to revitalize the beleaguered movie franchise by ripping off the successful new Star Wars films—latest sequel in a franchise, CGI de-aging of main character in a flashback, new heroes are children of first generation of protagonists, original major character is killed off in emotional sacrifice for child—but falls tragically short. It’s a well-shot exercise in banality, with a performance from Johnny Depp that only adds credence to the allegation that he doesn’t bother learning his lines anymore and a storyline that has more daddy issues than a Freudian therapy session. There are plenty of movies with bad scripts and acting, but there is one thing that sets Dead Men Tell No Tales apart from even the worst of the worst. It believes in nothing.

The vast majority of stories have some sort of moral to them. Even when the protagonist is an anti-hero, or even a villain, it’s possible to glean some insight, or make some argument about the message of the work, whether the storyteller likes it or not. In the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde famously quipped, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” Yet, Dorian Gray is incredibly moralistic, showing the flaws of leading a hedonistic lifestyle and providing a compelling argument for following tradition. Such messages are usually fairly obvious, at least to the inquisitive. Wonder Woman is about the duty of the strong to stand up for the weak. Beauty and the Beast is about looking past the superficial. The Lego Batman Movie is about the importance of family.

I saw Pirates of the Caribbean, pondered the film for a while, and still cannot tell you what the core message or general ideology of the film is. It contains no lesson on heroics from the protagonists, no subtextual message of virtue, no redeeming qualities whatsoever. It is a movie so bizarrely bland you can’t help but be fascinated by it. It is a movie about which nothing can be said because it has nothing to say. How can such a film even exist?

Dead Men Tell No Tales can’t even claim to be an immoral film, though it would be better if it could. Immoral works, at least, teach through their shortcomings. There’s simply no such thing as a flawless apology for an immoral ideology, and one can usually find a lesson in even the most depraved movies, books, and television shows. Nothing, however, can be gleaned from an amoral work like this installment of Pirates of the Caribbean. Jack Sparrow is presented as the hero of this film, a sort of noble pirate whose nobility is never really proven. He commits adultery, robs a bank, is drunk for most of the movie, and, in case you’d forgotten, is a pirate. But, none of that particular matters in the film. That’s just the way Jack Sparrow is, life goes on, no consequences for wrongdoing occur, c’est la vie.

The pervasive sense that no guiding morality exists in the film results in a naturally confusing viewing experience, which was remarked upon in reviews of Dead Men Tell No Tales. Several critics wrote how confusing the film was, and how difficult it was to understand the plot or characters’ motivations for anything. It’s easy to see why: Without a framework of ethics in place, nothing makes sense, which only goes to prove that, in Hollywood as in the real world, art does indeed imitate life.