NOTE: Minor Possible Spoilers.
The first thing you need to know before going to see the third and (for now) final "Pirates of the Carribean" installment is that if you weren't geeking-out over the first two films' surprisingly rich internal-mythology, attention-rewarding multi-plotting and laundry-list of talismans, curses, monster-species and competing character factions but instead just sort of let all the detail wash over you while you grooved on the eye-candy spectacle and Johnny Depp's gonzo turn as Captain Jack Sparrow... Well, then you should probably watch them AGAIN with both ears on the names/allegiances/locales/backstories "fanboy" details before heading out to #3, or there's fair odds you're going to feel a little lost this time around.
Indeed, "At World's End" quickly reveals itself as a quintessential creature of the ongoing Geek Age of Cinema: It's all about expanding-on, playing-out and ultimately paying-off plot threads, countdowns and mysteries that've been building since the original film, the cinematic equivalent of an individual comic book (or installment of a serialized novel, for that matter) which draws it's power not only from it's own singular events and merits but because it's also the moment where a certain background-story or lingering detail from so-and-so many issues ago FINALLY gets it's payoff. All of which is a more analytical way of saying, before anything else, that "Pirates 3" works to the extent that it's the final part of a whole, and while it has it's own story-points and character-arcs to work with it gets it's REAL "oomph" from what has been carried over from the earlier films. Traditionally, this has been THE damning criticism of any sequel or outside-influenced film in general: That it doesn't fully work without the "backup" of it's external material.
But now, I wonder... given the "age of cross-platforming and multimedia" we've entered, if it really still ought to be. Canceled TV shows continuing their "official" continuity in post-cancellation movies and comic books, film websites offering "webisodes" expanding on pre-movie character mythology, animated short-subject "prequels" or "in-betweenquels" coming out on DVD between Blockbuster installments... these are all commonplace, mainstream movie-culture goings on now. Yes, fine, those of us in the "Geek Community" are pre-acclimated, most of us having spent decent time pouring through comic-book continuity where huge reveals came with yellow editorial boxes instructing us on which back-issue of a completely different book to track down in order to fully "get" what was happening. But in a time when "Lost" is a mega-hit network TV show and the third "Lord of The Rings" chapter is a Best Picture winner, is it really proper to damn the third "Pirates of the Carribean" for operating under the presumption that it's intended audience has already seen, and was paying attention during, the first two - especially when they're two of the highest-grossing movies of all time?
Make of that whatever you will, but the plain fact is that I DID see the first two, I WAS paying attention and as such, "PoTC: AWE" worked for me. Worked like hell, in fact. 2 hours and 45 minutes of elaborately-staged action, terrifically imagined monsters and dizzyingly-dense exploration of franchise mythology. It's a massive, preposterously entertaining winner.
Fully recapping the plot, as it would also require recapping the other two movies as well, would spoil a lot of the fun, but suffice it to say that it eventually boils down to a series of big-stakes shell-games being played by dozens of characters with several dozens of magic tokens, items/persons of interest and valuable information amid a full-blown naval war between the world's Pirates and the British Navy - which has been hijacked by Lord Beckett, the evil mastermind of the East India Trading Company (cute.) As of movie #2, Beckett has turned demonic sea-scourge Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and his crew of human/fish hybrid monsters into his own personal warrior/slaves by capturing the Dead Man's Chest containing Jones' disembodied heart. He's using Jones and his submersible demon-ship, the Flying Dutchman, as a weapon to enforce total control of the sea trade. Facing extermination, the world's remaining "Pirate Lords" have been called to a battle-planning session - part of which requires that undead Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush,) possibly-tragic lovers Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightley) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and their crew to cross-over into the Land of the Dead to fetch recently-deceased Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) from Davy Jones' Locker. And that's just for starters.
What makes the labrynthine mythos of this series work so well and move so briskly is that the writers openly embrace the inherent "shiftiness" that comes from most of the characters being, well, PIRATES. As such, everyone has their own set of agendas and the double-crosses, backstabs and treachery flies fast and loose all over the place: Everyone is trying to get-over on everyone else, and their all expecting it to one degree or another. Will is still trying to save his father from Jones' captivity, Elizabeth wants revenge on Beckett (and she's wracked with guilt after murdering Jack to save her and her friends at the end of the last movie,) Jack is getting worse and worse at pretending he doesn't care about anyone but himself but seems clueless what to do about it, Jones wants his heart back, Chinese pirate Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat) wants to stay on the winning side of history, Barbosa is hoping for the Pirate Lords' help in freeing the magically-imprisoned sea goddess Calypso to hopefully even the odds against Beckett/Jones, and at one point or another every one of them sets about trying to sell out all the others in order to accomplish their chosen ends.
swimming around in all that plot is an overarching story that's unquestionably the darkest and richest of the trilogy - it's a rare film that can turn the absurd image of a "beached" Godzilla-sized squid into an exchange that gives two of the previously most "surface-y" characters untold depths.. and then does the same thing for the entire bloody series reaching back. In the broad strokes, the film's buccaneers-versus-beaurocrats setup plays out less like a battle between Colonial-era law and open-seas anarchy than as a last stand of mythic maritime fantasy against enroaching reality: Magic compasses and octopus-faced sea monsters fighting for survival against gunpowder and trade-stamps. Frequently, this undercurrent of subtext bubbles up so fiercely that the film begins to resemble those of Terry Gilliam; who was making "absurdity-as-a-virtue" epic fantasies decades before "Pirates" made it a blockbuster template (irony-of-ironies: Gilliam's most-infamous recent troubled project to die in infancy: An offbeat fantasy/adventure starring Johnny Depp. OUCH.)
Amazingly, even though it STILL feels overstuffed with fish-men, giants, betrayals, twists, magic crabs, dimension-skipping and ships sailing on sand despite a nearly three-hour running time; it finds time and room to achieve an impressive number of non-visual goals: Explaining the function and origin of Davy Jones, offering a visual peak at just HOW manic Jack Sparrow's perception of the world around him seems to be, give Keira Knightley room and reason to do what she does best - i.e. swell her screen presence up to MASSIVE heights despite her dainty frame by sheer force of those amazingly expressive eyes and her incongruous gift for belting out rally-cry speeches like the "300" Spartans, and even set Orlando Bloom's Will Turner firmly back into his place as the principle HERO of the series (a feat which seemed implausible given how cheerfully #2 allowed co-star Depp to overtake the story.)
What else can you say about an action movie that can be summed up entirely by it's climactic setpeice battle: Two massive sail-ships, one of "good" Pirates and the other of evil fish-man monsters, firing cannon volleys at one another while circling a giant supernatural whirlpool? It has it's issues, it's silly as all get-out... but this is the kind of entertainment the movies were made for, the kind that justify the spectacle in the word "spectacular."
FINAL RATING: 8/10