- - Thursday, May 19, 2011

The first three “Pirates of the Caribbean” films never quite inspired the same levels of devotion as the “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings” trilogies. But judging by both the series’ hefty box office returns and the continuing cultural prominence of the its star, Johnny Depp’s loopy pirate, Captain Jack Sparrow, they’ve inspired a sizable fan base.

With the fourth entry in the series, “On Stranger Tides,” opening this weekend, excited fans may be looking for ways to get into the spirit of the new movie. So here’s some advice: Bring an eye patch. Better yet, bring two. “On Stranger Tides” isn’t worth watching out of even one eye.

In large part that’s because there’s so little to see here - a marked contrast to the film’s wondrous predecessors. The series’ second and third outings had their share of problems: Both were bloated, overlong, and completely incoherent. They were also genuinely spectacular, with breathtaking effects work creating the sort of intricate and imaginative sights that are the hallmarks of the best blockbusters.

Director Gore Verbinski, who helmed the previous three entries, staged inspired action set pieces that played out at outrageous scale. He also speckled the films with myriad visual mini miracles: a dreadlocked pirate beard grown out of living sea tentacles, a forlorn father’s face emerging from a fire, a purgatorial island where armies of tiny, crablike creatures moved great ships across the sand. Viewers may not always have been able to understand exactly what was going on. But it didn’t matter because they couldn’t believe their eyes.

This time around, viewers may be more tempted to shut them. Incoming director Rob Marshall has kept the incoherence, but thrown the spectacle overboard. Where Mr. Verbinski set viewers sail on a ghost ship populated by aquarium-ready fish-men, Mr. Marshall crams us on a boat with a crew of alleged zombies that resembles little more than a row of paunchy, pierced linebackers caked in baking flour. Where Mr. Verbinski took viewers to a hauntingly weird, upside-down sea of the dead, Mr. Marshall instead sends us an upside down puddle that deposits characters into a poorly lit and decidedly unspectacular cavern.

That’s not the only way in which the film keeps viewers in the dark. The fill-in-the-blanks quest plot involves a race to find both the Fountain of Youth and a collection of artifacts needed to activate its gift of life everlasting. But the script by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio manages to be both frantically paced and endlessly expository, a grating hodgepodge of uninteresting incident and meaningless backstory.

Even Mr. Depp’s once charming goofball pirate shtick is getting old - and his new potential love interest, the dashing con-girl Angelica (Penelope Cruz), does little to enliven his act. As rival pirate captain Barbossa, a returning Geoffrey Rush cuts a convincing sneer or two but little else.

Only newcomer Ian McShane, as the cruel pirate captain Blackbeard, manages to sail through the script’s waves of dull, explanatory nonsense. His first appearance is energizing, but it doesn’t last long. By the time this motley crew finds the Fountain of Youth, it’s all too clear that this barely seaworthy sequel is doomed to lifelessness.

★½

TITLE: “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”

CREDITS: Directed by Rob Marshall. Screenplay by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio. Story suggested by Tim Powers’ novel.

RATING: PG-13 for scary, half-nude mermaids; violent and interminable pirate nonsense

RUNNING TIME: 128 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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