I totally want to have a discussion of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, but I don’t want to spoil it for anybody.
So I’m putting the rest of this post behind a cut tag.
Some critics are complaining that the ending is unsatisfactory. This is because the film ends in the middle of the second act of the three-act play.
Here’s a refresher on what usually defines the “acts” in modern western cinema, at least in terms of the core conflict:
Act I: the protagonist(s) set out to resolve a conflict
Act II: (first half) progress is made on resolving the conflict.
Act II: (second half) we learn that the REAL conflict is something bigger, or something else entirely.
Act III: All conflicts are resolved.
In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest the audience may be tempted to view that film as a single, complete, three-act play.
Act I: Will sets out to save Elizabeth
Act II: Will discovers he’s really saving his Father, as well as anybody else in Davy Jones’ “employ.”
Act III: Will and Elizabeth are reunited (check!), Davy Jones’ weakness is discovered (check!) and successfully exploited (oops…)
That “oops” in Act III causes the third Act to fail to satisfy many viewers.
So look at it this way instead:
Act I: Will sets out to save Elizabeth, Elizabeth sets out to save Will, and Captain Jack Sparrow sets out to save himself.
Act II: (first half) Will, Jack, and Elizabeth all reach their goal simultaneously.
Act II: (beginning of second half) Commodore Norrington foils their plans to destroy Davy Jones, turning control of Jones over to Lord Beckett and the East India Trading Company. We (the audience) realize that the EITC suddenly has not only the force of law (Beckett has deposed the Governor, usurped his authority, and controls the British fleet in the area) but the force of Davy Jones (who can theoretically be threatened with destruction, and pressed into EITC service.)
What happens in the NEXT movie? Well… it should be obvious:
Act II (second half): Beckett and the EITC are exposed to the protagonists as the real threat.
Act III: the conflict is resolved… because, you know, it’s western cinema. The conflict HAS to be resolved.
For the second film to work, however, it can’t just complete the first. It also has to have a three-act structure itself… otherwise us antsy-pants western viewers won’t know how to sit still through it. We need cues to tell us when to cheer, and when to feel threatened. We expect to be manipulated, but it has to be done pro forma, or we’ll complain.
Using the standard conflict formula for a three-act play, then, and mapping it onto the existing one-point-five-act arc, we should end up with the following:
Act I: Jack Sparrow’s crew sets out in search for Jack, led by (spoiler alert) the my-he-looks-fresh Captain Barbossa. During the quest, they discover how huge a threat the EITC is now that Davy Jones reports to Lord Beckett.
Act II: (first half) Jack is back, but there are strings attached.
Act II: (second half) Barbossa betrays them, all looks bleak. Oh, and something I have no ability to predict happens.
Act III: Barbossa, Jones, and Beckett are all put down, the strings still attached to Jack are cut, and he drops out of the Jack-Elizabeth-Will love triangle. Whatever unpredictable thing came up also gets resolved.
Clear as mud?
On a related note… do you know why the second Act is so often broken into two pieces? Because that’s where the intermission goes. And that’s where we are, right now: in a one-year intermission, in which we’re allowed to leave the theater and eat whatever we want.
I smell fried chicken upstairs. Yum!