When the fifth film in the Pirates franchise, Dead Men Tell No Tales, utterly scuppered the future of the series, fans were left hanging.
Ditching a compelling script from Terry Rossio, writer of the first four films, the studio hopped from rewrite to rewrite. They opted to reject a litany of potential story elements in the process. A new writer was drafted, two new directors were brought onto the franchise, and an ocean of possibilities were brutally whittled away.
The film we got, written by Jeff Nathanson, outright contradicts various established pieces of lore and plot points from the prior movies — it often feels like barely any research was done on the world-building of the preceding films.
“Jeff was unencumbered by the history of the franchise,” explained executive producer Chad Oman rather candidly at one point.
But the fifth film’s most grievous sin? It sort of ruins Jack Sparrow. Each prior instalment had him on an upward trajectory from drunken rake to almost, but not quite, heroic. This stunning — and bafflingly deleted scene — from At World’s End shows Rossio’s just-out-of-sight backstory and motivation for Jack.
People aren’t cargo, mate. I mean, come on. That’s … really good stuff. Rossio had an arc in mind, and it was building beautifully.
In Dead Men Tell No Tales, however, he’s flattened out. The dialogue doesn’t sing, doesn’t sizzle. He’s clumsy, mean spirited and constantly confused. And It’s a real shame.
Parenthetically, I should add that the fifth film doesn’t provide a reason for why Jack is suddenly so irreparably unlucky and behaviourally busted. The surprisingly excellent novelisation, however — written by Elizabeth Rudnick — establishes that Jack Sparrow isn’t suddenly, irrationally crap at being Jack Sparrow… he’s been cursed. And much like in this canonical novelisation, Rare has made Jack not just look, but feel profoundly Jack-like again.
For the record, I’m not saying that Rare sees the same flaws in the last film that I do — these are simply grievances I, and many fans, have. But from the moment you begin the first sprawling tall tale in A Pirates Life, you’ll instantly recognise Jack back in tip-top form.
Sea of Thieves: A Pirate’s Life fixes the tonal missteps of the final film with a deftness I didn’t think possible.
Sure, he’s a rake and a blaggard. But he isn’t a coward. And with the slightest nudge, A Pirate’s Life has him almost sprinting pell-mell towards heroism.
“Across those five movies, Jack’s journey is about the freedom of the pirate’s life,” head writer of Sea of Thieves, Mike Chapman, tells Kotaku Australia.
“Maintaining that freedom to have adventures, and how the idea of the pirates’ life in the movie franchise comes under threat from trading companies, and individuals who want to curtail the freedom of pirates in… well, the golden age of piracy. Whereas the positioning of the Sea of Thieves – it’s beyond the devil’s shroud. It’s this world beyond the horizon, where that pirate’s life – the freedom Jack loves – can live forever.”
“Valhalla, but for pirates,” I suggest.
“Exactly! Oz, Neverland, Hogwarts … it’s this magical land beyond the horizon, and if you only knew the way to get there … the idea that Jack would want to be in our world makes a lot of sense,” Chapman says.
“The pirate’s life is … in the films, it’s about the march of time. Characters are getting older, the world is getting smaller. The idea that Jack could get what he always wanted in the Sea of Thieves let us play with the idea that Jack is … renewed, by the promise of the Sea of Thieves. The spirit of Jack Sparrow, and everything he’s about… we thought, let’s give you that classic version of Jack Sparrow, with all the one liners, but that feels true to the spirit of the films. In our story, Jack discovers new purpose. And yes, he’s renewed.”
I ask Chapman if A Pirate’s Life is canon. “It’s set after the fifth film,” he says. “If you think about Jack’s journey on the Black Pearl, in our world, that is set after the movies. So think of it as our take on where those characters could go, by way of the Sea of Thieves. Let’s adopt their universe into our universe, and have our own storytelling freedom with it. You can imagine the pitfalls of trying to make it canonical from this point onwards in the movie series – that could go in a whole host of different directions!”
Chapman’s writing is truly magical due in part to his clear love and knowledge of the lore. And one of the real treats in A Pirate’s Life? Reading the journals peppering the game world, left lying about to fill out the story.
One, written by Jack himself, gives a nod to the improbable plot hole left hanging at the end of the fifth film – namely, all the curses in the sea being abolished, yet Davy Jones (dead) being somehow back in the picture. On this point, Jack writes:
I had no inkling how Davy Jones returned, though I supposed that with Turner freed, there was a situation vacant. After all, the Dutchman must have a captain…
Having someone as cognitively bleary as Sparrow write this allows the game to acknowledge the plot hole, but by filtering through the mind of someone for whom the specifics of things aren’t always a top priority, it suddenly works.
Another journal entry from Jack outlines several things the fifth film avoids entirely – Jack displaying a whit of concern for his former friend, Will Turner, and even a nod to the Trident which makes it somehow interesting.
A Longing, by Captain Jack Sparrow.
By rights, I ought to be the freest pirate on the seas. With the Black Pearl under my command and the stars to guide us, endless escapades must be just over the horizon. Locating said aforementioned escapades, that’s the tricky part. Since that nasty business with the Trident of Poseidon, adventure has been conspicuous by its absence.
I rather hope that ridding the sea of unfortunate curses, the sort that once plagued poor Master Turner, hasn’t also diminished its capacity to enchant me. Danger, intrigue, a plethora of potables, and something exceedingly shiny to covet isn’t much to ask, is it? I can think of only one location still likely to provide me with any and all of the above.
Chapman also does something early drafts of the script for the fifth film did so well: he brings back beloved characters. In a truly unexpected and welcome turn, Anamaria (played in the first film by Zoe Saldana) is back.
“I always appreciated the role of Anamaria!” Chapman says. “I thought she was a fantastic character. The conflict between her and Jack is wonderful, and I loved the idea of… what if she joined the crew again, and she’s with them on the Sea of Thieves? And Scrum (a pretty terrific but obscure crewmate from the fourth and fifth films) is just… there. He brings a unique quality. They felt like the right mix of crew. Originally, Scrum was going to be Mr. Cotton and his parrot, but we had Gibbs there to bring the older, wiser quality.”
The character reveals in A Pirate’s Life feel downright exhilarating — when the soundtrack from the film bleeds out of the fog followed by the Flying Dutchman, it’s impossible not to suppress an internal scream of joy. At one point, you get to actually go back into Jack’s memories — and travel through the “real” version of the ride.
Chapman, hands dancing and with a big cheesy grin on his face, details how they used obscure original concept art for the ride to inspire specific puzzles for this portion of the game. Somehow, this is as much like being in The Goonies as it is being inside Pirates of the Caribbean; the sense of palpable adventure, discovery and swashbuckling creates an almost drug-like hit of euphoria. It is, in a word, transportative.
I begin telling Chapman my theory that Salazar’s (the villain from Dead Men Tell No Tales) flashback exposition dump about Jack’s origins making no sense, given that he wasn’t around to see it occur, or was literally drowning when it was playing out. I then apologise for aggressively overthinking things, but Chapman laughs, waving me off.
“I’m like you! I look for a deeper meaning. Always. Or, an opportunity that could be paid off later! Laying down a bunch of possibilities, a bunch of themes, that’s great… as long as you pay it off in the future. And always, always with optimism in mind… leaving the audience guessing… it’s about leaving a thread that can be extended in the future.”
I tell him about one of my favourite unresolved threads. At the end of the fourth film, Gibbs and Sparrow are wandering down the beach, the best of friends, with a sack of magically shrunken ships in bottles.
At the mere mention of this, Chapman lights up. “I love that as a potential bit of storytelling in the future! Interestingly, that idea of carrying around a fleet of ships in a sack… back, way back in 2014 in the Sea of Thieves prototype, we had this mechanic where you could own ships that’d be stored in bottles. And you’d go to the ship-in-a-bottle shop and buy your ships that way! And then, you begin the session by throwing you ship into the water, and it emerges out with a roar, and the fanfare…”
“It didn’t work, for a number of reasons,” Chapman explains. “That was such a cool mechanic, and I love that bit in the fourth movie where Blackbeard opens the cupboard and has all those ships in bottles, and they’re all riding on the water.
“A lot of the choices in A Pirate’s Life are about trying to pay back people who love the lore. Making sure there’s enough connections that it feels heartfelt and authentic, but also trying to create moments that land with a broad audience. Those punch the air moments. And I think, if we were to do something in the future, I think there’s potential to play with ideas and themes in the movies we haven’t looked at yet. And the ships in bottles? That’s just one that didn’t line up for this story. But… I love it as a thread.”
Chapman’s obviously got ideas as to what he wants to do for a follow-up. Right? “I’ve got several,” he says, “several, but picking just one is going to be the hard thing!”
Pirates of the Caribbean isn’t just seaworthy again — it’s skimming over the horizon, with us standing on the deck, cheering triumphantly. A Pirate’s Life is not just game of the year material: It’s proof that passion can fix damn near anything.
Paul Verhoeven is an author, broadcaster and TV presenter. His books Electric Blue and Loose Units are out now through Penguin, and his podcasts, DISH! and Loose Units, are available everywhere you get your podcasts. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and in person, if you can find him (he’s very good at hiding).