Well, gamers, Blu-ray technology is headed in your direction. "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" includes a first-of-its-kind game that uses BD-Java technology and utilizes artificial intelligence in order to create an advanced and unpredictable round of "Liar's Dice." I have to confess, though, that I had a hard enough time understanding the game in the film, when Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) wagered Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) for his soul, so I'm not thinking I'll be winning any time soon.
Then again, there were a lot of confusing moments in this sequel to the popular "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl." Why was Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) in some sort of Turkish prison at the outset, and how did he escape inside a coffin that was thrown to the sea? While it makes for a great reintroduction to the character and provides a strong comic-visual scene to have a bird land on the coffin and get blown away by a pistol shot from inside, it's never really explained what was going on in the first place. And then how does Jack end up on Cannibal Island as the chief, while his men are hung up inside great, round bone cages? And that sword-fighting scene we see later that has the principles fighting while atop and inside a great big rolling wheel?
The cynic in me suspects that producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski told their writers to come up with some high-concept scenes that would be just great for inspiring action-figure toys and giving the special effects people new challenges, and then figure out how to connect them with dialogue and plot. That's really how this sequel seems to me: a slightly haphazard collection of gimmicks that appeals to the kid in everyone, but doesn't have the same clear narrative thrust of the original. If you thought the first "Pirates" film was a little long and a tad convoluted at 143 minutes, add seven more minutes to the sequel and tell me how you feel.
That said, the characters established in the first film are as engaging as ever, and the visual effects were good enough to win an Oscar. My son actually prefers "Dead Man's Chest" to the first film, but when you're nine you're most impressed by the creatures. And in his humble opinion, the evolved fishy crew of the octopus-faced Davy Jones was much cooler than Barbossa's skeleton crew. Then there's that giant squid-like Kraken that's sent by Jones to claim a debt owed by Capt. Sparrow. Apparently, Jack struck a bargain with the legendary undead lord of the depths. If Jones would raise the sunken Black Pearl and allow Jack to captain it for 13 years, then Jack would agree to join Jones' barnacle-encrusted crew of the Flying Dutchman. And now his time was up. That seems to be the theme in "Dead Man's Chest," which begins with the arrest of Will and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) for aiding and abetting a pirate. There's also a warrant for Norrington, the British officer who decided to let Jack have a day's head start, so they're all living on borrowed time, really.
It was Aztec gold that drove the first "Pirates" film, and here it's a key--or rather, a drawing of a key--then the key itself, and Jack's apparently dysfunctional compass that only points in the direction of what that person desires most. In Sparrow's case, it's the Dead Man's Chest, which houses something he hopes to use to barter for his life. Complicating matters is that Norrington (Jack Davenport) is also a fugitive, while his replacement in port (Tom Hollander) is plotting to get a hold of Jack's compass so that the East India Company can rule the seas. All of which seems like the gloppy glue that holds together those memorable, high-concept scenes.
As with the first "Pirates," it's still a lot of fun, and for that we have to thank mostly the visual and special effects people and the performers. If the first film showcased Depp, this time around the other characters get more of the spotlight, and the visual effects are really stunning. Some of the Flying Dutchman crew are a bit too "Star Wars" over-the-top for my taste, with all their sea creature transformations and barnacle/coral encrustations, but you have to marvel at how real Davy Jones looks.
"Dead Man's Chest" was transferred to disc using AVC compression from the original digital source files, and presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The 1080p picture looks great, although there are more soft-focus and deliberately hazy scenes than in the first film. But when the camera focuses on its stars, the detail on their faces is astounding. I've said it before, but it bears saying again: every wisp of hair, every pore, every imaginable texture comes into clear and prominent focus with Blu-ray. It looks gorgeous!
Once again, the English PCM 5.1 uncompressed (48kHz/24-bit) sound is impressive. The thing about PCM is that in addition to producing a cleaner, crisper sound, it distributes the sound better across the speakers so that it fills the room. The alternate tracks (English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1) are decent, but you just don't get the same brightness of sound or the sense of saturation that comes from the PCM.
Though there aren't as many extras as on the first "Pirates," there's plenty to savor here. The 50GB Disc One features the film and an audio commentary with writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio. They're interesting enough, but they lose steam as the film goes on. Every now and then they toss off something that makes you think, and there are occasional surprises, as when they reveal that it was Knightley who suggested the scene where she handcuffs Jack to the ship--a scene in which she gets to kiss Depp? Hmmmm. Also on Disc One is the Liar's Dice game, which is set up like a scene from the movie, with the player/viewer sitting in on a game of dice with Pintel (Lee Arenberg) and Marty (Martin Klebba). You wager or you call "liar," and if you lose you lose one die at a time until you're left with nothing . . . which quickly happened to me. Jolly Roger makes an appearance again as the main-menu animated tour guide.
The 25GB Disc Two features a pre-production documentary, "Charting the Return," and a long main feature on "According to Plan: The Harrowing and True Story of Dead Man's Chest." The latter incorporates lots of casual footage as well as behind-the-scenes filming and on-set interviews. There's plenty more. Shorter features cover "Captain Jack: From Head to Toe," "Mastering the Blade: Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley and Jack Davenport," "Meet Davy Jones: Anatomy of a Legend" (one of my favorites), "Creating the Kraken," "Dead Men Tell No Tales: Re-Imagineering the Attraction" (and showing how the Disney ride will be reshaped by the film), "Fly on the Set: The Bone Cage," Bruckheimer's photo diary, a feature on the premiere, "Pirates on Location," "Inside Dead Man's Chest," and a selection of theatrical trailers from around the world and stills from the set. As with the first two-disc Blu-ray release there are also Easter Eggs, which are a bit harder to find.
You have to watch the bonus features to really start to appreciate this film. Bruckheimer & Co. believe in good old-fashioned movie-making, not the kind that takes place inside a computer war-room. These folks went on location for more than a year to film under difficult conditions. Depp really was nailed inside a coffin and dumped into rough seas at night, and the oldest pirate (at age 67) really did swim in 40-degree water into a cave. Ships and roads were built, and lives were transformed. Hollywood has come a long way from the old pirate movies shot on studio sound stages, but from what we hear on these bonus features, this type of filming is so costly and so risky that it may also become a thing of the past. To give us a rousing adventure story, the cast and crew gave up more than a year of their lives. It's not as strong as the first installment, but "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" is still entertaining . . . in a big, high-concept way.