The film sees Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) return for more adventures on the high seas, this time on a quest to the Fountain of Youth. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now a privateer in King George II's (a cameo from Richard Griffiths) navy, is also on the trail, as are the Spanish. On his journey, Sparrow falls foul of Blackbeard (Ian McShane), as well as his daughter - and old flame - Angelica (Penélope Cruz).
Simply put, On Stranger Tides is approximately two-and-a-quarter hours of nothingness. The plot bumbles along with no real highs or lows, with the characters never feeling as though they are in any real peril, nor that they ever actually achieve very much. Nor is there any clear division of who we should be rooting for or against. Sure, we know Jack and Barbossa from the previous films in the franchise, but their characters became so muddled between good and bad by the end of At World's End, without any clear and fresh direction here they become as flavourless and stale as over-masticated chewing gum. Depp and Rush still have some chemistry, but both are clearly on a quest towards their pay cheque here and nothing else.
Of the newcomers to the franchise, things aren't much better. Cruz lacks any allure and has zero chemistry with Depp throughout, making their characters' supposed romantic past fall entirely flat. McShane is potentially much better, fitting the role of Blackbeard well, but the character's link to voodoo and black magic feels mismatched, almost like an unused element left over from Davy Jones in the previous films that was tacked on rather than coming up with something new. Mention must also be made of what a sorry sight it is to see Stephen Graham, one of the most compelling screen presences of the last ten years in Shane Meadows' This Is England, here reduced to generic pirate schlock.
Whilst both Dead Man's Chest and At World's End are bloated and muddled with complex pirate mythology and self-indulgent sea battles, On Stranger Tides in many ways goes the other way. The action sequences are humdrum, feeling very much like we've seen them all before. Too many plot elements are underdeveloped, including Blackbeard's "zombified" crew (although there only seem to be about two of them) and a lacklustre romance between a missionary and a mermaid which falls completely flat. Other plot elements just don't make sense: Angelica at one point tells Sparrow that she is only pretending to be Blackbeard's daughter, only to tell him several scenes later that, actually, she is. Nothing happens in between to give this any purpose.
It's hard to judge whether On Stranger Tides is an improvement on the poor final film in the original trilogy. It probably has slightly more redeeming features, but at the same time feels so lacking in ambition and originality there really isn't much here to like at all. The saddest fact of all is that, despite not being very good, the film was a huge box office success, meaning a woeful second trilogy of Jack Sparrow's adventures is undoubtedly in the making.