On July 22, 2003, a huge derecho tore through the Mid-South. Hundred mile per hour straight line winds devastated Memphis, leaving seven people dead and more than 300,000 MLGW customers without power. The storm would come to be known as Hurricane Elvis.
The No. 1 movie in the country that July was Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. It was something new for Disney: a film based on a theme park ride. Pirates of the Caribbean was the last Disneyland ride Walt Disney personally oversaw before his death in 1967 — which led to the rumor that his body was cryogenically frozen in a secret chamber underneath the ride. The company had made rides from films before, like the Star Tours ride in Disneyland, which was the first collaboration between Lucasfilm and the House of Mouse, but this movie seemed like a case of the tail wagging the dog.
It turned out to be a huge success, thanks to a bravado performance by Johnny Depp as the pirate Jack Sparrow and fleet-footed direction from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, native Gore Verbinski. Verbinski was a music video director (he did the clip for Monster Magnet's "Negasonic Teenage Warhead") who had made a killing in commercials (he did the one where the frogs croak "Bud-wise-er"), and the low-stakes world of pirate fantasy was a perfect fit for him. For Depp, it marked the moment where he crossed the line from successful actor to household name.
Now, in 2017, Memphis has once again been torn to pieces by an unexpected summer storm, and a Pirates of the Caribbean movie is once again topping the box office. Coincidence?
Consider this: The two Verbinski-directed sequels, Dead Man's Chest (2006), and At World's End (2007) earned a collective $2 billion at the box office without inciting a major Memphis weather incident, but then came 2011's On Stranger Tides. Verbinski stepped aside to count his money and make the excellent animated film Rango, and director Rob Marshall took the helm of the Disney pirate ship. Marshall holds the distinction of making the most expensive film ever produced. Depending on who you believe, On Stranger Tides cost either $378 or $410 million. While it was setting records at the box office, the Mississippi River was topping a 77-year-old record for the highest floodwaters ever recorded at Memphis.
And now, here we are. Pirates once again has new direction: the Norwegian commercial team of Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg. Befitting the third-largest power outage in MLGW history, Dead Men Tell No Tales was budgeted at a relatively modest $230 million. To put that in perspective, that's also the total gross of the yearlong Guns N' Roses reunion tour. For $230 million, you could go to the actual Caribbean, build a new international airport in the capital of Dominica, and still have $10 million left over. The total value of tips given to Lyft drivers since the service started in 2012 is $200 million, so the producers would have enough money left over to fund the $30 million Twitter paid for the Vine video service, which it subsequently shut down.
$230 million is a lot of money. And yet, somehow, it's not enough to produce an entertaining film. People thought it was delightful in At World's End when Depp successfully lobbied for a cameo from Keith Richards, on whom he based his surly, slurring portrayal of pirate captain Jack Sparrow. This time around, they inexplicably got the famously chipper and articulate Paul McCartney for a pirate cameo, and I'm not sure Depp's drunken pirate act was an act. The whole affair seems lazy, stupid, and tossed off. At least Verbinski knew how to have fun while wasting Disney's money.
So, the bad news is, every time a new director is hired for a Pirates of the Caribbean film, Memphis gets clobbered with a natural disaster. The good news is, Dead Men Tell No Tales is currently showing in air conditioned movie theaters. While you're waiting for the power to be restored in the wake of Hurricane Depp, you can nap in comfort for 129 minutes or even longer if you get there before the trailers start. At least then Disney's $230 million investment will have done some good.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales