‘The Dark Tower’ and the Quiet Discussions of a Mediocre Film

Some musings on the bad films that nevertheless manage to avoid closer cultural examination.
By  · Published on August 8th, 2017

Some musings on the bad films that nevertheless manage to avoid closer cultural examination.

A few days ago, I jumped on the phone with Kevin O’Keeffe, a writer for Mic, to discuss the box office prospects of The Dark Tower. It was a fun and wide-ranging conversation; topics included the box office prospects of Idris Elba as a leading man and the history of Stephen King adaptations, and while I had prepared myself to speak about the numbers and talent involved, O’Keeffe still caught me by surprise with a question. Did I think, O’Keeffe asked, that The Dark Tower‘s glorification of gun violence could possibly have a negative effect on its box office prospects? It was a thought that had never crossed my mind, not because the Stephen King adaptation seemed to treat guns with nuance and respect, but because I never really expected our analysis of the film to progress that far.

It’s always fascinating to see which movies warrant a closer examination and which are allowed to slip out of theaters unprovoked. Given that most summer films are Too Big to Fail™ – having been workshopped to a point where very little offensive material could slip through – it seems sort of pointless to waste your breath digging into a middling movie’s politics. Remember when Life came into theaters this year? Or The Circle? Or A Cure for Wellness? There wasn’t much to say about any of these movies beyond their narrative and character flaws, whereas movies like The Great WallGhost in the Shell, and Baywatch became launching points for conversations about Hollywood. And while I don’t have any grand conclusion in mind, I thought it would at least be interesting to point out how some films skate past closer examination.

There’s no direct formula for writing about summer blockbusters, but there does seem to be sort of an unspoken tipping point between bad and controversial-bad. Ghost in the Shell offered a whitewashed version of a beloved Japanese movie; the film was controversial from the moment casting began, and the movie rode a wave of cultural criticism into theaters. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, however, avoided a great deal of cultural criticism, with the most pointed arguments against the movie boiling down to, “and also, David Beckham can’t really act.” It’s not that King Arthur is devoid of gender pitfalls and representation issues; it’s just that the film was best left as it was, a bad movie that doesn’t go out of its way to make Hollywood worse than it was before the film arrived.

This weekend, in particular, seems to show both sides of the coin. In the past weekend alone, we’ve seen movies inspire wildly different levels of second wave analyses. Let’s start with The Dark Tower. As O’Keeffe notes in his article, it wouldn’t be difficult to construct an argument around the film’s questionable (and contextless) adoration of gun violence. Deschain is a person whose belief system is founded on his ability to shoot others to death, and the movie takes several opportunities – in Jake Chambers’s dialogue and a key visit to a Manhattan gun shop – to imbue Deschain’s use of weapons with a religious fervor. The Dark Tower also raises some unflattering questions about Chambers and his battle with mental illness, suggesting, perhaps, that being gaslighted about the state of your mental health is the true outrage. Any number of intelligent pieces could be written exploring these aspects of the film, and yet, despite it being the number one movie in America this past weekend, The Dark Tower remains a movie unexamined.

The same cannot be said for Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. Despite strong reviews from a majority of critics – the film currently sits at an 87% on RottenTomatoes – the film’s questionable depictions of violence and race dominated the conversation. Over the weekend, New Yorker critic Angelica Jade Bastién took the industry to task for ignoring the perspective of black film critics regarding the film. The argument was perhaps best captured in a piece by Anne Branigin in Splinter which contrasted the reviews written by white critics to those by black critics. “[This] raises the issue,” Branigin wrote, “of who, exactly, is leading our cultural conversation.” My own personal corner of social media expressed confusion, not praise, for Bigelow’s film. After all, if the film was willing to gloss over the ramifications of police violence, then who exactly was Detroit intending to speak for?

There is a direct correlation, then, between varying degrees of bad and how movies inspire conversation. There’s overt failure that inspires immediate controversy, movies like Ghost in the Shell that wear their problems on their sleeve and practically beg audiences to confront their representation politics. There’s contested failure that inspires bitter debate, movies like Detroit that seem to get as many things wrong as they do right in the second wave of analysis. And then there’s the inoffensive failure of movies like The Dark Tower, films that do nothing well enough to warrant additional consideration. If anything, we should admire the unique positioning of a film like The Dark Tower: it came, earned more money at the box office than anyone else, and will (one assumes) slip out of theaters without having rankled the masses beyond its failures of adaptation. Ah, to exist as the blank scratch paper of Hollywood movies.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)