Film Review: “The Dark Tower” (2017)

I went into The Dark Tower feeling a great deal of trepidation. The reviews, as everyone knows, had been truly abominable, and its box office performance has been similarly lackluster. All told, I was afraid that the film adaptation of one of my favourite epic fantasy series was going to be an epic disappointment.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the film. As both a fan of the series on which it is based and on the genre as a whole, I found the film uniquely satisfying. While it may be counterintuitive to say that an hour-and-forty-five-minute-long film can be epic, this more than fits the bill.

In brief, the film is about three central characters, all of whom bear a relationship with the Dark Tower, a structure that sits at the center of the universe and keeps the chaotic darkness, and the monsters that inhabit it, at bay. Roland (Idris Elba) is the last of a mystical race known as the gunslingers, and he is in relentless pursuit of Walter (Matthew McConaughey), a demonic figure dressed in black who yearns to bring the Dark Tower crashing into ruin and to rule among the ruins. Lastly, Jake (Tom Taylor) is a boy in our world who finds himself a pawn in Walter’s efforts to bring down the Tower.

The plot is streamlined and tight, fitting into a typical feature film length of around 1 hour and 45 minutes, which is something of a reprieve from the narrative bloat that seems to have become de rigeur for Hollywood these days. I suspect that a great deal of the critical opprobrium has to do with this pared-down narrative, which I think actually works quite well for this iteration of King’s sprawling story. As anyone who has followed the books knows, things go sort of off the rails starting in the fifth book (Wolves of the Calla), and hit their nadir in Song of Sussanah. 

What’s more, the primary trio of the film–Roland (Idris Elba), Walter/The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), and Jake–really work well together. A lot of people have noted that McConaughey seems to chew the scenery with a sort of manic delight, but if they had read the books they would know that Walter is just that sort of character, one who delights in tearing things apart just to see how they work and who would just as soon see the world collapse into ruin than see it built up. Rather than seeing this as hammy, I see it as part of the manic energy that motivates Walter in some of his manifestations (he adopts different identities depending on which worlds he inhabits).

But the real core of the film is the relationship between Roland and Jake. Lots of shit hit the fan when it was revealed that the black Idris Elba would be playing the white Roland, but I find that the gruff, hulking figure of Elba fits quite well with the way that I have always imagined Roland to be. He evinces a world-weary strength that has always been a key part of the characterization of this seminal figure in the King legendarium, and Elba clearly has a great deal of screen chemistry with his young costar.

Is the film as rich and complex as the novels on which it is based? I would have to say: definitely not. But then, it doesn’t really have to be. What it is, and what it succeeds as, is an introduction to a wider universe that is one of the great works of modern fantasy. If you go into the film with that sort of realistic expectation, then it is quite enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong; there is still much about the narrative and the spectacle that fit nicely into the conventions of the epic fantasy lexicon.

Furthermore, it’s also a telling that this film, with all of its attempts to keep at bay the darkness and chaos, ends up showing us precisely what the costs of that chaos might be. I don’t want to go so far as to say that the film is an allegory for our troubled times, but there can be no doubt that its narrative of a world that has declined (Roland’s world) and one that might (ours) that really speaks to how much some of us yearn for someone to rescue us from the chaos that seems ready to engulf everything we hold dear.

All in all, I think that The Dark Tower deserves more credit than the critics have been willing to extend it. It’s unfortunate that it was plagued with such a tortuous production history, and that it had the misfortune to debut during one of the worst box office summers in recent history. Let us hope that there is at least some possibility that the projected TV series will come to fruition and that at least a few glimmers of King’s magnum opus may yet see the screen, whether big or small.

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Dissertation Days (53): A New Day, A New Office

Well, I finally moved into my new office at the Humanities Center here at Syracuse, and I have to say: I LOVE IT. It’s really quite a nice space, and it makes me feel like a genuine academic.

In that spirit, I was able to get quite a lot of work done during the hours I was there today, including 1,000 good words of Chapter 4, some perusal of Chapter 3, and a submitted SCMS proposal. I also started (finally) working on a book chapter that needs revision.

Chapter 4 continues apace. I’m now at the point where my momentum keeps me moving forward. There are still a few gaps that will need filling, but I see no reason why I can’t have a draft of this to the Adviser by the end of September, if not sooner. I have to say, this chapter is coming along much more smoothly than the previous one, ad I’m not sure yet whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. Hopefully it just means that I’ve finally hit my stride and the whole project is finally starting to gel.

Sometime soon, I’m going to have to both get down to brass tacks in terms of revising Chapters 1 and 2 and start working on my Introduction and Conclusion. Now that I’ve got a firmer grasp on what Chapter 4 is doing, I think that sounds like a good idea. Some parts of Chapter 4 may get bumped into the Conclusion, but that remains to be seen (as it depends on how the rest of Chapter 4 shapes up).

I may not have a chance to get much done tomorrow, but I am going to come in to the office on Saturday to carve out a bit more writing. I also have a book chapter due Monday, and I have to make sure my job materials are in order. It’s gonna be a bit of a working weekend, but that’s okay. I’ve had enough fun time in the past couple of weeks. It’s time to really buckle down.

Today, in other words, is one of those days where I feel really good about life, about writing, and about my scholarship. I’m sure there will be some rough days ahead, but I have to remember my motivation. I want to finish, get a TT-job, and start building a life with my Beloved Aaron.

I can do this. I know I can.

Dissertation Days (52): How is it Almost September?

Well, here we are, at the very cusp of September. I’ve managed to get quite a lot of writing done this summer. This, despite traveling and whatnot. All in all, I’m pretty happy with the process I’ve undertaken, and I’m happy with all of the progress that I’ve made, both on Chapter 4 and in the Dissertation as a whole.

Today was a productive day. True to my word yesterday, I made an effort to get some of the historical context section done today. It was really productive, actually, and it has helped me to see where the gaps are in my logic. Again, I just don’t want to fall into the trap of disconnecting my historical context from the critical readings of the film that I provide.

I also saw the glimmerings of a way to connect the two contexts that I’m examining: the decline in religious faith and the crumbling of empire, both of which, I would suggest, structure the sensibilities of the later epics. That’s part of what I like about studying the epics of the 1960s; they are just so different in tone from their predecessors.

I also managed to scratch out some revisions on Chapter 1. Not quite as much as I would have liked, but still a good chunk. There aren’t really deep revisions that are needed (I don’t think), though there are some places where the writing could use some tightening. That will be one of the projects I’ll be undertaking next week.

The same applies for Chapter 2. Luckily, I’m also in the process of revising a segment of that chapter for the journal Material Religion, so that means that a lot of the revisions they asked for will probably make their way into the article as well (especially since they echoed the comments made by my committee). All in all, I feel pretty confident about those first two chapters, and they should be in final shape by the end of September.

Well, I’m back on the road again tomorrow and headed back to Syracuse. I hate to leave Aaron! That also means that I won’t be writing in the Diss again until Thursday, when I’ll be coming to you from my new office. Expect some great momentum once I have a dedicated space to work in.

The finish line is almost in sight! I have to keep that in mind as I move forward.

Dissertation Days (51): Good Days

Today was a good writing day. I managed to ingest just the right amount of caffeine, so I was ready and able to get going on the production of good writing. I really hit my stride, and I’m really happy with the way that the theory section is coming together.

I’m still a little concerned about the historical section. There’s still a bit of beefing up I need to do with that section, but I think I’ll be able to accomplish that in the next week or so. I really need to get that piece wrapped up soon, but I’m confident in my ability to do so.

Speaking of that context…I realized the other day that there was an important node of context that I had overlooked but which needs to be folded into the analysis. I’m a little worried that it might derail the discussion that has come so far, but I’m sure with a bit of determination I can make sure that the pieces all start to fit together in a way that makes sense and that lead naturally to the discussion I have on the films. That’s always been a weak spot, but at least I’ve gotten to the point where I can see it and (hopefully) effectively address it.

I really think I’m onto something with this discussion of spectacle and narrative and the relationship between them. I’ve always been a little frustrated by the way that people talk about spectacle, almost as if its’ one of those things that is just there and doesn’t need explanation, still less any kind of sustained analysis as a container of meaning. There has been some really interesting work done on this lately, though, so I’m very much looking forward to nuancing and developing that work to produce something compelling about the films I’m looking at.

So, tomorrow I’m going to keep on as I have been with Chapter 4. There’s still some way to go, but it’s definitely getting there. I feel more confident about this draft than I have any of the previous ones, so that’s definitely something. What’s more, I’ve been able to keep on track with this one in a way that I haven’t with any of the previous ones.

As I always say, any progress is good progress. I can do this. I just have to keep reminding myself of that central fact.

Onward!

Dissertation Days (50): Nothing Motivates Like a Deadline

Well, today wasn’t the best day writing that I’ve ever had, but I still managed to write over 1,000 words, most of which are ones that will make it into the submission version of the chapter. I also worked on my job letter (I didn’t get to revising Chapter 1, alas, but might get to a very little bit of that tomorrow).

I also broke my rule about writing in chronological order. I was just having as sluggish day today, and I just wasn’t feeling the historical context. As a result, I focused mainly on writing a bit of the theory and some of the close readings of Cleopatra. It wasn’t ideal, I know, and I really should get in the habit of writing things in a sequential order, but at least I was able to write material that I was happy with, so that is really the most important thing. Once I return to my office, though, I’m going to really focus on that.

I’m afraid I won’t be able to get much work done this weekend. I’m headed to DC again for a bit of relaxation, and I probably won’t get able to get a lot done until Monday. Still, I’m happy with my progress so far, and being on fellowship this year means that once I return to Syracuse I’ll be able to devote a pretty substantial part of every day to doing nothing but researching and writing.

Overall, though, I’m feeling pretty good about this chapter. Whereas before the clarity came in fits and starts, at this point it’s starting to be more consistent. What’s more, I actually feel pretty confident in the way that this chapter is working (which, you might recall, was rarely the case with Chapter 3). I don’t know that the argument here is as complicated as the one set out in that earlier chapter, so perhaps that is what has made it so much easier to write now that the block I early experienced has been dispensed with.

One last thing. How is it August already? How is it possible than an entire summer has already gone by? At least I can be content knowing that I managed to achieve quite a lot. The next few months, indeed the next year, are going to be quite hectic, but I suppose that’s for the best.

It’s definitely is true that nothing motivates like…a deadline.

 

Dissertation Days (48): I’m Tired of Thinking About Cute Titles

Today was an extraordinarily productive day. I was able to churn out 1,500 words of Chapter 4 (most of which was quite good, I think). I focused mainly on the historical context, though I wrote some introductory material for what will eventually be the theoretical section.

Overall, I think that the historical context is a strong section, perhaps the strongest and most cohesive that I’ve written since Chapter 2. I’m looking at the ways in which the postwar political order that was so desperate to attain a measure of stability was always thwarted by the tensions of the postwar period, whether it was the escalating conflict between the US and the Soviet Union or the growing independence movements with all of the violence that entailed.

As I move forward, I just have to make sure that I continue drawing explicit connections between the context I’m laying out and the readings of the films. This has been my Achilles’ Heel since I began this dissertation, but I would like to think that I have avoided it (or at least addressed it) with this chapter. That, however, very much remains to be seen.

I also continued my effort to make some commentary on Chapter 1. I’d prefer not to wait until the last minute to do that, even though I have to admit that it is my least favourite part of the whole dissertation-writing process. It’s quite remarkable, though, to see how very different this chapter is from the ones that followed it. I do think that I am onto something, but the writing is a bit clunky at spots, and I can see there are points where what I really mean isn’t expressed as clearly as it should be. Of course, I just have to remind myself that that is what revision is for, to gradually distill one’s ideas down until they emerge in their clearest and most coherent form.

Tomorrow, I’m going to continue making progress on Chapter 4, and I hope to make my way through 10 pages of Chapter 1 (and make the appropriate commentary). At the pace I’m currently keeping, I should have a draft of Chapter 4 ready by the middle of September (which is my very ambitious goal). I just have to stay focused.

I can feel the finish line growing closer and closer. I just have to remember that I can do this.

I got this.

Let’s go.

Dissertation Days (47): Back to Work I Go

Well, we returned back to work today. The Dissertation is coming along quite nicely, and I am actually confident that I can produce a workable, submittable draft by the middle of September. Not, mind you, that that will be the final version, but I want the Adviser to have seen all of the chapters in some form before I start sending out applications.

And, what’s more, I finally found that missing piece that’s been eluding me for so long. When I wrote this sentence, I knew that, at last, the pieces were sliding into place: “I then turn to each of the films, beginning with Cleopatra, moving to Fall, and ending with The Bible, showing how each can be understood as a form of melancholy utopia, mourning a world that might have been but can never be.”

It’s that last bit that I find to be the most useful, as it helps me to make clear that what I am working toward is an understanding of these films and their affective charge. I have to say, this is the clearest expression yet of the central claim that I’m setting out in this chapter, and that is an amazing feeling.

Tomorrow, I am going to work on setting out some of the important contextual material, particularly the (failed) promise of the United Nations and the increasing disintegration of the old imperial powers and the United States ascendancy. With a 1,000 word goal per day, I think I should be able to knock this section out of the park within the week. What’s more, I might even be able to move into the theory section. We’re picking up steam, folks!

As I’ve said before, I think I’m going to aim for 15K words on this chapter, possibly a bit more. I think that will be enough to do justice to the complexity of the argument. And besides, I really just want to get this thing out of the door as soon as possible.

The Adviser has suggested that I might do a Chapter 5, and…yeah. That’s not happening. Gotta get this shit done!

Also, I’ve been working on job materials, and they are coming along quite well. I am surprisingly excited about being on the job market. It’s a good feeling.

So, tomorrow is definitely going to be a tremendously productive day. I can feel it.

And I can do it.

Dissertation Days (46): Adventures in Research

As promised, I was back at work on the Dissertation today. I’m actually quite tremendously pleased with the work I produced today. Although I only wrote 500 words, I think that they were pretty good ones (all things considered), and that is always a cause for a minor celebration. There will, of course, be a lot of revision between the time I finish this draft and the time I turn it in, but that’s just par for the course.

This was also a surprisingly productive day in terms of research. Peter Brooks’s brilliant Reading for the Plot has been really helpful in beefing up that theoretical section. Indeed, I basically spent the entire day focused on that. Sometimes, you just hit your stride when it comes to writing a theoretical section, and you get that fiery, passionate feeling that you are really onto something important in the way that you’re phrasing and articulating your argument. That’s the feeling I live for, and this is the first time that I’ve felt it in a couple of weeks.

In this chapter, I’m really trying to get to the heart of the tension between narrative and spectacle in the epic film. These are terms that people often use as if they were self-explanatory–epics are simple narratives that overcompensate with a use of spectacle is a typical line of argument–and I want to give this the sort of detail that I think it deserves. The way I’m framing my argument, I think anyway, will serve as a nice end to the dissertation as a whole and has some important connections to the first chapter. Given how much I’ve struggled with this chapter, I’m really happy that it’s finally starting to take a shape with which I can be happy.

Given that I only have 2 more days here in West Virginia, I’ll probably take another mini-hiatus until I return to Syracuse. Then, I’ll be back at the normal schedule (as much as possible), though it might be a bit touch-and-go because of the new TA Orientation that’ll be going on throughout the second week of August. And, of course, there’s all the other stuff–articles, revisions, conference proposals, etc.–that will undoubtedly eat their way into my free time.

But, I shall persist, as I always do.

With the right amount of determination, I know I can get this done, and I can get it done well.

Onward.

Dissertation Days (45): Insert Clever Title Here

Today, I worked mostly on context, with a little bit of composition in the discussion of Fall of the Roman Empire. I also wove in some criticism of Cleopatra into that section. Overall, I’m pretty happy with the material that I produced today, though I also know that there will need to be some finessing and trimming done (those goddamn couplets are still proving to be something of a thorn in my side).

All in all, this was quite a good day, especially since my productivity tends to slow down when I’m visiting West Virginia. I noticed some repetition in the historical section, so I’ll have to take care of that, but it does seem as if the broad contours of that are pretty much in place. One of these days soon, I’m going to have to take another look at the theoretical section. There are a number of coordinates in that section that I think work well separately, but I need to make sure that they all fit together in a coherent whole and, just as importantly, that they also lead directly into the discussion of the films.

I also like the material I produced about The Fall of the Roman Empire. I’ll need to do some re-reading of secondary material once I return to Syracuse, so I can begin layering that it more consistently. As we know, that will also help me to nuance my arguments and explain how my own contribution elaborates on the existing scholarly conversation about this particular film.

Though this draft still has a number of weaknesses, I am determined to make this the draft that I end up submitting. It’s hard not to get frustrated, and I have to keep reminding myself that sometimes, it’s okay to spend a day revising rather than just producing more words. Old habits die hard, though. Still, I am also a determined person, and so I shall continue endeavouring to revise this chapter as the days go by. Someday soon, I know, this chapter will be done.

Tomorrow, I may not get anything done. Lots of obligations, but I’ll surely write another 1,500 words or so in the following week. Plus, I hope to be able to start the revision of Chapter 1 soon, and if I keep up the pace I should have both Chapters 1 and 2 in pretty much finished shape by the end of August.

Onward!

Dissertation Days (44): Glimmers of Daylight

Today was one of those truly great days, when the writing and the ideas began to really come together in a productive way. I think the section on Cleopatra is going to need a little bit of tidying up. I know there’s a bit of repetition there, as well as some areas that need some development and elaboration. Still, I like the way that it’s coming together, and the next step will be folding in some of the secondary criticism that already exists on the film. That will probably take a little time, but that’s okay. I’ve got the whole month of August.

Today I started shifting into a discussion of The Fall of the Roman Empire. As I’ve noted before, I have to start finessing this part of the discussion so that I can show how my own reading of this film contributes something new to the overall discussion of this film. I actually had a glimmer of what I could do in that regard as I was writing today, riding high on a caffeine buzz (amazing what that coffee can do for you). What’s more, I think I found a way to ensure that this section of the chapter does something new and doesn’t merely repeat the arguments made about Cleopatra.

Since tomorrow is the dawning of August, I think I’m going to have to start moving into the revision of Chapters 1 and 2 that I’ve been putting off for quite a while. As I’ve written before, it’s always revision that is the hardest part of the process, but if I go ahead and do it now, it will make things that much easier when I start amping up for the defense. Besides, if I want to stay on my my schedule to defend this spring, I really have to make sure that I stay on track with both Chapter 4 and the general process of revision (to say nothing of Chapter 3, which is still under review).

Tomorrow, alas, I won’t be able to do any work as most of the day I’ll be on my way back to West Virginia. However, I might be able to do a bit of reading of Brooks’s Reading for the Plot. Hopefully on Thursday I’ll be able to get back to work on the chapter, though I know my pacing will be a little more subdued while I’m back home.

Onward and upward.