This past weekend greeted eager popcorn-movie fans with a dispiriting barrage of negative reviews for The Dark Tower, the would-be franchise starter of the messy but popular Stephen King book series of the same name. Everything from the lackluster direction by Nikolaj Arcel to poor choices in cutting and pasting different sections of the early books in the story was called out by critics and moviegoers alike, resulting in yet another generic and uninspired wannabe-blockbuster that will doubtless be looked back upon with the same “not even a nice try” attitude that greeted similar franchise also-rans from 2017 like Rings and Transformers: The Last Knight. A common thread between these three films? They were all either written or had stories by Akiva Goldsman.
Actually, it’s not fair to say Goldsman is responsible for writing The Dark Tower. Even whittling down the presumable army of screenwriters who had a hand behind the scenes to the official names, you’re left with five credited writers, including longtime TV writer Jeff Pinkner (with whom Goldsman teamed up for many of his co-writing credits on the TV series Fringe, a show superior in nearly every way to his big-screen work) and Arcel himself. Similarly, Rings has five writing credits, Transformers seven, and multiple other projects awarding Goldsman a writing byline (The 5th Wave, Insurgent, Angels & Demons, to name a few) also spread the credit—or more accurately, blame—among multiple scribes. Still, look at those titles: The one quality they share, besides Goldsman’s name in the credits, is not being very good. Downright bad, would be more accurate. And at a certain point—much like how if someone complains every day that everyone they meet seems to be an asshole, thereby suggesting they themselves are the real asshole—you have to wonder if Goldsman might be the problem.
Better still, just look to his solo credits, or at least the films that stem largely from his pen. He began in the ’90s with a couple of John Grisham adaptations (The Client and A Time To Kill, the former of which was cowritten by Robert Getchell), which are both serviceable films and among the more respectable projects he’s ever helped write, though no one should consider them great screenplays. But then look at the rest of his output: He penned the execrable big-screen version of Lost In Space single-handedly. The dour and sodden adaptation of The Da Vinci Code? All him. Best of all, the famously franchise-sinking Batman & Robin? Goldsman is the man to thank for all those “freeze” puns and grown adults acting like 7-year-olds.
What makes Goldsman’s work so poor is just how little soul there seems to be in it. The movies in which he’s had a hand all share a lack of concern for character development outside of screenwriting 101, Save The Cat!-style generalities. He takes whatever genre or format he’s working in and applies the most reductive, easily digestible conflicts and themes, a process film executives may see as making a movie “broadly accessible” but which tends in practice to render them more “toothless and inhuman.” Instead, he ladles on plot contrivances and mythos like they were the main course, rather than seasonings meant to spice up a film’s content. He’s like your uncle who lost his taste buds from smoking, and now ladles too much salt onto everything he eats, rendering each dish weirdly interchangeable and unappetizing by negating any subtleties or distinctions.
But his claim to fame lies with his Oscar glory. In 2002, A Beautiful Mind crushed at the Oscars, winning Best Picture, Best Director for Ron Howard, Best Supporting Actress for Jennifer Connelly, and netting Goldsman the Best Adapted Screenplay award. Based on the overwhelmingly poor quality of nearly every project he’s had a hand in writing since, Goldsman has been dining out on that Oscar for the past 15 years. His name was established as someone who can deliver not just good work, but Academy Award-winning work, and those credentials have seemingly placed blinders over the eyes of everyone who has brought him on board since. He’s been involved with loads of big Hollywood projects, from franchises big and small to further adaptations of popular pre-existing narratives, and not a one has ended up anywhere near even the “good enough” bar set by Beautiful Mind. (Goldsman’s one exception: He re-teamed with Howard for 2004’s Cinderella Man, a movie now generally agreed to be superior to A Beautiful Mind—but also one where Goldsman got help from co-writer Cliff Hollingsworth, who also earned the “story by” credit.)
Indeed, since his Oscar win, Goldsman has done basically nothing but team up with others, whether as part of a writers room, punching up others’ scripts, or simply collaborating on screenplays for big-budget Hollywood fare. Whether this hints at an inability to pull off a screenplay on his own or a preference for the script doctor lifetstyle remains unknown, much like the possibility of actual personalities for his onscreen creations. There’s only been one project on which Akiva Goldsman has enjoyed sole writing credit since his Oscar win, and it’s the kind of movie that makes other movies want to shove it in a locker and steal its lunch money.
Winter’s Tale stars Colin Farrell as a seemingly immortal thief raised by a demon (Russell Crowe) who falls in love but the woman dies because they have sex and then Farrell’s winged horse stays with him as he wanders New York for a hundred years, and also, Lucifer is played by Will Smith. That description might sound unfairly dismissive, but if you’ve seen the film, you know it barely begins to do justice to the weird-bad quality of the movie. It’s the kind of bonkers flop that almost seems expressly designed to be covered on the How Did This Get Made? podcast. Goldsman not only wrote it, he directed it as well (it’s his film debut), and it’s almost endearing as a foolhardy passion-project—an inexplicable curio, rather than a straight-up piece of crap
Goldsman has never written a great film, and more often than not, his work is lazy, uninspired, or just plain bad. Yet time and again, his name turns up on projects, as he cashes his paycheck and puts in the hours to complete yet another derivative offering of slapdash Hollywood product. There’s a name for this kind of writer: a hack—someone who can churn out material that fits a requisite mold with little regard for artistic merit or considerations of quality. There are plenty of hacks capable of doing good work, but Goldsman’s name on a project is practically a guarantee of bloodless moviemaking. His films share a joyless, unimaginative vibe that suggests a film made by someone who doesn’t get much of a charge from making films. He’s the Brett Ratner of screenwriters.
None of which is to imply there’s not a place for Goldsman in the entertainment business. After all, take a look at his IMDB credits in which he’s listed not as a writer, but a producer. It’s an uneven list to be sure (remember Jonah Hex?) but it suggests someone who excels at the behind-the-scenes work of getting films and TV shows made. Producers need not feel bad when movies they help shepherd aren’t good; if it was on time and under budget, they earned their keep. Like Ratner, Goldsman may want to consider a future in which his contributions are limited to the business side of things. But studios may want to consider taking The Dark Tower as the warning bell they didn’t heed on any of Goldsman’s numerous prior big-budget movies: The guy isn’t helping make your film better. Stop giving him the chance to fail upward yet again.