The Dark Tower is considered by many to be author Stephen King’s magnum opus. The epic tale, which begins “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed” (a line not heard until 15 minutes into the film) is an epic tale, blending together multiple genres (Western, horror, fantasy) to tell the age old tale of a battle between Good and Evil. At the center is the Dark Tower, the central point connecting the multiverse across the beams. The Man in Black, Walter O’Dim (played in the movie by Matthew McConaughey), wants the Tower destroyed. He is chaos and death personified, and takes on many guises throughout King’s novels. Seeking to stop him is Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last Gunslinger, seeking revenge for the destruction of his people and the death of his father. The stage was brilliantly set for director Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair). This should have been the start of a great franchise.
So, what went wrong?
Multiple things, as it turns out. By making this a sequel and not a direct adaptation, the filmmakers weren’t as bound by the source material. While this can be sometimes a good thing (as what J.J Abrams did with Star Trek in establishing an alternate timeline), it can also allow the writers to stray too far or, even worse, lose the core essence of the material the movie is based on. At a runtime of 95 minutes, there wasn’t time to allow this movie to grow- everything became a tersely explained sequence of events, with no real understanding as to the motivations behind them. Obviously, King developing everything over the span of eight novels and a short story, there is more time to delve into such things than a film would allow. And while Arcel’s movie takes bits from the first, third, and seventh novel in the series, those bits are just barely there. And that makes this film lose what should have been its strong heart.
For those who have none of the title’s literary background going in, the movie explains things just enough to get the audience by. We know that the Man in Black, Walter, killed Roland’s father. We know he is a bad guy, for he seeks to use children with a gift called the Shine (yes, the same psychic ability Danny Torrance had in the Shining) to bring the Tower down, thus allowing chaos and monsters to invade the multiverse and threaten countless worlds. Among those children Walter seeks is Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), who is especially powerful with the Shine. Jake is plagued with visions of the Tower and of the Man in Black, and has him under psychiatric care. Jake’s visions lead him to a rundown house that holds a portal from our world (known in the film as Keystone Earth) to Mid-World, the world of Roland and Walter. Naturally, Roland and Jake meet, and form the obligatory reluctant companionship before they grow into true allies. The pair help each other- Roland guides Jake to a seer named Tirana (Abbey Lee) to help him understand his visions, and Jake serves as Roland’s guide through New York in our world (this sequence has a couple of humorous moments, among the few found in the film). And we all know things will come to a head and there will be a showdown.
For the most part, the cast performs ably, and does what they can with the material they have to work with. But that material lacks any depth. We don’t really get why Roland and Walter have been engaged in an ages old struggle, one that has spanned lifetimes. All we know is Roland is seeking revenge, and Walter’s a bad dude. Elba does great with the physicality of his role (that speed loading of his pistols is quite cool), but feels limited by the rest of his role, showing barely any real emotion, even when he’s concerned about and empathizes with Jake. McConaughey makes for a good villain, but he too feels more restrained, never allowing Walter to indulge in gleeful chaos. Taylor’s Jake has the greatest range, from the beginning dealing with his father’s death and his visions to finding the strength to fight evil by the film’s end. Most side characters barely register, save for a few exceptions. Katheryn Winnick does a nice job as Jake’s mother, Laurie. Jackie Earle Haley is suitably creepy as Walter’s right hand man Sayre. And Lee’s Tirana makes an impression, though her screen time is short. And that’s the problem with the film in general- we never get enough time to sufficiently connect with the characters so that when things happen we as the audience are impacted. Instead, loss is just a plot device to drive other things forward, with it being no more than that. Which robs us in sharing those emotional moments with both Jake and Roland, as well as lessening the impact of Walter’s evil.
But it’s not all bad. The cinematography by Rasmus Videbaek (The Shooter) looks terrific, be it the shots of the Tower itself, the vast vistas in Mid-World, or in a mist shrouded ruined amusement park. Junkie XL’s (Mad Max: Fury Road) score provides a great backdrop to the onscreen action. The are a couple of interesting creature designs, and for the most part the CGI comes off well (there are a few instances where it’s more noticeable). When Roland uses his guns he is a force to be reckoned with, and those sequences are the action highlights of the movie. For King fans, there are also a couple of nice Easter eggs (I won’t spoil them here, as they’re best to be discovered by the individual viewer).
In all, The Dark Tower avoids being the dumpster fire it could have been, but it also never rises to the heights set by the source material. The cast, for the most part, keeps the movie watchable and even somewhat entertaining. Elba makes for a good stoic hero, McConaughey makes for an evil enough villain, and Taylor does well as Jake who brings both forces together in conflict. Visually the film looks good and the score makes for a terrific backdrop. For those who never touched the source material, this movie may be more enjoyable (but after viewing, I highly recommend reading both the novels and the comics). There are even a couple of nice Easter eggs for King fans. But as an adaptation of King’s epic series, this is but a pale imitation, lacking the heart and the depth of source material. 95 minutes just made this feel too rushed, and that did the movie and its audience a great disservice. The Dark Tower does make for okay viewing, but it’s nothing to rush out to theaters for. There are such grand plans in place for The Dark Tower to be a huge franchise, including a television series as well as more films, but this start has forgotten the face of its father. Maybe one day, King’s magnum opus will get the film treatment it deserves. But that is not this day.
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