“Where I come from we don’t have chicken!”
It’s taken a long time to bring Stephen King’s fantasy epic series The Dark Tower to the big screen, and maybe it should’ve taken a little longer. King’s 8 books were published between 1982 and 2004, and contained a wealth of complicated mythology — the type of mythology that’s just ripe for a tenacious filmmaker to adapt into a coherent, exciting series. Sadly, The Dark Tower director Nikolaj Arcel isn’t entirely up to the task.
First thing’s first: hardcore purists of the books need to heavily check their expectations. This is a film that takes the spirit of the books, as well as several key elements, and runs it through a mainstream filter to make it all more easily digestible. It’s like a chef preparing a gourmet meal only to have the meal turned over to a diner fry cook who then chops it up into some greasy hash. The greasy hash might even be tasty — especially if it’s a late night and you’ve had a few drinks — but it doesn’t hold a candle to that original gourmet meal.
So once you get past the whole “not very faithful to the books” thing, how does The Dark Tower stack up? I can say this for Arcel’s film: it doesn’t drag. At a shockingly scant 95 minutes, it doesn’t have time to drag. Unfortunately, there’s a distinct feeling that something is missing through the entire film. This is the frame of a narrative — a greatest hits piece, as it were. The most exposition-heavy scenes cut together with the most action-driven moments. Yet the action is weightless, lacking any sense of urgency or heft. And the exposition is so rote that it borders on laughable.
Young Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is a troubled kid from New York still reeling from the death of his father. Jake is plagued by terrible nightmares: in a strange world, the minds of children are used as weapons to bring down a giant Dark Tower at the center of the universe. Jake is an outcast at school and a constant concern to this mother, and his step-father would like nothing more than to get rid of the kid. Jake also dreams of two very different men — the evil Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) and the noble gunslinger Roland (Idris Elba).
It seems Jake’s dreams aren’t dreams at all, but visions, and through a series of not very believable events he’s able to find his way into Mid-World, where The Man in Black, aka Walter Padick, and Roland reside. Roland wants revenge on Walter, and Walter wants to destroy the Dark Tower because doing so will unleash a world of darkness, both on Mid-World and our world. King’s novels explain all of this a hell of a lot better, but the movie rushes through it all by having characters drop flat exposition that never connects with the listener.
Mid-World is disappointingly underutilized in the film, presented as a series of midwestern-style landscapes with random science fictiony structures standing around in the background. There’s no sense of scale, no sense of world building. Mid-World just is, and we never get any feel for it. King’s books were primarily told from the point of view of Roland, which effectively helped bring us into this strange new world. The Dark Tower film, however, is entirely from Jake’s point of view, which makes the proceedings end up feeling like a reboot of The NeverEnding Story or Last Action Hero. The problem here is that Jake just isn’t that interesting, and Taylor’s performance is grating.
Elba, a wonderful actor who somehow always seems to end up in less-than-wonderful films, is stoic and cool as Roland, and he brings just the right amount of haunted intensity to the part. But like the film itself, Roland is just a shell — we get the sense that there’s an entire hard drive filled up with deleted scenes that give us a better idea of who this character is, and a better look at what Elba did with him.
McConaughey is clearly having fun, and he brings a nice seductive swagger to the part, but as written here The Man In Black is a stock bad guy from a thousand other movies, not the iconic character King created for his books. Also, it doesn’t help that everyone in the film keeps referring to him as “Walter”, robbing any real sense of menace in the process.
Oddly enough, The Dark Tower really starts to come to life when it leaves Mid-World and comes back to our world, or Keystone Earth, as everyone calls it. Here we get a glimmer of a much more interesting movie, where Roland is a fish out of water in New York, amazed and perplexed at the taste of soda and hot dogs. These scenes allow Elba to stretch his comedic chops, and there are several laugh-out-loud moments, particularly during a scene where Roland ends up in a hospital and has to talk with some befuddled doctors. But this respite is brief, and then the film falls back into its standard action movie formula.
The Dark Tower shows some meager promise, but as the first in a proposed series it leaves much to be desired. Too much, in fact. Just who is this really for? Hardcore fans of the books will likely be devastated, and newcomers won’t find much to latch onto. At the very least, Stephen King fans will get a kick seeing the numerous background references to other works, including It, Salem’s Lot, and even The Shawshank Redemption. King’s work will stand the test of time. The Dark Tower movie may not be so lucky. If they ever get around to making future films in this series, perhaps they’ll be better. Perhaps they’ll remedy the problems here. And if not, oh well. There are other worlds than these.