Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Stars: Abbey Lee, Dennis Haysbert, Fran Kranz, Idris Elba, Jackie Earle Haley, José Zúñiga,Karl Thaning, Katheryn Winnick, Matthew McConaughey, Nicholas Pauling, Tom Taylor
Released: August 18th, 2017
It seems like there have been rumblings of a Dark Tower adaptation for as long as my memory will allow me to recall, but never did it actually seem as if a feature film version of the material would make its way to the big screen. Well, here we are, the summer movie season of 2017 winding down and the feature film version of what is said to be Stephen King’s magnum opus of sorts, his most expansive series to date which now consists of eight novels, 4,250 pages, and introduces concepts and characters from King’s many other works that come into play as the series progresses has arrived. The first volume in the The Dark Tower series, subtitled The Gunslinger, was published in 1982 and comprised itself of five short stories that had been published between 1978 and 1981 to which those stories have now been condensed down into a 95-minute, PG-13 would-be blockbuster that never takes off in the way it would seem it was always destined to. Rather, director Nikolaj Arcel’s (A Royal Affair) tight, but exposition-heavy film suggests there is much mythology left to be explored, but for one reason or another it was decided the Cliff Notes version was the best way to go out of the gate so as to no doubt make the movie on the cheap and hopefully as accessible for the uninitiated as it would be pleasing to the fans who’ve been waiting on it for twenty-five years. Sure, the film makes sense in the way that point A leads to point B which inevitably leads to a CGI heavy point C, but never do we feel compelled by anything that’s going on, invested in any of the characters taking part, nor-as one of those uninitiated members in the audience-do we care to see the series continue which one might think would have been the key to Sony finally ponying up and making a Dark Tower movie in a current world of shared cinematic universes. Truthfully though, it kind of fails to emphasize this factor at all. In many ways one wants to commend the studio for telling a more contained story rather than baiting viewers with tease after tease so that they have to come back for a sequel to see what they really wanted to see the first time around, but at the same time fans also want to see what they imagined while reading the source material come to life in a good movie and whether or not The Dark Tower is that is what’s up for debate. The Dark Tower is not necessarily a bad movie, but it’s not very good either. It’s very much a middle of the road affair; not bad enough to hate, but not good enough to remember. Let’s put it this way: the best thing you can say about The Dark Tower is that it’s competent and the worst thing you can say is that it’s uninspired.
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The premise is interesting enough despite the movie itself feeling rather generic. We are introduced to the kid, Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), who is and always will be the smartest person in the room and just so happens to be having these vivid dreams of a man dressed in all black (Matthew McConaughey) who is parading around a futuristic dystopia collecting kids to try and use their minds to make the titular tower fall (that’s some of that mythology we’re told about up front, but is never elaborated on). This tower exists at the center of what is referred to as “mid-world” and apparently holds the universe together restricting whatever monsters and evil is outside the universe from coming into any of these existing worlds Also in Jake’s dreams is a man dressed in a trench coat who carries a revolver and is able, for one reason or another (we don’t know, we’re never told), to resist the “magics” of the Man in Black. This man who we come to know as Roland (Idris Elba) was once a part of what seems to have been an elite and esteemed group of gunslingers that protected these many worlds from evils such as McConaughey’s gleefully cheesy Man in Black. The crux of this whole deal though (or at least the first half hour) is the fact Jake believes these dreams to be real while his terrible mom, Laurie (Katheryn Winnick), and the even worse step-father she chose for her son in Lon (Nicholas Pauling) after his firefighter father Elmer (Karl Thaning) died in action think Jake is crazy. Laurie and Lon (these names! Elmer!) are sending Jake to a psychiatrist (José Zúñiga) who naturally believes these dreams and the distress they cause to stem from the loss of his father, but Jake knows he’s not crazy and is intent on finding out what these dreams mean and where they might lead him. After locating a hidden portal in Brooklyn (it would have been really cool if they’d set this movie in 1977 New York) Jake travels to mid-world where he meets Roland, gets a ton of that aforementioned exposition dumped on him because the movie hardly has time to showus anything, as well as of course beginning to pull back the layers of who Roland is, where he came from (there’s a quick sequence featuring Dennis Haysbert as his father), and then eventually onto how Roland’s going to help Jake track down the Man in Black and stop him from destroying the tower and subsequently, our world.
In hindsight it seems apparent that if Sony really wanted The Dark Tower universe to work they would have poured in enough money to adapt four or five of the books into a trilogy or so of films that were all filmed simultaneously a la The Lord of the Rings. In fact, had Sony treated The Dark Tower property the same way New Line, WingNut, and The Saul Zaentz Company had treated J.R.R. Tolkien’s holy grail of high fantasy adventures we might be looking at an entirely different situation. This goes as far as not pitching the film as a summer blockbuster, but a holiday event as well as hiring a director with more vision who might have brought something unique to what is undoubtedly a unique world as one can see the deep and fascinating aspects peering around the corners of what Arcel presents as a rather flat and monotone world. There are of course scenes here and there that look more visually impressive than others-the scenes during the day where Roland and Jake travel through mid-world come to mind-but other portions of the film look insanely cheap in their attempt to feel bigger than this film’s budget would clearly allow for. This is getting away from the point though, with the point being that neither Arcel nor the writers for hire Sony assigned to this project have singular enough minds or strong enough intuition to guide a series such as The Dark Tower to what it could so clearly become. Granted, I haven’t read the books so this assessment is based on what I’ve read about the books and what those who have read the books have told me. More, it is how those who have read the books have communicated how they felt about them meaning there is a consistent theme of passion and adoration for this world and these characters that the movie lacks completely. And the more one thinks about this the more the root of the issues seem to come from the screenplay which was written by a quartet of writers led by Akiva Goldsman (a frequent Ron Howard collaborator) and favors dialogue that does little more than explain the functions of the plot rather than cultivate actual human relationships we can believe in. Now, I know the job of a critic is not to critique a film based on what we hoped it to be versus what it turned out to be, but that’s the thing with The Dark Tower-I had no hopes for what it might or might not be nor did I even really know what the story concerned outside of what the trailers told me. There was little to no expectation walking in and while, again, I didn’t walk away thinking it was an unsalvageable dumpster fire I was more disappointed that what is so clearly present in the material if you read between the lines wasn’t-and likely won’t, at least any time soon-be given the chance to breathe and be fully realized.
All of this taken into consideration, The Dark Tower is definitely a movie and it’s one that probably wouldn’t be too disappointing if one were to walk in off the hot and/or muggy summer streets into the cool, air conditioned theater on a discount matinee day were they little more was required than a beginning, middle, and end with a few facts and details sprinkled in while condensing a plot down as tightly as it possibly could be to tell only what is necessary in a brisk hour and a half. While there is something to be said for brevity there is also something to be said for appropriateness and the type of compact, adhering to fantasy tropes for the sake of safety rather than exploration storytelling that The Dark Tower operates on just isn’t a suitable set of circumstances for such economical movie-making. Like I said though, this isn’t all bad and when the movie finally gets to its third act where Roland joins Jake in New York City there is a spike in the fun element as Elba does well to transition his up until that point stoic gunslinger into a still serious, but comical subject of a few fish out of water jokes. While this type of situational humor isn’t fresh-hell, even the situation itself is something we’ve seen countless times before-these laughs are still worth noting because it’s the first time the film garners any kind of reaction whatsoever. On top of this, as Jake and Roland’s adventures in New York continue they come across a devastating revelation that is almost tangible in its brutality and again-makes you feel something as it evokes something akin to an emotional response. It’s too bad these moments are too few and far between though for one can see the camaraderie between Elba and Taylor is one that could easily evolve into a more endearing partnership we might actually be willing to invest in while McConaughey is having a ball being the baddie. Is he a little over the top? Sure, but so is the score from Junkie XL. Is he in line with what the majority of readers imagined this demonic sorcerer to be? I have no idea, but I’m guessing probably not. Still, it’s evident the charismatic actor is pouring a fair amount of grease into his performance and you can see it leaking out of his pores. It’s sustainable fun-especially at only ninety minutes. Ultimately, The Dark Tower functions to serve its purpose just well enough. It’s an average movie that very obviously comes from far more interesting material than was given credit for. Zipping through such dense mythology just hoping the audience understands what is going on rather than worrying about if it is immersing that audience in this new world The Dark Tower, while competent, ends up feeling like a rushed hatchet job from a studio that wanted to deliver something simple and straightforward rather than the layered and complex adaptation that King’s novels seem to no doubt deserve.