Adapting Stephen King’s mammoth seven-volume The Dark Tower fantasy series with its multiversal mythology for the screen – especially in a 95-minute long movie! – always seemed like an impossibility, which is why Sony and director Nikolaj got clever. Thanks to an element of the story introduced at the end of the final book (which I won’t spoil here for the non-book readers), they could essentially make a quasi-sequel of sorts that would still be considered canon, but still allow them to take the story into a brand new direction. Apparently though, that direction is straight down the toilet.
That’s according to some of the first reviews for the film which started hitting the net yesterday afternoon. I’ve been saying for a while that I was not happy with the “John Woo action movie with Jedi powers” approach Arcel and co have taken instead of doing an epic fantasy western adventure, but it appears that is just the start of this film’s problems.
Many seem to indicate that despite some controversy surrounding his casting as the traditionally white Roland, Idris Elba is the best thing here. Matthew McConaughey’s scenery-chewing as the evil Man-in-Black has been diving critics, but many agree that the script is a bit of a mess. There are some reviewers though – mostly those who have no prior knowledge of King’s original tale – who found it entertaining enough, if rather forgettable. Here’s a sample of some of the reviews.
The Dark Tower is a deeply flawed movie. It’s a film that feels rushed and plodding, sometimes within the same scene. It’s a film that saddles two of our greatest working actors with clunky dialogue and muddled motivations. It’s a film that feels claustrophobic and oddly contained when it should’ve felt sweeping and epic. After decades of waiting, after months of keeping our fingers crossed and hoping for the best, it brings me zero pleasure to report that The Dark Tower doesn’t really work.
The biggest problem here isn’t the remixing of the Dark Tower mythology or the casting or even the wonky special effects (though all of those elements are certainly there to share the blame). No, the biggest problem is how lifeless it all feels, how limp-wristed and lame the final product is.
In this extremely convoluted and nonsensical affair — brought to you by the makers of “The Da Vinci Code” series (Ron Howard and Brian Grazer) and the Joel Schumacher-helmed, reviled mid ‘90s Batman movies (Akiva Goldsman) — archetypes of good and evil are stupefyingly basic. Perhaps there is some depth to the artless story in the King novels, but in the utterly shallow and empty movie adaptation, the narrative sounds like it was drawn by a grade schooler.
At a scant 95 minutes, “The Dark Tower” is at least mercifully brief, but the choppy editing suggests an entire mid-section excised from the film in order to make the incoherent effort appear intelligible. For all its fantastical elements, no alchemy exists inside the dumpy walls of “The Dark Tower,” not between its actors, its characters and especially not in any of the unremarkable VFX or the standard-issue, wannabe kinetic action.
I didn’t want a straight adaptation of The Dark Tower, especially considering the end of the book series and the license that gives to anybody smart enough to start the movie version off with Roland in possession of the Horn of Eld. But I did want something that even remotely felt like that books I loved so much. And that’s not something I got.
What I got was a monotone, dull and unengaging jumble of a narrative that felt like they took all 7 books, set the shuffle setting and then hit fast-forward.
There is no gravitas to Mid-World or our central character, The Gunslinger. This man should be mythic. He should be unpredictable, dangerous. In this movie he’s just kinda there. That puts us in a weird position because Elba’s a good Roland in a movie that doesn’t allow him to actually embody the character in any meaningful way. He’s undercut at every turn.
Though far from the muddled train wreck we’ve been led to expect, this Tower lacks the world-constructing gravitas of either the Tolkien books that inspired King or the franchise-launching movies that Sony execs surely have in mind. Though satisfying enough to please many casual moviegoers drawn in by King’s name and stars Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, it will likely disappoint many serious fans and leave other newbies underwhelmed.
Heaven knows, the books offer more invention than could fit in one feature film — reading just the first two paragraphs of Wikipedia’s entry on Jake Chambers excited me more than anything Dark Tower contains — but in their effort to introduce newcomers to this world, the filmmakers make the saga’s contents look not archetypal but generic and cobbled together.
As The Gunslinger, a man who takes himself very seriously, Elba is stuck with choppy action sequences that also seem like they were badly cut and pasted together, and when the character reaches Manhattan he has to carry some very clichéd “fish out of water” scenes. The very brief bits we see of Dennis Haysbert, who plays the father of The Gunslinger, suggest that Haysbert probably had a more substantial part originally.
“The Dark Tower” is mainly noteworthy for McConaughey’s enjoyably bad performance as a force of evil who can set things on fire with his hands, order people to stop breathing, and grab bullets as they fly through the air. As McConaughey swans through scene after ridiculous scene, it’s almost as if he is deliberately aiming for a Razzie Award to go with his Oscar. Imagine RuPaul playing Clint Eastwood and you will get an idea of the mixed messages of his work here, which suggests both fatigue and a brand of steely camp that is entirely his own.
“The Dark Tower” has been plagued by tales of last-minute re-editing and multiple cooks in the kitchen, but the movie that’s come out of all this is no shambles. It aims low and hits (sort of). It’s a competent and watchable paranoid metaphysical video game that doesn’t overstay its welcome, includes some luridly entertaining visual effects, and — it has to be said — summons an emotional impact of close to zero. Which in a film like this one isn’t necessarily a disadvantage.
With any luck, “The Dark Tower” could be a solid box-office performer (at least, for a weekend), yet the picture’s no-frills design raises an interesting question: Would it be a more commercial movie if it were an ambitious, two-hours-plus sprawl that tried to stay digressively true to the layered weight of King’s novels? My instinct says that no, that movie would have been a slog. “The Dark Tower” works as a film because it’s not trying to be a multiverse — and because, in its forgettable derivative ballistic way, it packs in just enough of the King vision to remind you that everything old can be new again, especially if it wasn’t all that novel the first time.
That, in fact, is the biggest challenge in adapting something as expansive and genre-bending as The Dark Tower: how do you make it stand out from all the other sci-fi and fantasy franchises that indirectly owe their existence to it? In this area, the movie has a difficult time setting itself apart; despite all the Stephen King easter eggs, at times it feels more like somebody took the Western-futuristic aesthetic of Firefly, blended it together with the sorcery and demons of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and slapped some Stargates in for good measure. (It also didn’t help that Fran Kranz is all but reprising his role from Dollhouse as the villain’s glorified tech guy, which might have put Joss Whedon’s work in my head early on.)
This isn’t to say the movie isn’t enjoyable to watch, because it is — Idris Elba and Tom Taylor have a wonderful dynamic together, and the gunslinging action scenes are appropriately cool. But it all feels strangely… conventional, somehow. Considering that the series is so beloved precisely for its indescribably epic qualities, that might be a kiss of death for some fans. But for those who are content to hear Roland evoke the Gunslinger’s creed on screen for the first time, or those who’ve always been just a little too intimidated by the series to dig into it (guilty as charged), the movie makes for an extremely accessible jumping-on point. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself feeling more compelled by the books when you inevitably read them afterwards.
The Dark Tower isn’t really a movie for people who’ve never read Stephen King’s Dark Tower books. It hardly bothers to serve up any exposition, so newbies are thrown right into the deep end of its convoluted mythology.
But it’s probably not for people who have read the books, either. The movie version is disappointingly lacking in the magic of King’s novels. (The metaphorical, literary kind of magic, I mean – there’s still plenty of magic in the plot, which the characters talk about constantly.)
But The Dark Tower doesn’t really do a good job of explaining any of the mythology we’re looking at here, either. Why is this character so special, or that character so driven to do something so difficult? Does that character have superpowers, and if so, why do they only seem to remember they have those powers when it’s convenient for the narrative? What actually happens if the Dark Tower falls?
The effect is akin to listening to someone describe a dream they had last night – it’s full of sloppy and-then-this-happeneds and oh-right-did-I-forget-to-mentions. It’s just as difficult to follow, and almost as boring.
Now’s a good time to remind die-hard fans of The Dark Tower books that this film isn’t a one-for-one adaptation of The Gunslinger. Rather it’s a loose interpretation of the story, due to a twist at the end of the literary series that started it all. So already The Dark Tower has a point in its column, as it’s a film that not only tries to play to the older fans of the franchise, but also tries to bring in a new group of fans that might stick around for future installments. As a member of the latter, I can safely say that I was impressed enough that I’m ready to take the full journey, and see more of what co-writer / director Nikolaj Arcel has in store for the rest of his Dark Towervision.
There’s a fair amount of pre-conceived buzz going around pertaining to The Dark Tower, due to the supposedly troubled production cycle and significant history of stalled attempts in the project’s past, and it’s kind of unfair. While The Dark Towermay leave a little more to be desired, it’s a pretty strong start to a promising series. Most importantly, it’s a visual spectacle of action and fantasy that leaves the audience wanting more, while delivering one of the last thrills in store for this summer’s box office season. I want more Dark Tower films, if only so we can see Roland and the Man in Black fulfill this last hand destiny has dealt them; and now, I need to read the books to see where they started their game of death. To paraphrase the Man in Black himself, we deserve at least one more time around the wheel with these old friends.
The Dark Tower releases in cinemas locally on 8 September.
Last Updated: August 4, 2017