Film Review: Watching The Dark Tower Feels Like Looking at a Mutilated Friend
The best way to phrase my reaction to the long-awaited/delayed adaptation of Stephen King’s multi-novel “The Dark Tower” series is to put it into words fans of the books will understand: “The makers of The Dark Tower movie have forgotten the face of their fathers.” I’m not going to break down the film in a way that compares the books to the movie. I’ve read all the books more than once, so I certainly could. I’m also a firm believer that a movie must stand on its own as an artistic success or failure. Plus, according to some, this particular film is meant to act as a “sequel”, which I wholeheartedly call bullshit on, as it seems like a weak excuse to change so much from the books, in an effort to cram as much story in as possible in the shortest amount of time.
However, I will say to Danish director Nikolaj Arcel (who directed A Royal Affair, and adapted the original The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo film) and his army of four writers (Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, and the great Danish writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen plus Arcel), if this was going to be your agreed-upon approach to this material, why bother? The actual Dark Tower may or may not be left standing at film’s end, but the most interesting core elements of the novel have been stripped away, leaving a generic husk of a story structure that will leave those unfamiliar with the books confused and/or bored, with hardcore fans settling in on the homicidal side of enraged.
Although “The Dark Tower” books became a fun way station for long-time King fans to find many bits and pieces from the author’s vast, interconnected universe, the way Arcel and company represent that are cheap and trite visual references to a half-dozen or more King properties that never amount to any actual acknowledgement of why these images evoking Christine or Cujo or It are important. Only a couple of times do the writers even begin to capture the spirit of a shared universe. One of the lead characters, a young boy named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), is said to possess a “Shine” (not unlike the little boy in The Shining), a simplified word for psychic and/or telepathic abilities. Also, near the beginning of the film, there’s a definite sighting of a Low Man in a yellow coat—a reference to a short story featured in King’s collection Hearts in Atlantis.
The relatively small-minded “bigger picture” involves New York City dweller Jake having nightmares of a man in black attacking a connective tissue of the universe known as the Dark Tower, and it appears this man (named Walter and played by Matthew McConaughey) is kidnapping kids from various realities who can “shine” like Jake, using their powers to destroy the tower bit by bit. But Jake also sees the only chance of salvation and saving the universe in the guise of Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last of a fighting force known as Gunslingers, sworn to protect the tower, which holds existence itself together.
The film’s first of many grave mistakes is switching the focus of the story to Jake, away from Roland. This is and always will be Roland’s journey; Jake is a massive part of it, but I didn’t really care about the cliche-ridden side story that Jake’s father is dead, his mom remarried, and, shock of shocks, his stepdad is an awful prick. But he’s got nothing on Walter, who glides into every situation as if he already knows the outcome. And when you’re a guy who can simply whisper “Stop breathing” to a man until he dies, you pretty much do. As much as on paper McConaughey seems like the right physical type to play Walter O’Dim (a villain in several King stories, usually under different names), onscreen he’s cocky and full of swagger, waving his arms around in grand gestures without really bringing a necessary deep sense of dread. There are worse things you could do to a person than kill them, but Walter doesn’t seem to understand that.
Elba fares a bit better as Roland, holding a great deal back and actually bothering to instill a bit of depth and mystery to the character. The most substantial issue with the handling of Roland in The Dark Tower is that he’s been pushed to the side in favor of making Jake the centerpiece of this movie, perhaps in the same spirit that made the filmmakers go for a PG-13 rating—you put a child at the center of an adventure story and your chances of getting a family-friendly rating increase.
There was a time years ago when The Dark Tower was going to be a (perhaps overly ambitious) multi-part series of films and television miniseries (this may still happen), and such an approach gave me great hope that the creative forces behind the franchise were heading in the right direction, even if I knew there was no chance of it being executed as such. Even still, I thought perhaps this current version of the story was only the beginning of a series exploring the long journey of Roland and his band of outcasts, in search of the tower while protecting it from those who would destroy it. If there are more movies to come (even in theory), there is no sign of it in this telling. The movie ends abruptly, with little fanfare, as if the powers that be wanted to leave this little experiment in universe building behind and move on to whatever is next.
The film uses the language and technology of the books sparingly, and on those rare occasions when it does, it treats the moments as if it’s peeking its head out of a gopher hole as if to say, “See? Look what we’re doing. We skimmed the books…sort of.” There’s some portal jumping, as the characters go from New York to Roland’s version of existence, where the Gunslingers are no more, and he has effectively left the battle against the forces of evil because he’s only one man and surely he alone can’t defeat Walter and his brood of child-stealing, end-of-days worshipers, which includes actors like Jackie Earle Haley, Abbey Lee and Fran Kranz as lieutenants who both fear and respect the Man in Black (but mostly fear him).
As many of you have probably heard, the most shocking thing about The Dark Tower is its blink-and-you’ll-miss it running time of 95 minutes (that’s with credits, folks). The end-of-the-known-universe drama has barely glimpsed itself; we never really understand why Walter would rather destroy all things rather than dominate and rule everything. I get that he might just be a burn-it-all type of fella, but Walter is a sketch of a villain, and while he certainly is capable of killing a great many people, somehow he never made me worry that he might. He seems to get more of a kick of walking past a little girl and whispering “Hate” to her as a command than he ever would commanding the known universe.
And I’m sad to report that McConaughey is not alright, alright, alright in this role. He’s too likable, and no amount of black hair dye is going to change that. The greatest crime about the running time is it doesn’t give us enough space to understand the ancient battle Walter and Roland have been waging for who knows how long, and that’s a key point of the book in their entirety.
I find it impossible to fathom that the makers or distributors of The Dark Tower thought that fans of these books would be okay with this adaptation. Granted, when doing an adaptation of anything, you must always attempt to appeal to an audience beyond the core fans of the source material, but you have to throw us a fucking bone, for christ’s sake. As soon as the film generates anything resembling a head of steam or begins to resemble something readers might recognize, it simply ends—not with a bang but with a CGI-encrusted fizzle.
To simply say that The Dark Tower is a bad movie doesn’t cover it, because somewhere, almost hidden away, is a better work. This feels like the distillation of bigger and better ideas, something overthought by too many writers and others granted input, drained of its vitality until all that is left are moving parts, rather than something actually propelled by passion and understanding of the greater work. It’s like looking at a mutilated friend, someone who still looks familiar, but you both know will never be the same.
I actually felt sorry for those whose names are still on this mess. It actually makes me glad that the industry window between an older film and its inevitable reboot seems to be shrinking. Maybe an ambitious television showrunner will tackle this in a multi-season project that will restore Roland, his world and his impressive, expansive mythology to their proper glory. Now, let’s just hope It is a much better piece.