The biggest problem with The Dark Tower movie is that when it ends, you don’t feel the need to see more. Unlike the epic books that inspired it, the movie is streamlined to be one complete story. Hypothetically, this should be a good thing. But with The Dark Tower, that process removes any gravitas needed to make us care about what’s happening. The end results are a ho-hum 90-minute fantasy, peppered with action and mythology, but more forgettable than just plain bad.
Based on various parts of Stephen King’s seven-novel series, The Dark Tower is directed by Nikolaj Arcel from a screenplay by Arcel and three additional writers. It borrows the same basic idea from the King novels: an ancient warrior named Roland (Idris Elba) is on the trail of a Man in Black named Walter (Matthew McConaughey) who must be stopped in order to save a tower that protects the universe. Unlike the books, the ancient warrior—referred to as a Gunslinger—is not the main character. The film gives that distinction to Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a young New York boy with strong psychic abilities. Jake has visions of the Gunslinger, the Man in Black, the Dark Tower, and more, so of course everyone thinks he’s crazy. He knows he’s not, however, and eventually finds himself in Mid-World, where all his dreams and nightmares reside.
On paper, using Jake as the audience’s surrogate to the story sounds like a smart move. Unlike Roland or Walter, he’s human and from our Earth, so he’s relatable to anyone watching. And as he learns about this weird alternate world, the audience is learning, too. The problem is, with Jake as the center of the movie, the movie ceases to be a film about a struggle between good and evil or the tower of the title. It’s about a boy going a mysterious new place. He’s Charlie in his chocolate factory, a Goonie on an adventure, Luke Skywalker venturing into the universe. Jake’s journey of discovery is all too familiar, and incredibly drab compared to the eternal battle between Roland and the Man in Black which should be the center of the story.
The focus on Jake pushes all the interesting and unique parts of The Dark Tower series to the side (What is this alternate world? Who are these ancient characters? How does it all work?), things King’s books explore in detail and make them so revered. The film answers some of these questions but never really dives too deep. As a result, there’s a fundamental lack of understanding of why this movie is even happening. We never truly learn what makes a Gunslinger so important. We never quite get what the Man in Black’s motivations are. You never really feel like anything bad is going to happen because if they did, the movie would have to do something unique, which it very rarely does.
Oddly enough, there are times when the film seems to realize the error of its ways. For example, watching the movie I wondered why Stephen King’s iconic first line of the series (“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed”) hadn’t been used in the movie. Just then, Jake dreams it in voiceover. Later I wondered if Roland was ever going to take Jake under his wing in a more meaningful way and, a few scenes later, he did.
Obviously, those examples came up because I’ve read the books, but the striking thing was how arbitrary they felt, like they’re in the movie just because they were on a checklist somewhere. This is odd, because so much of the movie is completely different from anything in the books. The adaptation feels as if the writers took all the elements from seven books, threw them into a hat, picked a bunch out, and strung them together. It’s not something a person who hasn’t read the books would even notice, especially since the story’s logic and motivation work on a very basic level. But this remix fundamentally changes the heart of The Dark Tower narrative. It makes Roland seem weaker and less motivated. The Man in Black is more aggressive and active. The tower itself is tangential, and all of that works against the film’s overall impact. It’s something not everyone would notice, but it’s there nonetheless.
Honestly, though, the movie isn’t all bad. The best scenes in the movie are when Roland and Jake go back to New York. Elba and Taylor have some chemistry, plus the change of scenery with a dash of humor helps give the movie a pulse, which is lacking from the first third of the film. (However, that’s also in large part because Roland’s world, Mid-World, is so potentially complex, the film doesn’t try hard enough to help explain it.) But while the New York scenes are more engaging, they feel like a disservice to the larger story because much of the movie is so mundane. Plus, in those scenes, it’s hard not to conjure up memories of other movies along the way (Last Action Hero, Crocodile Dundee, etc).
Putting the story and characters aside, The Dark Tower doesn’t do itself a favor from a technical standpoint either. While the performances are all quite good, the look of the movie never does them justice. It’s a flat, gray film that provides only one or two visually impressive scenes. Many of the effects look cheap or unfinished. There’s very bad and obvious ADR sprinkled throughout. While the movie certainly had a music score, it’s not at all memorable.
But all of that could have been forgiven if the story worked. Here we have Jake’s story for a good 20 minutes, he meets up with the Gunslinger, the Man in Black watches them both, and everything moves along very quickly. Too quickly. Nothing in the film feels significant for anyone, because it’s overly occupied with getting to the next thing. The next set piece, the next story beat, and, eventually, an ending that’s extremely tidy and extremely speedy considering this is an adaptation of a seven book series. One saving grace of the ending is that the last 15 minutes actually has some cool action and a few attempts at emotional impact, but it’s too little, too late.
The Dark Tower should feel like The Fellowship of the Ring. A movie where you’ve become so engaged in the story that you’re surprised when the end of the movie suddenly cuts it off, and you immediately want to return to Middle-Earth and follow more of the main characters’ adventures. The Dark Tower doesn’t feel like that at all. It takes King’s massive, mind-bending ideas and whittles them down into a small pill. (The movie runs about 90 minutes.) It’s easy enough to swallow, but it has no effect on you, for good or ill.
If this were something other than an adaptation of Stephen King’s most staggering work, maybe The Dark Tower would be more forgivable. Remove its cultural cache and fandom and all the other material you know exists, and this is a passable Hollywood fantasy action film totally worth your $15. But that’s not what this is. It’s Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, for crying out loud. And thus it’s a massive letdown for fans and non-fans alike.
The Dark Tower opens August 4.