Directed by: Nikolaj Arcel
Written by: Nikolaj Arcel, Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, and Anders Thomas Jensen
The Dark Tower is a disappointment.
Usually I’d start with a synopsis of the plot, but the plot of this movie is so barebones that it hardly matters, and I think a bit of a disclaimer is important here. The Dark Tower is based off of the Stephen King novels of the same name, which I’ve been a fan of for years, and in fact, I’ve been waiting for this adaptation of the series for years. To me, it’s a massive disappointment. Perhaps, for people who have not read the books, it will simply be a shallow, but serviceable action film, but for a fan of the books, it is a massive disappointment, and that’s bound to affect how I see the movie as a whole.
While King’s magnum opus series of novels are a postmodernist sci-fi fantasy western adventure across the post-apocalyptic landscape of Mid-World and our own world of Keystone Earth, as Roland Deschain, the last gunslinger, journeys to the Dark Tower, the linchpin of all reality, before it can be destroyed by the Man in Black; this film directed by Nikolaj Arcel and written by Nikolaj Arcel, Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, and Anders Thomas Jensen boils all of that down into a generic story of good vs. evil.
Roland Deschain, played by Idris Elba, is sworn to protect the tower, while the Man in Black, played by Matthew McConaughey, is sworn to destroy it. The fate of the universe hangs in the balance, and a boy with psychic powers, Jake Chambers(Tom Taylor), is the one person who can shift the balance of power.
This is disappointing for a fans of the books, of course, but for someone unfamiliar with them, it still means you’re getting a movie with very little depth. World-building seems to consist entirely of vague one-line references to the books, frustrating fans and confusing newcomers. Yes, the Taheen exist, but a fan will be frustrated they aren’t given more depth and a newcomer will have no idea what the Taheen are. Same for the Breakers, multiple instances of “19”, portals, the beams, the history of Mid-World, several instances of Roland’s reactions to things on Earth(“Do animals still speak on your world?”), demons, etc. The mythology and world of The Dark Tower are thinly sketched in a way almost guaranteed to satisfy no one.
It’s not all bad, however. While the plot and world of The Dark Tower fail to make the jump from page to screen, the characters fair a little better, and that’s mainly thanks to the strength of the acting. Idris Elba steals the show as the gunslinger, appearing on screen with a presence and quiet charisma that shines in scenes on Mid-World where he appears as a figure of legend and myth, and manages to elevate him above a run of the mill action hero once the story return to Earth. There’s a sense of weariness and emotional weight to Roland, and while he does begin to fall apart as a character near the end, the adaptation of the character is near perfect.
The same can’t be said of McConaughey’s Man in Black, but it’s not as bad as it could’ve been. My biggest concern leading up to this movie was that the Man in Black would be a boring, generic villain, and while he is generic, McConaughey’s performance keeps him from being boring. The Man in Black manages to be threatening and slightly humorous, and there’s a real sense that he wields tremendous power. Unfortunately, his motivations are never explained and he has, outside of how it’s presented in the opening sequence, possibly the most generic villain headquarters and henchmen imaginable. There are also some fairly ridiculous limitations of how his powers work that McConaughey can’t quite sell. I’m sorry but you can’t expect me to just be fine with the Man in Black saying “I see my magicks still don’t work on you” to Roland and have that be the only explanation as to why Roland is immune to his powers. This may be the most incompetently written thing in the whole movie and I don’t understand how anyone thought it was okay.
Aside from the two leads, Tom Taylor is okay as Jake. He struggles to be completely natural in a couple of scenes, but for the most part he does a good job and doesn’t seem out of place in scenes with Elba and McConaughey. I suspect most of the issues with Jake as a character come from the writing; the rushed exposition of Jake’s emotional issues in the beginning of the film, Jake’s reaction to his powers, his reaction to Mid-World, etc. Taylor does his best with some very clunky dialogue that seems geared to have Jake act more as an audience POV than as a character in his own right.
The one element new to film is the action. The novels had plenty of action scenes as well, but tended to punctuate them with emotional stakes more so than with clever choreographing. The film leans heavily on the latter, and manages it for the most part. However, if you’ve seen any of the trailers, then you’ve seen most of the tricks the movie has to offer. Quick reloads, ricocheting bullets, making impossible shots. The movie more or less repeats these same tricks over and over with a few exceptions, but fortunately, the movie is short enough that it doesn’t wear out its welcome.
All of that is fairly shaky stuff. A bad adaptation of the plot and world of the books, but held together by a solid cast and some good action. Unfortunately, it all collapses with an incredibly rushed ending that ends up being comically bad, and the suggestion that a franchise will be built on this foundation is equally laughable. If you’re a fan of the books, then this is not the adaptation you’ve been waiting for, and if you’re a newcomer interested in the series, then I’d encourage you to read the books instead. This isn’t a terrible movie, but it’s a disappointing one, and one that struggles to justify its own existence as the start of a new series.