This weekend Stephen King fans will head to the theatre with baited breath to see whether Sony has successfully adapted the horror writer’s grand opus The Dark Tower for the big screen. While I can’t speak for fans of the eight book series, after seeing the film I can confidently wonder on behalf of all non Towerheads…what’s the big deal? Nickolaj Arcel’s new film looks and sounds like a mid-2000s superhero origin story, and is half as interesting. If this is supposed to be the kick off for an epic film and television franchise, someone clearly didn’t get the memo. The Dark Tower is a dull, non-sensical mess, that seems to believe it’s far more interesting than it actually is.
It’s hard to imagine that this film spent ten years in development hell before reaching the big screen. Not because the final product doesn’t reek of endless test screenings and studio meddling (because it does), but because it’s so darn…slight. For a movie that purports to take on an eight book series that leaps between worlds and features an epic central clash between good and evil, this 95 minute action film feels like it was thought up over a weekend and slapped together the following week. I expected a sprawling but ambitious mess a la Zach Snyder, not a ho hum sci-fi yarn that feels like a glorified Star Trek episode.
The story follows Jake Chambers, a young boy living in New York with his mom and her grouchy boyfriend. Jake suffers from vivid nightmares that feature Matthew McConaghey using the power of children’s minds to shoot a laser beam at a huge black tower. Jake draws what he sees in these dreams despite the fact that his drawings make him a target for school bullies. These drawings are very well done, but they’re also kind of spooky, so his mother decides to send him to a mental hospital instead of, I dunno, art school. But before he’s shipped off to the loony bin which is clearly run by human skin wearing monsters, Jake stumbles upon a portal to another world, landing at the feet of a gunslinger named Roland (Idris Elba). The boy quickly endears himself to Roland by showing him the drawings of The Man In Black (McConaghey), with whom Roland has a bone to pick. So off they head across the desert and our adventure begins.
I say “begins” but that opening set up is about a third of the film’s 95 minute run time. It’s also the most coherent the film gets. As Jake and Roland journey across Mid-World (that’s what this place is called), their progress is monitored by The Man In Black from his evil lair that looks like a gothic NASA headquarters. McConaghey’s villain barks orders at frightened lackeys, telling those that displease him to “stop breathing” and watching them slump to the floor. McConaghey is having fun in the role of the evil sorcerer, but isn’t given much material to work with. Though he appears in a brief flashback explaining his conflict with Roland, we know next to nothing about him. If he’s meant to simply embody death or evil or something as I suspect, he’s never given a truly scary moment to make this clear. Instead he comes off as just another one-dimensional superhero bad guy with a giant world-destroying beam and no interesting motivations.
The same can be said for Idris Elba who’s considerable talents are almost squandered as much as McConaghey’s. The last of the legendary “gunslingers” who owe their lineage to King Arthur, Roland acts more as a reluctant exposition machine than any sort of bad ass hero, explaining the importance of the Dark Tower (kind of) and vaguely describing each new place he and Jake stumble upon. Though he’s clearly influenced by western characters like The Man With No Name, Elba isn’t given any scenes to build the necessary allure. Instead the film rushes him and Jake along, trusting that we’ll be suitably impressed by other characters on-screen looking at Roland in awe. When he does get to sling his guns, the film can’t muster much tension or thrills. A scene in which he and Jake are ambushed in a village by lost extras from Lord of the Rings has all the makings of an edge-of-your-seat escape, but is cut together in a way that completely drains it of any excitement. Even the film’s climactic battle suffers from incoherent action and surprisingly low-budget effects.
While The Dark Tower was never going to live up to a decade of anticipation, the fact that it arrives on screens with such a whimper is a major disappointment. Fans of Stephen King may be able to glean more enjoyment from the film than I was, as it seems to be chock full of Easter eggs from his other works, but if you have to rely on inside references in order to get enjoyment out of a movie there’s something wrong. The Dark Tower doesn’t just fail on the level of adaptation, it fails on the level of basic plot and character development. King fans are advised to save their money for the It adaptation this September, the trailer for which is already more entertaining than the entire Dark Tower movie.
Reviewed by Evan Arppe.