The Dark Tower is a mixed bag of abridged mythology from King’s book series, fun performances from Elba and McConaughey, and uninspired action.
The Dark Tower introduces Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a troubled 11-year-old who dreams of a villainous Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), a heroic Gunslinger (Idris Elba) and a tower that protects his world from darkness and fire. However, in his waking life Jake spends most of his time drawing pictures of what he’s seen in his dreams, gets into trouble at school, and is the main issue about which his mother Laurie (Katheryn Winnick) and stepfather argue. With Laurie worried over Jake, she decides to send him to a clinic upstate, but everything changes when Jake discovers that what he sees in his dreams is real.
Jumping through a portal to Mid-World, Jake finds himself in the middle of the feud between Roland Deschain/the Gunslinger and Walter/the Man in Black, which began when Walter killed all the Gunslingers – including Roland’s father, Steven (Dennis Haysbert). With the Man in Black getting closer and closer to unlocking a surefire way to destroy the Dark Tower and let in the demons that reside outside the universe, Roland and Jake must figure out a way to save not just their own worlds, but all the worlds in the universe. However, since Roland is more focused on getting revenge on Walter, the task proves even more difficult.
Adapted from Stephen King’s The Dark Tower book series, the Sony Pictures film has had a long, somewhat troubled road to the theater. Both J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard were each attached to direct the adaptation at certain points since the film was put into development a decade ago. Then once The Dark Tower movie began moving forward in 2015, the film’s release date saw a number of changes, shifting from February of this year to summer, before eventually landing on its early August opening. Additionally, the first trailer for The Dark Tower didn’t arrive until this spring – an unusual occurrence in our current age of blockbuster tentpoles – after its own set of delays. All told, the buzz surrounding the film wasn’t great, and that was before reports surfaced of trouble behind the scenes. The Dark Tower is a mixed bag of abridged mythology from King’s book series, fun performances from Elba and McConaughey, and uninspired action.
Director Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower is given the unenviable task of condensing the sprawling mythology established in King’s book series of the same name – which includes nine novels published between 1982 and 2012 – down to a two hour movie. Or, in this case, a one hour and 35 minute movie. While the short runtime makes certain The Dark Tower doesn’t linger too long on exposition, instead largely revealing bits of information through flashback or short expository exchanges, it also prevents the movie from digging deep into the world’s mythology and the characters’ histories. And with four credited screenwriters – including Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Arcel – it’s easy to see how the The Dark Tower winds up feeling like a compromise in which everyone feels like they’ve lost.
For fans of King’s genre-bending literary world, The Dark Tower condenses major world-building aspects into one or two sentence explanations, with only brief allusions to the war between the Gunslingers and the Man in Black as well as the history of the Gunslingers and Roland’s family as a whole. The film’s own plot is set after the events of the book series entirely, so it isn’t a strict adaptation of King’s work. But since the screenwriters were tasked with making King’s complex world manageable for casual moviegoers who haven’t read the novels or aren’t familiar with the story, viewers are only given the bare minimum of information. While this means The Dark Tower doesn’t overwhelm with its mythology, it also prevents the film from diving into the expansiveness of the world created by King – which was inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings epic.
But then, The Dark Tower not allowing for much depth is the film’s biggest issue across the board. Although Elba and McConaughey offer entertaining performances, their characters are largely two-dimensional. Elba’s Roland is the archetypal tortured Western hero wrestling with choosing between doing what’s right and seeking vengeance, while McConaughey’s Man in Black is an all-powerful evil sorcerer, but one whose evilness borders on humorous and leeringly creepy rather than truly chilling. Much of the The Dark Tower’s charm – and there is charm to be found – lies in Taylor’s Jake (and, perhaps surprisingly, in Michael Barbieri’s supporting turn as Jake’s friend Timmy), particularly in Jake’s dynamic with Elba’s Gunslinger. The pair are a familiar mismatched companion duo, which provides for some of the film’s best comedic beats, who – however briefly – find real common ground in the deaths of their fathers.
As for the film’s action, The Dark Tower doesn’t seem to know how to effectively depict Roland’s Gunslinger skills in a way that’s both original and doesn’t completely slow down the pacing of a sequence. While there is one particular instance in which Roland’s money shot pays off, the shootout scenes are reminiscent of Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted, but with notably less style. And, at one point, The Dark Tower takes a baffling detour into CGI-heavy action that looks even less stylish and would seem more appropriate in a made-for-TV adaptation of King’s work. Even still more perplexing, Arcel is able to offer a few neat visuals in The Dark Tower that will stand out to viewers – though, unfortunately, not nearly enough.
All in all, The Dark Tower isn’t the movie that fans of King’s novels have been waiting decades to see on the big screen. With a new story, condensed mythology, underdeveloped characters, and a fairly simplistic Hero’s Journey arc – save the Tower, save the world – The Dark Tower doesn’t actively improve upon the source material and fans of King’s universe will likely find it lacking. On its own, The Dark Tower is a decent action-fantasy adventure that makes for an enjoyable experience for casual moviegoers. However, the film never quite lives up to expectations set by its source material and long development process, failing to capture the magic of King’s novels despite the efforts of Arcel and the film’s screenwriters.
The Dark Tower is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It runs 95 minutes and is rated PG-13 for thematic material including sequences of gun violence and action.
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