Adapting The Dark Tower to the big screen was never going to be an easy process. Stephen King’s eight-book magnum opus (which is how he described it) was a surreal, bizarre mash-up of horror, science fiction, dark fantasy and Western, with moments of existential weirdness (like when King made himself a character in the later books) unlike anything else in his vast bibliography. The series is compelling, confounding and captivating, but this movie based on bits and pieces from the books is only the middle of those three. More than a decade in development, The Dark Tower is a disaster, a muddled, tedious shadow of what made the King saga great and an insult to the books themselves.
Director Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair), inheriting the job after J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard both left, has said that this The Dark Tower is not so much a straight adaptation of the books but rather a sort of sequel: since the books end with Roland the gunslinger essentially starting the story over, the movie was meant in a way to be that new journey, similar to what came before but also open to variation (kind of like the recent Star Trek movies set in an alternate timeline). But the stripped-down (88 minutes without credits) movie that has emerged is devoid whatsoever of any personality or flavor. For casual viewers, it will play as a serviceable if generic fantasy adventure cobbled together from bits of Star Wars and any CG-heavy quest-type story that has unspooled in the past couple of decades.
But for readers of the books, this is a far more egregious and disappointing take. King’s epic focused on Roland, the last in a line of six-shooter-wielding knights known as gunslingers in the parallel universe called Mid-World. In the books, the Dark Tower — an existential linchpin that binds all the universes and realities in existence together — is slowly being destroyed by the onslaught of the evil entity known as the Crimson King and his loyal henchman, the sorcerer called Walter. With reality itself breaking apart at the seams and the world “running down,” Roland sets out to stop Walter and the King and prevent the Tower from falling, thus ending all the universes and returning existence to a primordial void.
The movie has not only loosely adapted the text — pulling elements from different novels — but altered the meaning of just about all of it. Roland’s quest is no longer preserving the Tower but seeking vengeance against Walter for killing his father in their last, vaguely described “war.” The Tower itself is no longer what binds reality together but instead “protects” us from an outer darkness full of monsters like a big stone security guard. And Walter merely wants to rule over a presumably post-apocalyptic multiverse and his followers (whose own inclination toward him is left unexplained) for reasons unclear, with no mention made of the Crimson King save some graffiti randomly sprayed on a couple of walls.
But the most critical mistake is changing the viewpoint of the story itself. Roland — played here by Idris Elba — is no longer the main character in his own story. Perhaps as a lazy way to attract younger audiences, the screenplay (by four credited writers, including the dreaded Akiva Goldsman) changes the focus to Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a young boy from our world (dubbed “Keystone Earth” here) who is plagued by visions of Roland and Walter a.k.a. the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey). With his mother and stepdad — of course, Jake is grieving for a lost father, just like every other young hero in movies these days — ready to pack him off to a mental hospital, Jake goes on his own search for the source of his dreams, acting in theory as our way into Roland’s weird world.
That structure is not only a clichéd one but it reduces Roland to the level of supporting character (we don’t meet him properly until fully a third of the way into the already brief picture). Unfortunately, newcomer Taylor is neither charismatic nor engaging enough, and his Jake not distinctive enough as a character, to carry the narrative weight on his shoulders. To make matters worse, this Jake has the psychic power known as “the shine” — the first and most prevalent of many increasingly distracting and annoying King nudges-and-winks throughout the movie — that makes him, yes, that well-worn stereotype of the “Chosen One.”
It also means he’s a prime candidate to become one of Walter’s Breakers, kidnapped psychic children whose minds are used to fire beams of destructive energy at the Tower from the sorcerer’s lair. The mix of technology and magic from King’s books is poorly handled here. Walter’s headquarters/lab looks like he bought it in a fire sale from a Bond supervillain, while his “magicks,” as he calls them, are more or less a B-level version of the dark side of the Force. A climactic, action-packed confrontation between Roland and Walter — which has no real counterpart in any of King’s novels — comes off as a badly shot and edited cross between Luke and Vader’s first duel in The Empire Strikes Back and the clash between the wizards in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
At least those had some emotional stakes. By the time Roland and Walter throw down here, the viewer has lost whatever interest he or she had in what’s happening. The mythology is never really brought into focus, the weight and shattered nobility of Roland’s quest is all but absent, and the characters are so paper-thin that it seems as if the filmmakers themselves stopped caring and just threw as much CG as possible at the thing. Evidence of reshoots and re-edits abound everywhere, from McConaughey clearly wearing a wig in some shots to make his hair match to a confusing scene where Jake fights a house demon only for it to apparently just give up and crumble away.
With Taylor unable to generate much interest, the burden falls on our two formidable stars to pull the viewer in. Elba, sadly, has the tougher job and, despite his considerable gravitas and always striking physical presence, is unable to make it work. He’s not given much of anything to do except be a stock action hero who can shoot and reload a gun really fast, and the actor sounds almost bored as he delivers the exposition necessary to make some sort of sense out of this. As for McConaughey, he chews the scenery as Walter and has a handful of eerie moments, but is too slick in the role, striding and/or teleporting between worlds as a generic bad guy with a one-liner always at the ready.
Truncated and jarringly edited, The Dark Tower both feels too long and too short. A product that was, by all accounts, meddled with and haplessly retooled by the studio and producers, and finally edited down to the bare minimum required for a semblance of coherency. It’s flat, uninvolving, and unremarkable on every level. Yes, there’s a baseline competence in the production itself — even with some wonky CG — and yes, Elba and McConaughey are always interesting actors to watch even under dire circumstances. But as mythology, as a franchise kick-off, and as a translation of one of the milestones of genre literature of the past 35 years, it fails completely.
By the time the movie ends on a far different note than any of the books both the unknowing viewer and the King diehard will realize that regardless of what happens on the screen, this version of the Tower never had a chance, and this movie is its wrecking ball.
The Dark Tower opens in theaters on Friday (August 4).
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