By Jack Dignan
It's been a long road to bring Stephen King's epic bestselling book series, The Dark Tower, to the big screen. The project was announced all the way back in 2007, with J.J. Abrams set to direct. But things fell through. His vision never saw the light of day. It was passed on. But the possibility of a Dark Tower movie remained, and over the next eight years the film saw both creative changes and studio changes, transitioning from person to person all before settling down at Sony Pictures in 2015. The film, after a decade of waiting, was finally being made. It's really quite a shame to see it fall so flat on arrival.
I'd consider myself a Stephen King fan. He's written a countless number of my favourite books and short stories, many of which have been adapted to varying degrees of quality, but between all his scares, freights and nightmares, one book series of his I've never gotten around to was that of The Dark Tower. It's always been on my list. I've been curious about it for many years now. But it was never meant to be. I didn't go into this film with any sort of predetermined expectations, because the source material doesn't really mean much to me, but I tried to have hope. The books have so much love and admiration that failing to adapt it seems practically impossible, yet this is a story that makes the impossible possible.
For centuries, war has raged. The world we know is one of many, co-existing alongside endless parallel dimensions, and within it lays a Dark Tower. It's a source of protection from sinister evils waiting on the galaxy's outskirts. Protecting the tower are the Gunslingers. Or at least they used to. All of them are dead now. All of them except for a man named Roland (Idris Elba), who's attempting to leave that world, and the subsequent evils, behind. That's when he meets a young boy named Jake (Tom Taylor), who’s been plagued with nightmarish visions, baring witness to Roland's long forgotten past. Desperate for help, Jake convinced Roland to pick up his Gunslinger mantle, for an evil threat known as the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) is on the rise.
While many fans have been patiently waiting for a loyal adaptation of the beloved book series, The Dark Tower movie takes a different route. It continues the story beyond the page and brings a new conclusion to these character's arcs. It's a subversion of expectations, allowing for a brand new story to engross book readers and an easy jumping on point for new viewers. Or at least that's what it should've been. If you haven't read the books, don't even bother showing up. The saying "made for the fans" is an overused excuse for Hollywood celebrities to try and convince audiences that their poorly reviewed movie is still worth buying a ticket to. With The Dark Tower, it's true. This was well and truly made solely for the fans.
It's like watching a not-so-epic version of the third Lord of the Rings without the first two films ever existing. Certain elements are easy to latch onto, and it's not difficult to pick up where these characters are, but there's so much more beneath the surface that really should be seen first. Several sequences are left unexplained, and nearly every important piece of information makes absolutely no sense. Didn't read all eight books? Sucks to be you. Film adaptations, or any adaptation, shouldn't have to rely on knowledge from the source material to work. They need to work in their own right, but The Dark Tower doesn't. One of the film's biggest action sequences plays absolutely no relevance to anything. Or maybe it does. I'm not sure. I'm going to need to read the books to find out…
You're thrown right into the story with little context as to why, but this intrigue does work for a small period of time. We begin by following the Earth-bound adventures of Jake, and his strange visions create a painting of the bigger picture. Once the film makes its transition to the fantasy realm, it takes a serious halt. We're introduced to Idris Elba's Roland, but we just don't care. He's a nobody with unclear motives and a muddled past. Elba is perfect for the role, always oozing with cool and charisma, but you don't know enough about him to connect. Everyone he encounters describes him as a master with a gun, but you never witness him at his full potential. We first meet him at a low point in his life, but without having any prior knowledge of the character, he’s just a moody guy.
This is perhaps due to a restricted 95-minute runtime, but then again, they were able to develop McConaughey with ease. You don't necessarily understand his motives, or really the distinctions behind his powers, but he's an interesting enough villain to work. He does evil things and delivers evil lines. He's a sleek, well-dressed, supernatural villain who's able to kill with the mere slip of a tongue. McConaughey carries this entire film on his shoulders, serving as the only interesting character in a film so poorly written. However credit is due to Tom Taylor's Jake. His emotional range is certainly restricted, and a scene where he fights back against a bully is hilariously awful, but Taylor breaks away from the child actor stereotype and is able to hold his own when acting against such high caliber actors.
A lot of The Dark Tower is genuinely interesting. It's scattered with great concepts and little moments, particularly during the bonding scenes between Jake and Roland, but nothing flows. An hour into the movie and we still hadn't finished the set up. The cast is great, but the film they're in feels like a massive missed opportunity. From what I hear, the source material is rich in mythology. There's plenty they could've drawn from, but failed to do. I guess we'll have to wait for the TV show next year to see if King's novels can finally get the big screen justice they deserve.
2 1/2 Stars
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