The Dark Tower, Stephen King’s magnum opus, has had a long road to finally reach the big screen. For nearly a decade-plus, Hollywood has been trying to crack the code that would make the fantasy meets western meets extremely dense mythological base the next big franchise to capture the hearts and minds of viewers. Long before Marvel was intertwining their cinematic efforts with adventures on television, Sony had planned to do something even more ambitious – setting up a series of films that would be bridged together by a television series filling in details for those die-hards that would seek it out. In a world where franchise movies have taken on the model of the long-form television series, and one time disparate action films now tie together within the shared universe model – it’s curious to see the final product here become the opposite of the original intention.
The fortunes of the film seemed bright when both Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey were cast in the central roles of Roland/The Gunslinger and Walter/The Man in Black, two tremendous character performers inhabiting roles that have been toiling in the back of fans heads for years. But from there, the film they are tasked to is a strange brew of streamlining – minimizing its multiversal epherma as background noise, and striving to produce a stand-alone adventure that turns King’s multi-volume saga, one that connects almost every book he’s written to some degree, into a troublingly flat affair.
The Dark Tower opens from the point of view of Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), an 11-year-old boy living in New York City who has troubling dreams about another world. Jake’s mom thinks he needs psychological help and is having trouble coping with the death of his father, whom he lost in a fire. But as Jake’s dreams continue it becomes clear that they’re more like visions or glimpses into a world that actually exist, particularly as New York is rocked by inexplicable earthquakes. Jake eventually makes his way into that other world and meets the Gunslinger (Elba), with whom he joins to hunt down and stop the Man in Black from ending the world.
This seeming re-take on the first novel of The Dark Tower, from Jake’s perspective, was actually widely-advertised as a sequel to the book series, which on its face is not an unwelcome proposition – but there’s nothing in the movie to actually make this crucial fact known. This underscores perhaps the movie’s most disappointing issue, as it leaves all of its most interesting facets from the book series as mere Easter eggs for only the hardcore reader to notice (items such as Maerlyn’s Rainbow or the Horn of Eld), but that is where the connective tissue ends. Rather than embracing what made King’s novels so creative and original, it feels like the books are mere set dressing for a fairly generic action film that lacks the budget or the bravery the source material deserves.
Reports of the film’s troubled production history are vindicated based on the final product we see on screen, the effort of four different screenwriters. The ending of the film in particular feels disjointed and perhaps even missing key scenes, along with some indication that actors were probably brought back months later (it looks like Taylor literally went through puberty in the film’s denouement) for significant reshoots that changed the course of the narrative. While the first two-thirds are watchable, if mostly forgettable, the final act is so painfully rushed that it actually unravels before your very eyes. There’s one particular shot of McConaughey that is so misguided in how it’s composed, I almost burst out laughing in the theater.
On the budget front, the movie doesn’t look great: from the first CGI creature’s appearance to the larger scale third act, the set pieces of this film feel rushed and weightless, and in some cases incomprehensible. This unfortunately undercuts not only the tension we’re supposed to feel in these scenes, but the inventiveness of the universe they inhabit. Our three main players – McConaughey, Elba, and Taylor – are really giving it everything they’ve got. McConaughey is an especially endearing presence, and he underplays a role in a way that sidesteps what could have been an egregious and over-the-top villain. But good performances can only do so much with a film that somehow feels both undercooked and worked to death, and unfortunately everyone else in the film is working on a different level, with most of the side characters giving performances that range from serviceable to atrocious.
It’s interesting that just a few weeks ago, we reviewed the film adaptation of Valerian, which suffered from extremely poor casting decisions that bungled what was otherwise a gorgeous, creative, and delightfully weird film. What we have here is almost exactly the opposite problem: that singularly weird and creative universe never makes it to the screen, and its dream lineup of actors can do nothing to save it. I
If there are other worlds than these, I hope they got a better movie than The Dark Tower.