Directed By: Nikolaj Arcel
Release Date: August 4, 2017
Starring: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor
I've covered it in a handful of reviews I've written before, but this bears repeating: Just because a film adaptation of a book isn't an exact translation of its source material doesn't immediately make it terrible by default. Jurassic Park, my favorite movie, has huge differences from Michael Crichton's novel, but I love them both equally. The Harry Potter films, as another example, take decent liberties in adapting J.K. Rowling's series that don't always succeed, but never once do they feel like they're actively spitting on her work or why fans love those books. As long as an adaptation can capture the spirit of any given book, the passion for the material is clear by all those involved, and the end result is a solid movie that can stand on its own despite the changes, I'm more than happy to separate the two products and respect each for what they are.
Now, Stephen King's The Dark Tower series has been something I've been a fan of for nearly two decades now. When I first read The Gunslinger - the first book - I was immediately sucked into its straightforward story of a world that had moved on, where a mysterious man in black fled across a desert and a determined gunslinger followed, the latter driven by the desire to kill the former. It blended Western tropes with a dash of fantasy in a uniquely King way, and the series only got bigger, bolder, and weirder from there, playing with even more genres, introducing all types of larger-than-life characters (including a riddle-speaking train), and tying in with numerous other King works. For many fans of the author, including yours truly, The Dark Tower is central to everything he's done, an important, decades-long journey that deserved the right care and the right treatment were it to ever be adapted to film.
For years, numerous people have struggled to get an adaptation of The Dark Tower off the ground, and here we finally are with a product directed by Nikolaj Arcel that feels like anything but the adaptation King's series deserves.
Rather than spend its time adapting The Gunslinger, The Dark Tower pulls elements from several of the books - along with a bunch of added things - to tell the story of young Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a gifted boy living in New York City with visions of the evil Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) and a gunslinger named Roland (Idris Elba), as well as the titular Dark Tower, which rests at the heart of the universe, keeping countless worlds connected and safe from evil that rests beyond the universe itself. The Man in Black is attempting to use other gifted children to destroy the tower so that he can rule over a post-apocalyptic universe, eventually setting his sights on Jake, who travels through a portal and into Mid-World, Roland's home and the realm in which the tower resides, and teams up with the gunslinger to help stop the Man in Black once and for all.
In its effort to wrangle together so many pieces of the series as a whole and stitch them together, The Dark Tower becomes a hugely jumbled mess of storytelling and mythology. What worked so well in the books is that the series started small, introducing us to Mid-World through Roland and his mission to kill the Man in Black and slowly unfolding its secrets and quirks as the series rolled along. Here, though, Roland is positioned as more of a supporting character to Jake, an important character in the books, of course, but one whose actual journey throughout is never close to being as important as Roland's. Using Jake as our POV into this world is fine, however, but the issue the film creates for itself is that it still ignores the idea of exploring the mythology patiently for the sake of shoving in as much as it possibly can.
An easy example of what I mean would be comparing The Dark Tower to the adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, a similar franchise launcher that had to both satisfy book readers and introduce newcomers to an unfamiliar world. That film stuck true to the original book's strength of having readers (or in the film's case, viewers) learning about his new world right alongside him, with terminology and concepts and characters unveiled piece by piece, allowing him and us to digest the information as it's received. In The Dark Tower, before Jake ever even gets to Mid-World, portals, monsters, terminology, the tower, and so much more is just thrown at the audience without explanation as to what any of it really means in context or why it's important, overloading the film with so much random information that - even once a chunk of it is somewhat explained later in the narrative - none of it ever really clicks.
And ultimately that's a symptom of the film's overall failing: Nothing about it clicks period. For the few things it gets right, like Elba's performance, a funny sequence involving Roland's fish out of water presence in NYC, and some evocative imagery, it gets so much more wrong. Elba is woefully underutilized, the fish out of water sequence, which has more of a spark of life than the film around it, only proves how hollow everything else around it is, and the potential strength of imagery is undermined by how soulless everything feels. Actors like Jackie Earle Haley and Fran Kranz turn up only to make you wonder why they're being wasted, especially when screentime is devoted to a friend of Jake's whose cringeworthy line readings somehow made it all the way through editing. Even McConaughey tends to feel as though he's oscillating between not caring and not being given the chance to go all-out, resulting in a villain who should've been electrifying (as he is in the books) reduced to someone not even worth mustering up the energy to root against.
Honestly, as I write this, I'm finding my passion for even talking about the movie for much longer is as low as the people who made it had for it. The film is being billed as a sequel to the books to excuse all of its story and character changes, which is an interesting idea in concept (and fits in with the series’ idea of fate being cyclical), but in execution here it completely fails, feeling less like anyone actually cared about living up to that marketed sequel status and more like it was conjured up as a way to try and cover up how much is wrong with it. The Dark Tower is utterly generic, a patchwork monster stitched together by too many cooks over too many years without any identity of its own, an astounding feat considering that King's series is ripe with personality all its own. There's never a sense that the film knows what it is or what tone it even wants to strike, neither capturing the spirit of the books nor finding the strength to be able to stand on its own two feet, needlessly overcomplicating itself in a way that miraculously manages to slap book readers in the face and be borderline incoherent and unwelcoming to newcomers.
One day, hopefully, The Dark Tower series can fall into the hands of a creative team who knows what to do with it and how to do it justice, but the existence and failure of this film means that that day will be a long, long way off before anyone touches the property again. As much as it cribs from the books, it still manages to feel thoroughly uninspired, and neither Elba or Taylor - who I'll admit does a decent enough job in his role as Jake - can elevate the film above its failings. For fans, The Dark Tower is a huge disappointment after so many years of waiting to see it happen, with King’s vast, colorful story turned into a cookie-cutter, boring slog. For everyone else, your mileage may vary if you’re willing to accept the bare minimum, but with so many other great projects currently in theaters far more worthy of your time, money, and support, you won't miss a thing letting this one skip by.
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