The Dark Tower book series, Stephen King’s epic magnum opus, totals nearly 4,500 pages over 8 books and a few side-stories. The Dark Tower, the film, clocks in at a shockingly-lean 95 minutes including credits. It’s just the first indicator that this quasi-adaptation/quasi-sequel to King’s most complex work is going to be a misbegotten mess even before the opening exposition-text titles finish.
The “plot” — as much as one exists buried under a chaotic pile of tropes and King shout-outs — involves a young boy named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), who has dreams about another universe called Mid-World and of a sorcerer called the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey). The Man in Black, who also goes by the rather unintimidating name Walter Padick, is trying to bring down the Dark Tower, which stands at the center of all worlds and protects the universe from demonic…um…thingies. After a series of inexplicable events, Jake ends up in Mid-World and meets Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last of the legendary gunslingers and the only one with the ability to stop good ol’ Water’s evil schemes.
If a lot of that sounds painfully generic, that’s because it is. In fact, there are very few words that can properly convey how painfully generic and terminally boring the film is; there’s probably a word for it in Swedish or something. It’s as if the film has no idea why it exists in the first place, wandering around aimlessly for its entire runtime unsure of what or how it wants to be. Where the original book series confidently (if not always smoothly) combines elements of spaghetti Westerns, fantasy, Arthurian legend, and more, the film turns these elements into identities it randomly switches between in a desperate quest to find its own tone.
But even though the film has no idea where it wants to go, it has no issue running there as fast as it can. It rarely stops to take a breath, and it stubbornly refuses to ever explain itself. In a cinematic landscape where even the Power Rangers re-boot comes in at two hours long — five full minutes of which was devoted entirely to discussing how important it is to defend the local Krispy Kreme from alien invaders — The Dark Tower seems needlessly, purposefully edited into incoherence. Even the quiet moments are full of confusing conversations that reference a world and a mythology that is never fully developed or explained, something that becomes especially obvious during the constant references to Jake’s “shine”, a fustratingly-undefined psychic ability. It might make sense to people who’ve eagerly devoured the entirety of the book series, but people unfamiliar will just be left lost to the point that it’s impossible to give a damn about anyone or anything on screen. (And full disclosure: this critic has only read the first three books in the series.)
A good deal of the blame for the film’s miasma of failure rests on the shoulders of Danish director/co-writer Nikolaj Arcel. The best adaptations of Stephen King’s fantasy and horror works are a result of being helmed by directors with distinct styles, such as Brian DePalma (Carrie), David Cronenberg (The Dead Zone), and Stanley Kubrick (The Shining). Arcel is in no way in league with any of those people. His style can generously be described with back-handed compliments like “competent” or “journeyman.” To say that he’s out of depth here is a massive understatement, and he fails to put any personal stamp on an otherwise muddled film.
The production troubles behind the scenes were a story more exciting than what’s on screen. Sony Picutres at one point wanted to replace Arcel and finish the film with a different director, and it’s easy to see why. Action sequences are bewildering and poorly-choreographed. The pace is shaky and uneven. Virtually every visual cue — including the inexcusably cheap and poorly-executed CGI — appears to have been culled from other films, everything from Serenity to Resident Evil to Underworld to the Mad Max series. The dull-gray script in no way helps the film, which shares two writers with the lifeless YA dystopia adaptation The 5th Wave, one of which (Akiva Goldsman) is also responsible for the legendary bomb Batman & Robin.
Just about the only good thing in the film, besides the typically-dynamic score by Junkie XL, is Idris Elba as Roland. Projecting an effortless, intriguing man-with-no-name charisma, he’s nearly perfect as the conflicted, cynical Roland. During the second half of the film, which takes place on “Keystone Earth”, his fish-out-of-water interactions come dangerously close to making the film interesting, and he serves as a welcome anchor to the unfocused and anarchic fight scenes.
Unfortunately, Elba’s Roland is not the main character. That would be Jake, and Tom Taylor’s performance is like an iconic “child actor” collection of exaggerated emotion and unsteady line readings. To his credit, it’s not a terrible performance given that it’s his first film, but he’s far from a natural. That caveat can’t be applied to Matthew McConaughey’s portrayal of the Man in Black, who seems like he filmed his role in-between Lincoln car commercials without bothering to change his costume or demeanor. He comes off less as ultimate adversary and more as a bored Disc 1 Boss, possessing none of the depth or gravitas that the role requires.
In the end, there seems to be very little reason for this film to exist other than the studio’s insistence on getting it out of development hell by any means necessary. As an adaptation, it’s a complete failure. As a sequel or continuation, it has absolutely none of the dizzying, kitchen-sink fantasy King’s books are known for. As a standalone film, it makes absolutely no sense and barely qualifies as having a plot. Edited to death and lacking anything resembling a personality, this is a film that even Idris Elba’s magnetic gunslinger has no hope of saving.
FBOTU Score: 3 out of 10 / D