Movie Review: The Dark Tower
By Ben Gruchow
August 10, 2017

Gunslinger still gotta ride the bus.

There is something to be said about possessing most of the components, in one form or another, of virtually every white-hot cinematic trend of the last few years, and being precisely on the wrong sides of those trends at both conception and realization. At conception, you have an experiment waiting to be undertaken with a major distributor, an ascendant director and producer, and multiple respected actors…all of them aiming to shepherd a connected universe of novels and stories greater in raw scope, perhaps, than anything before filmed.

At this point, though, The Avengers hadn’t yet been released and redefined the concept of what a cinematic universe was financially capable of. By the time Marvel does so, our project has been in turnaround at two different studios in two different formats, with two different directors taking a pass on it, and what was at one point glimmering with promise has started to attain the dull patina of second-guessing. And by the time the idea gets a second examination, there has already been a slight-but-noticeable downturn in Marvel’s fortunes and the only other major competitor for the concept has seen such ridicule at every stage of development that, well, every risky aspect of the project starts to look like a liability.

This is, in a very real sense, the time frame that Stephen King’s Dark Tower series found itself unlucky enough to be in. The books and stories involved form a Bildungsroman of massive scale, incorporating over 4,000 pages of legacy novels and yet thousands more in short stories and narrative connections of varying impact across several dozen other books. Detail on this will be saved for the Book vs. Movie on the subject, but it’s important to note just how fundamentally huge this thing was in both cinematic potential and liability, and how it defeated J.J. Abrams at Universal and Ron Howard at Warner before ultimately landing at Sony Pictures with Nikolaj Arcel and a budget appropriate for a mid-sized genre one-off and very much not a kick-off to a new cinematic universe.

I am not sure there has been a cinematic adaptation quite like this in our lifetimes. Arcel, in conjunction with writers Akiva Goldsman and Jeff Pinkner, has crafted a screenplay combining major events from at least four of the seven source novels and smaller flourishes from God knows how many others, involving dozens of characters, and from it assembled a comically slight 95-minute two-hander: one that whipsaws through every narrative development with speed but no velocity and little momentum, gets all sorts of little grace notes just right while missing most of the major ones by a mile, before crossing precisely the wrong wires in its final act and vaporizing most of its own reason for existence. This is a train wreck, one made with such a visible commitment to the ethic and conceptual hook of its source material that it’s much more frustrating and burdensome to witness than if it just reeked of filmmaking by committee like most doomed adaptations do. The trouble runs deeper here, pointing in the direction of shepherds to a fictional universe who adhere to all of the superficial rules and wrinkles of that universe while somehow losing the core.

There is a tower at the center of the universe. It holds together all of creation, which radiates out around this linchpin in a vaguely circular shape; beyond the borders of this circle awaits an endless darkness full of monstrosities, all trying to push their way in. This is, in broad strokes, the setting of both the movie and the film. It’s punchy, but not exactly unique as a concept nor illustrative as a metaphor.

The source material involves much (much, much) more complexity and detail about the architecture of this universe, but for the sake of bending over backward to be fair to a movie that was pretty obviously doomed from the moment the term “fast-tracked” was applied to it, we’ll say that the two incarnations of this story are playing in the same ballpark. There are those given to protect the tower, and those who want to bring it down, destroying all of reality in the process. For the former, we’re provided Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), last in a mythic line of elite Gunslingers 0 so named because of their unearthly skill with loading, aiming, and firing their revolvers. For the latter, we’re given Walter, the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) a person who…um, dresses in black. He can also set people on fire and kill them just by telling them to stop breathing, but his magic doesn’t work on Roland (if it did, we would not have this movie, thereby making The Dark Tower one more cinematic face-off where we feel like rooting for the bad guy when we’re not supposed to).

In all fairness, the movie makes it pretty clear that Walter wants to bring the tower down and end the world, so he does have agency. Roland has agency, too; his main goal is to exact revenge on Walter for killing everyone he once cared about. Into this wilderness wanders Jake Chambers, a boy from New York City. Jake is a powerful telepath and seer; he dreams about a tower, and a gunslinger, and a man in black, draws disturbing pictures of them upon waking up, and slowly becomes convinced that the dreams are something more significant than REM cycles. Perhaps it’s the frequent earthquakes that have been rattling New York lately. Perhaps it’s the strange people from the juvenile treatment facility upstate, who have faces that look strangely like masks. We must ultimately hazard a guess, because the movie is in too much of a hurry to actually show us the point where Jake becomes a believer in metaphysics and prophecy.

These opening stretches of the film, which are mostly concerned with Jake and his growing imperative to find a way into the deserted land he keeps dreaming about, are where the movie holds most of its promise. It is absolutely a corrupted and superficial treatment of the source material, for sure; as objective cinema, it’s at least moderately successful in projecting mystique and atmosphere, and we can start to buy into the idea that there’s another world floating just out of Jake’s reach.

Therein also lies the central problem with this stretch as an adaptation, though: the main character is ostensibly meant to be Roland, and he’s kept largely offscreen for the first half-hour, until Jake (no spoilers) finds his way into the desert land, called Mid-World. In a vacuum, introducing your main character and conflict a half-hour in, through the eyes of a supporting character, revealing hints of this world a bit at a time, might be exciting and fresh…assuming it’s written well and that you’re not fully a third of the way through the entire thing by the time it happens.

I use the term “fully” with total deliberation here, because it exposes one of two core violations of the source material that I suspect every fan of the series will find unforgivable. As a standalone piece of cinema, The Dark Tower is slight and rather threadbare, consisting largely of the opening stretch, followed by a stretch where Roland and Jake wander Mid-World together talking about the plot, followed by a final stretch where Roland and Jake wander New York City while talking about the plot. These dialogue stretches are anodyne and forgettable for the most part, and they’re only intermittently punctuated by action sequences that show off the limitations of a $60 million budget in an interdimensional action fantasy all too readily.

The second core violation will need to wait for another day, but the one covered here involves a revelation that the film - which, let’s not forget, began life as the first in a gigantic multi-installment arc - is more or less a complete story in and of itself. Those unfamiliar with King’s book series will read the previous sentence and wonder how much excitement there could really be in a mid-budget, 95-minute adventure where the main character shows up with 60 minutes to go. Those familiar with King’s text will be clamping down on the urge to howl in protest and betrayal, given how persistently the filmmakers teased the film as the hoped-for first in a series of adaptations.

Elba is the only thing that really holds the film together in its final half; the actor has a way with projecting gravity and truth through even the silliest dialogue, and even as I find myself struggling to remember any one sentence spoken in the film, it’s not at all difficult to bring to mind a clear image of Elba’s haunted and intent expressiveness as the lone gunslinger. It makes the whole thing a little bit more infuriating; this incarnation of the character deserves a movie worthy of the actor’s effort. McConaughey, too, is effective as the film’s antagonist, giving life to an idiot-frequency screenplay with intonation and hints of malicious glee.

Taylor is less sure of himself, only intermittently able to give weight to a thinly-drawn audience surrogate. Even so, not Elba nor McConaughey nor Taylor can do anything with the film’s ruinous final minutes, which play like a performer realizing only at the last second that they’ve reached the end of their allotted time, and hurriedly slapping some kind of conclusion onto their act so that the curtain doesn’t fall on them. There certainly isn’t any defense from a narrative or adaptation or character perspective for the way this story ultimately concludes.

Have you ever anticipated something so much that you dream about it, and the dream version of that thing contains lots of little key identifiers that make it sort of recognizable, while the major components are twisted around and off-base and somehow wrong? To watch The Dark Tower is to experience that in waking. It’s uncanny in that regard; hours after seeing it, I had the strange feeling that I had experienced the totality of the Dark Tower series in movie form even as all the specifics were rapidly fading. This may sound like some sort of compliment to efficiency or tone; I assure you it is not. When a franchise starter we anticipate swings and connects, we feel energized by it: we feel a little bit more empty because there’s nothing quite yet to replace the anticipation we were cultivating, but we sense the promise and potential in a universe being expanded by a sure hand, and in the meantime we can’t wait to see it again and introduce newcomers to it. With The Dark Tower, all we get is the emptiness.

3.8 out of 19.