Movie Review: The Dark Tower

By Ben Gruchow

August 10, 2017

Gunslinger still gotta ride the bus.

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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.

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