After years in Development Hell, an adaptation of Stephen King‘s The Dark Tower has finally arrived. I call it “an” adaptation, because how do you squeeze seven novels into a single film? Answer: You Don’t.
Jake (Tom Taylor) is having strange nightmares about another world and a Dark Tower. When the Tower is attacked in his dreams by the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), an earthquake occurs in the real world. Jake’s mother (Katheryn Winnick) fears that her son is losing his mind, but Jake knows that what he dreams about is all too real. When Jake finally crosses the plane between worlds, he runs across Roland the Gunslinger (Idris Elba), a defender of the Dark Tower who is hunting the Man in Black. The two team up and try to stop the Man in Black before he can destroy the Dark Tower and unleash evil across all the worlds connected to it.
I’ve never gotten around to reading The Dark Tower series, though it is on my list of things to do. So, I think that I may have liked this film a bit better than fans of the novels, because I wasn’t really anticipating anything more than a good fantasy/action film. However, on that count, The Dark Tower is merely decent. Even though I’ve never read the books, there is a real sense of Sony and MRC doing this one on the cheap. There are some very nice sci-fi/fantasy elements, but there is no real grandeur to this film. Everything feels very small even when Jake and Roland are roaming around on Mid-World – a completely different planet from Earth. You’d expect Director Nikolaj Arcel to treat the audience to sweeping vistas of this alien world, but you can see where the budget cuts came in as the movie progresses and that’s a bad sign when trying to craft an epic. There are some nice nods to King’s other works, though, which is great as The Dark Tower series makes it clear that the worlds that King’s stories inhabit are linked much more closely than one would gather at first glance.
As for the story, this film is supposed to be a sequel to the novels – which makes more sense to those who have read them than to those who have not, I suppose – but even in doing that, the story is kind of weak. The Man in Black is reduced, essentially, to “evil man doing bad things for evil’s sake.” We know why Roland hates the Man in Black, so his motivation is clear, but the villain’s motivation is much murkier, making him a far less compelling character. Jake is an interesting point of view character, but his special gifts are not explained very well and the film isn’t really long enough to allow a proper bond to develop between he and Roland. Speaking of that short running time, in the third act, the film wraps up way too quickly and easily to be even moderately satisfying. If you blink, you may miss the finish. Also, this film breaks the cardinal rule of movie marketing by putting the coolest scene in the film in the trailer. Unforgivable.
The actors do the best with what they’re given. Idris Elba is great as Roland and should put to rest the annoying “controversy” that erupted when he was cast in the role. (In the novels, Roland is Caucasian, with Clint Eastwood being the template for the character). Elba is a fantastic actor and while he’s the best part of this movie, I wish the film around him was better. He and his performance deserved better support. Taylor is good as Jake and I liked his chemistry with Elba, but it would have been nice if the film were a little bit longer so we could have gotten some more development of their relationship. I liked McConaughey as the Man in Black and any issues I had with him, I chalk up to limited character development in the script – the film has four credited screenwriters. He did seem to be just a little too powerful and the explanations for how Roland can survive his magic are weak at best. It’s apparent that the film’s producers had no real clear plan of attack to turn this epic story line into a film series a la Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, and this film suffers for it.
Overall, The Dark Tower is just fine. It’s not terrible, but it’s also not a film you need to rush out to go see in the theater. As you’re watching it, even if you’ve never read the books, there is a palpable feeling as if you’re missing something and then you go to the bookstore and realize you weren’t missing something, the film was.