For all the stories of post production problems, poor test screenings and a rough journey years in the making to get it to the big screen, The Dark Tower isn’t the shambled mess you might expect. The movie is very flawed but its mythology maintains our interest and it’s bolstered by two engaging performances from Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey.
Stephen King’s The Dark Tower spans eight novels with well over one million words to tell its story. The saga took more than 30 years to craft (the first volume was published in 1982 and the most recent in 2012) and boasts connections to many of the author’s other works. One might consider it his magnum opus so it has a lot of fans and its journey to the big screen has been a well chronicled one. A movie adaptation has been in the works for a decade but various iterations fell through as several producer/director combinations came and went. Eventually, however, the stars aligned and a film was born. Will fans be pleased by what they see? I’ve never read the novels so I’m not entirely sure but as a film, it gets a few things right but you can tell a lot of story was left on the table that maybe should’ve been used to expand its brief 95-minute runtime.
Although incorporating elements from King’s novels, The Dark Tower is intended to be a sequel, spinning off from where the 2004 novel concluded. This is info I learned while researching the film but had been left in the dark while watching the film. I doubt it would’ve made a difference. This info seems necessary for fans of the novels to know what they’re getting into and it justifies why the film does run so short. It’s not a straight adaptation of the source material. It takes bits and pieces from it while spinning its own story.
The story opens in modern-day New York City where a young teenager, Jake (Tom Taylor), is having visions of The Dark Tower, The Man in Black, and The Gunslinger. Fearing that he is mentally unstable, his mother, Laurie (Katheryn Winnick), sends him to an upstate clinic for testing. Realizing he is about to be kidnapped, Jake escapes and follows his visions to an abandoned house that contains a hidden portal. Entering it, he is transported to Mid-World, where he meets Roland Deschain a.k.a. The Gunslinger (Elba) and joins him on his quest to kill the nefarious sorcerer Walter o’Dim a.ka. The Man in Black (McConaughey). Simultaneously, Walter realizes that Jake is the boy he has been waiting for – someone with sufficient psychic power to destroy The Dark Tower, a monolith that protects the universe from the monsters that exist outside it.
Director Nikolaj Arcel (whose 2012 Danish film, A Royal Affair, introduced the world to Alicia Vikander) has a fairly palpable visually style. It’s not groundbreaking but the film always looks arresting. He pays homage a bit to the B-movie sci-fi/fantasy films that studios cranked out irregularly during the 1980s and 1990s. Some might find that it makes the effects and visuals seem dated, but I felt it was a very intentional choice and it works for the most part.
The true detriment of The Dark Tower is that it’s too short, barely making it past the 90-minute mark. The brevity, which would be welcomed in many films, (especially in today’s bloated blockbuster climate) feels like a cheat here. The intricacies of King’s multi verse are only hinted at – so much that should be explored goes unmentioned and, as a result, aspects of The Dark Tower leave you wanting much more. The main narrative is straightforward so at least there’s no confusion about who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and what happens when they meet at the end but you can tell a lot of story was lost in the editing room (rumor has it that other cuts had more mythology explained but test screenings showed those in attendance were left confused).
That being said, the film is worth a look simply to watch Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey give top notch performances. Elba has the gravitas and appeal to make this role work. He seems subdued at first but his evolution is interesting to watch and he’s imposing enough to hold our attention. On the other hand, Matthew McConaughey seems to revel in playing a darker character. He doesn’t receive as much development as Elba but he’s a joy to watch and his villain is quite memorable. They both make you nearly forgive some of the film’s shortcomings.
Both players play supporting roles to Tom Taylor, whose character takes the lead here. It’s a bit of an issue because the script doesn’t make him interesting enough but the actor is just fine in the part, unlike some critics have suggested.
It’s interesting that a TV version of this project is also in the works. I think the subject matter is better suited for the episodic format because it allows them to properly expand the story without cutting too much. As a film, The Dark Tower is interesting but it leaves you wondering about what might have been.
Reel Talk gives The Dark Tower 2.5 Reels