Oh. My. God.
It is not often that I am confounded by an adaptation to the degree that I am confounded by this one. That would not matter, of course, if the film worked as a standalone film, but it does not. In fact, the degree to which it does not work as a standalone film is breathtaking. This is a swing-for-the-fences attempt to get a franchise off the ground, and it is a fall-on-your-face-and-somehow-smash-your-own-balls failure. There are moments where it will make fans of Stephen King’s books sit forward, amazed and delighted at some of the things they try, and there are huge passages where those same fans will recoil so hard they will bruise themselves.
What matters most in an adaptation? I am not a purist when it comes to the process. If you’re turning something from one type of media to another, you should feel free to make big choices. Books are not movies. Movies are not TV shows. And when you’re dealing with source material as rich and dense as King’s Dark Tower series, you’ve got a lot of room to play. The entire series ends in a way that makes it clear that Roland the Gunslinger and the mysterious Man In Black have lived this cycle before and they’ll live it again, perhaps eternally chasing each other through the various worlds that all converge on The Dark Tower, a nexus point that holds the entire universe together. The great idea that the filmmakers had here was to make this the next cycle after the books, so it gave them a blank page to play with. It was an exciting possibility, one that would give fans of the books a new experience instead of just seeing the same thing they’d already read. It would also give future fans of the films who hadn’t yet read the books an entire series to explore while they waited to see how the movies unfolded. It sounded like the best of both worlds.
It is not.
The Dark Tower makes a very important decision that pretty much ruins things from frame one, and I’m going to guess the YA craze of the last decade or so is to blame. The film makes it clear that this is the story of Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a boy living in modern-day New York who has been seeing visions since the death of his father. He sees people whose skin doesn’t fit them right. He sees a Man In Black. He sees a Tower under attack. And of course, no one believes him. Not his mother, Laurie (Katheryn Winnick), and not her boyfriend, or even Jake’s few friends his own age. The film spends a good half-hour or so just setting up Jake, which wouldn’t be a problem if that wasn’t over a quarter of the movie. By the time he meets Roland (Idris Elba), we’re well into Act Two, and Roland is relegated to a background role. He’s the gunslinger who appeared in Jake’s most recent visions, the one person who might be able to stop the Man In Black, and there’s one quick flashback (which I’ll address below) that is meant to establish a fairly complicated backstory, but other than that, there’s really nothing about Roland that would suggest he is a character worth following through this story. He’s a cipher. He’s a guy who shoots well in the film, and nothing more. This is Jake’s journey, after all.
That also wouldn’t be as big a problem if Tom Taylor were a good actor, and here’s where I’ll tread lightly. I don’t want to beat up on a young actor. They are at the mercy of the director, and I’ve seen films coughthephantommenacecough where the “performance” you’re looking at is so clearly built in post that it’s impossible to even judge the kid. They are, by definition, less trained than adults, less experienced, and in some ways, that can lead to delightful things when you cast a role properly. But Taylor is the wrong person to carry this film, plain and simple. Whatever charisma the kid has is not served by this role, and vice versa. He looks the part, certainly, and it’s almost like the way WETA has figured out that the bigger the eyes on their digital characters, the more empathy they are able to generate with them. It’s an animator’s trick, and it’s because there’s something about the larger eyes that people respond to on an emotional level. Taylor’s the right kid visually, and when you’ve got actors like Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey acting opposite him, there are moments that sort of work. But anything that requires Taylor to actually do the emotional work to sell it falls flat, and that culminates in a supposed-to-be-tearful breakdown about his father that features the most artificial weeping I’ve seen since my eight-year-old tattled on his big brother for hitting him. It is a casting issue. He was wrong for the role, and because screenwriters Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen and director Nikolaj Arcel have chosen to put Jake at the center of the story, the film never stands a chance.
If your measure of success for this film is “does it make a lot of references to other Stephen King properties?” then, yes, it is a rousing success. Some of the references are interesting. Some struck me as annoying. Some are a little too wink-wink, nudge-nudge for me, like a moment when Roland is sitting in Jake’s apartment in New York and a TV commercial featuring talking raccoons comes on. “Your animals still talk?” he asks Jake. “No. That’s a commercial,” Jake replies. “Wait… what do you mean ‘still’?” Any fans of Oy hoping for a glimpse of him in this film will have to settle for that hard elbow to the ribs instead. For anyone not familiar with the books, that’s just a decent joke about how the two worlds are different, but I wonder if they’ll even catch it.
There’s a lot of busy work in the dialogue here, lots of exposition, and it all eventually turns into technogobbledygook, particularly when dealing with Walter (Matthew McConaughey), the Man In Black. He’s got a control room/evil bad guy headquarters here that is basically the underground bunker from The Cabin in the Woods. It even comes equipped with the actual Fran Kranz, playing a general tech guy henchman. All of the inter-dimensional travel in the story is now handled as a matter of technology, and while Walter has some magic powers that come into play in the final fight in the film (and OH MY GOD we are going to talk about that below), it mainly seems like Walter’s less of a dark sorcerer and more of a dude with a stargate.
McConaughey has fun with the role in the moments where he can, and it’s mainly little stuff that shows how Walter loves the slow rot of banal evil. There’s a bit where he’s in New York and he’s walking down a sidewalk. There’s a little girl sharing an ice cream with her mother, and it’s clear that they’re happy and a normal, loving family. Walter touches the girl’s shoulder, barely, and says in a low voice, “Hate.” The little girl doesn’t turn into a monster or anything, but there’s a change in her face and her manner that shows that pure familial love curdling. Those little bits, those flourishes where Arcel does something in an image or a single idea, make me wonder how the bigger picture went so terribly wrong. It’s like they say about sailing… you can be just one degree off in calculating a course, but over time, that one degree will put you disastrously off-course. McConaughey has some good ideas about how to play Walter, but the film can’t support those ideas, and he’s stranded playing a fairly generic “bad guy” by the end.
Let’s talk about the flashback to the final encounter between Walter and Roland at the end of the Battle of Eld. In the scene, we get to see the dying moments of Steven Deschain (Dennis Haysbert), the father of Roland, and we get to see Roland’s attempt to kill Walter as a result. It’s all shot in a fogbank so thick that they might as well have shot it on Akiva Goldman’s patio, so there’s no chance they’ll contradict anything they might do later… you know, with the right time and money. If this is meant to be the psychological key to hang the franchise on, it falls well short of the target. It’s not a particularly rousing or interesting scene either. Instead, it feels more like fan service than something that actually helps tell the story they’ve chosen to tell. This kind of ham-handed attempt at world-building is what audiences reject. They don’t want you to grab the back of their head and force them through a story. They want you to make your case and pull them in. Give them characters to love or hate. Give them stakes that make sense and a goal they can get behind. It’s really that easy, and all of the complicated and crazy stuff they try to pile on here to help seed future films and TV shows only obscures anything that might have connected with an audience.
There’s one thing in particular that I found especially obnoxious. Early on, it is established that Jake is special (a “chosen one,” if you will) because he has a powerful form of telepathy. In passing, someone mentions that he “shines,” and I thought that was cool. A nice elegant nod to one of my favorite King novels. I should have known when I saw a photo of the Overlook Hotel from Kubrick’s film fall over on Jake’s therapist’s desk that “elegant” wasn’t going to be this film’s forte. Instead, characters go on to mention “shine” or “shining” about 37,000 more times in the 90-minute movie. It is overbearing to a preposterous degree, and it feels like I’m being bludgeoned in return for my attention.
Here’s what surprises me most about the film — the actual story it tells is so easy and linear that there’s no tension at any point. I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to venture into spoiler territory to discuss the film and its failures. Jake has dreams. Jake’s dreams are true. Jake goes into the other world. Jake finds the Gunslinger within about five minutes. He takes the Gunslinger to New York. They get more bullets. The bad guy needs Jake. The bad guy takes Jake. The good guy goes to the bad guy’s hideout. They kill the bad guy. Jake and his new dad decide to go have more fun adventures and eat hot dogs together. The end. That’s it. That’s what happens. It allows Jake and Roland a happy ending, and if they never made anything else, you would be well within your rights to assume that this is the whole story. The Dark Tower is saved. There will be no Drawing of the Three. There’s no more Man In Black. Roland is free to return to his world if he wants. There’s not even a Carrie-style sting of the Man In Black returning so we know it’s not over. According to several reports, there was an ending to this that mirrored the moral choice made by Roland in King’s original The Gunslinger novella. That ending is nowhere in sight, and there’s no indication that the film was ever built to end that way. Whatever radical surgeries they performed on The Dark Tower along the way, we can only judge this, the final product, and it is a confounding, weird, oddly impersonal mess.
And I’m sorry, but the final fight between Walter and Roland is staged like a superhero fight, and it’s so visually ridiculous that I’m surprised this was what they left after reshoots and re-edits. Walter’s powers make him look like a Vegas magician, and Roland’s powers are “shoots real good.” And, yeah, that’s what his abilities are in the book, but that doesn’t mean they translate to live-action. Idris Elba is very good at playing the sort of emotionally-taciturn action-driven cowboy that Roland was based on in the first place, and in the right film, Elba might have been fantastic. But he’s sidelined to such a degree here that he never really registers as a character, and Arcel never figures out a visual language that would make Roland work as pure icon. Instead of taking his aesthetic cues from Screen Gems movies with nine films in a franchise and girls in fitted leather killing CGI monsters, Arcel should have gone back to classic Westerns and found a way to update the genre, drawing on the same traditions as King.
Actually… I hate when people say what a filmmaker “should” have done. All I know is that this is not the way to bring Roland to life visually. It doesn’t really work to create tension, because there’s no sense of what the rules are or what Roland can or can’t do, or what Walter’s capable of. There’s nothing that establishes what will happen when they come together and each unleashes their full potential, so when it does happen, it’s not compelling or involving at all. It’s just CGI CGI CGI! Oh, yeah? Well, MORE CGI MORE CGI MORE CGI! Look out! Here comes CGI! Zzzzzzzzzzz.
If I haven’t mentioned another cast member yet, it’s because no one else in the film even registers. It’s got a lot of people in it, but they all feel like extras delivering exposition and little else. Junkie XL scores it like it all means something, but it’s a sonic band-aid, an attempt to massage some life into the corpse. Rasmus Videbæk’s photography is straight up circa-2002, and it’s clear that Alan Bell and Dan Zimmerman were given a Herculean task wrestling the material into shape as editors. Oddly, I think Dark Tower obsessives are the ones who will get the most out of the film. They’ll argue about the little details and what they all mean and what got pulled from what book and where this might fit in the larger story, but that stuff doesn’t matter.
What’s here isn’t going to create a single new Dark Tower fan, and I can’t believe there will ever be another dollar spent telling this version of the story with any member of this creative team. This is a disaster. This is a waste of everyone’s time and money and good intentions. I don’t believe anyone set out to be a Breaker, but by god, when you put them all together, they’ve done what the Man in Black never could.
There may be a happy ending stapled onto the actual movie, but make no mistake: the Dark Tower has finally fallen.
Running time: 94 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic