Pitch: Take a beloved fantasy series, written by an even more beloved author, and condense it into one 90-minute film. Tough, right? I think I just heard Peter Jackson cry.
Directed and co-written by Danish filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair), The Dark Tower is not a mere adaptation of “The Dark Tower” series, the eight-book ordeal that took author Stephen King three decades to complete. Rather, it is a “spiritual sequel” (my phrasing). Basically, The Dark Tower steals characters and moments from the franchise while morphing them into an unrecognizable beast of a plot. Perhaps this is the easiest way to get from A-to-Z in an hour-and-a-half, but it also diminishes the scope quite dramatically. The reasoning is that this movie will serve as a gateway to other “Dark Tower” movies and TV shows (I’ll believe it when I see it). And even though The Dark Tower sucks, the producers can start from the beginning next time! Though that’s never stopped Sony before… Complete in this metamorphic plot is a crowd-pleasing ending that renders the rest of the series useless.
In order to cover ground as quickly as possible, the film puts an 11-year-old protagonist, Jake (Tom Taylor, in his first feature film) at the center of it all. Jake is the worst. His defining characteristics include: having strange dreams; being a whiny jerk. While Taylor is talented, as far as young actors go, the movie puts way too much pressure on him as the lead character. Part of it has to do with Jake being an underwritten character, and part of it has to do with Taylor having a ways to go before he can carry a film, but Jake-as-plot device gets very dull, very quickly. Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, as The Gunslinger and the Man in Black respectively, both give deeply passionate performances. Both of them perfectly embody their characters, but neither is given enough space or opportunity to keep this metaphorical movie-tower from crumbling.
Jake has been having Sci-Fi Fantasy dreams about the Man in Black’s plot to destroy “The Dark Tower”, a mysterious structure that holds all worlds together. Everyone thinks that he’s gone off the deep end, and the first act of the film is filled with Jake having dissociative episodes where he sees rat-faced creatures wearing human skin. Except, of course, Jake’s imagination turns out to be real, and he stumbles into a portal to “Mid-World”, where he meets The Gunslinger and they go on a disjointed quest to stop the Man in Black once and for all.
Mutated Stephen King isn’t always bad Stephen King—Kubrick’s The Shining being the perfect example—but The Dark Tower is much like the rat-faced creatures it introduces and does nothing with: bland, imitative and devoid of a prevailing voice. While the film is not as horrifying as 2016’s King atrocity Cell, a lack of any personality whatsoever robs the movie of its fun and creates a bland experience.
The Dark Tower borrows some fascinating set pieces, places them out of context and conducts them in mediocre fashion. From the CGI backdrops to Matthew McConaughey wielding fire, the special effects are hollow, barely okay enough to pass. The action scenes are just prolonged jump scares. The pacing and use of time is truly confounding, especially for such a truncated property. Every dire situation gets stretched into a Shakespeare soliloquy that sucks out any tension.
Despite its PG-13 rating, The Dark Tower remains ominous and edgy. But perhaps because of its PG-13 rating, it comes off as awkward and weird. There is lots of murder going on—characters that matter to the plot and don’t—but they are all executed in quickly and comically. In essence, we don’t get very good farewells, and the film struggles to find its footing and ground itself. There is a third act motivating murder, but the arc doesn’t earn it and the very heavy implications become tedious and meaningless.
When asked, I always say that Stephen King is my favorite author. It’s more of a default choice, because I don’t read nearly as much fiction as I would like. However, I have yet to sit down and experience “The Dark Tower” books, despite owning many of them due to blatant checkbook mismanagement. Maybe this movie will finally be the motivation that gets me to make the 4,000 page commitment. The Dark Tower isn’t a very good movie, but at least when the film is teasing at something bigger, you know that it’s out there.