Film Review: The Dark Tower

This campy, stripped-down summary of or sequel to (it’s confusing) Stephen King’s cross-dimensional fantasy western is a late-summer bummer.
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Every so often, Stephen King likes to dump out a few bookshelves’ worth of influences into one eager, shambling mess of an epic. His multi-novel Dark Tower cycle ropes in everything from spaghetti westerns to The Wizard of Oz, Tolkien, and the kind of fantasy that propels prog-rock album art. Occasionally, it even makes sense. The team valiantly tasked with wrenching it into a feature film sensible to anybody without the Dark Tower concordance at hand (yes, one exists) has a near-impossible job. Pack too much backstory in there and you have the Fellowship of the Ring without Peter Jackson's able guidance. Trim too much of the narrative and you lose anything that makes it unique. In this case, the filmmakers went the latter route, leaving a blotted sketch of a thing that’s too obviously just a lead-in for the long-promised TV series.

According to what little mythology the script provides, the title’s looming structure isn’t just a tower, it’s a linchpin holding the entire fabric of reality together. If anything happens to the Tower, then the hosts of ravening Lovecraftian beasties lurking beyond the Tower-guarded boundaries of the universe will destroy everything. At least, that’s how Roland the Gunslinger (Idris Elba), a stoic warrior tasked with protecting the Tower, explains it to Jake (Tom Taylor), a New York kid whose parents thought he was insane because of all his visions he was having of Roland, the Tower and a frightening Man in Black.

Unfortunately for everybody involved, the Man in Black comes not in the form of Will Smith or Tommy Lee Jones in a snappy dark suit but Matthew McConaughey in an alarmingly unbuttoned shirt and a glancingly camp attitude toward villainy. You see, the Man in Black is a mighty powerful dark sorcerer. He comes with minions galore and multiple Bond-villain lairs to prove it. He is determined to bring the Tower down. To do so, he kidnaps children like Jake with telekinetic potential from Earth to the planet of Mid-World. There, they’re harnessed into a pan-dimensional psychic howitzer that turns their thoughts into a laser beam that he blasts at the Tower. At no point is it explained why the Man in Black would want to do this. Also, it turns out his name is Walter. This reduces his villainous appeal somewhat, no matter how many bitchy throwaway lines the script feeds him. It's like finding out that Satan’s middle name is Edward.

As Walter’s knightly nemesis, one could do worse than Elba. He inhabits the role of gruff lone paladin with such ease that the backstory provided for Roland and his vanquished brotherhood of Tower-protecting Gunslingers feels insultingly skimpy. But the skimpy screenplay and jumbled direction from A Royal Affair’s Nikolaj Arcel don’t do him any justice. As with many elements of The Dark Tower, Roland’s all-too-brief interaction with his father (a blink-and-you-miss-him Dennis Haysbert) almost confuses more than it illuminates.

The only storyline given any attention here is the guardian role for Jake that Roland grudgingly takes on. This forces him to make a choice between simply pursuing revenge against Walter or resurrecting his old calling as a protector of the Tower. Since the latter involves protecting everything in the universe and, thusly, himself, it seems like an easy choice for Roland. Given the short running time, there’s space for only a few perfunctory plot roadblocks to be thrown up before Roland gets his Shane back. “Are there bullets and guns in your world?” he asks Jake before hopping through a dimensional portal. “You’re going to like Earth,” Jake replies.

Needless to say, The Dark Tower is not much of a movie. A cheap slumgullion of secondhand tropes and callouts to other King stories—people with psychic powers like Jake are said to have “the shine” and we see a snow globe that appears to hold a replica of the Overlook Lodge—it lurks on the periphery of a summer movie season as a reminder that translating a story from one format to another can be a rough process. Some patients don’t survive.

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