This The Dark Tower adaptation isn’t completely busted, as you may have heard and feared. But that very well may be the best thing you can say about it. To both its benefit and its detriment, this is close to the least faithful Stephen King adaptation. It’s wonderful at building and building and building the mystery—the intrigue—but it never closes the deal. Rather, it slams the book shut and waves good bye.
To that end, let’s skip the comparisons to the series of written word that spawned this film. It’s a fruitless discussion, though the nods towards fandom that director/co-writer Nikolaj Arcel have included are fun in their own way. Not only do the books sprawl out to an impossible degree, the movie itself is such a hodgepodge of entries that you’d be hard-pressed to find bookworms satisfied with the adapting of this adaptation.
With that monster caveat out of the way, we can discuss how this film can be fun and boring—unrelenting and glacial—at the same time. It places an eleven-year-old boy named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) at the center of the story. He suffers from dreams of another world and terrifying people that use children to attack a tall, dark tower. One of those people is a Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), a mysterious figure that he’s seen use magic to kill all but one Gunslinger.
That lone Gunslinger, a mix of Arthurian knights and Wild West sheriffs (and superheroes, I guess), is Roland Deschain (Idris Elba). Jake’s dreams put Roland at the forefront of protecting the Dark Tower, which the Man in Black is hell-bent on destroying so he can remake reality as he sees fit, but the truth of the matter is that Roland only wants to find him to avenge his father’s death. All the same, Jake seeks him out and ends up in one of the many worlds the Dark Tower holds together and protects.
This premise, while rather straightforward for anyone who has ever had any intermingling with science fiction or fantasy, seems to be problematic for Arcel. All the way up to the last 30 minutes (and there are only 65 other minutes to work with), the film feels like it is in its first act. It builds at such an incredibly slow pace in the larger, monumental elements while folding in the minutia of how they happen.
You can practically see where King’s words fight back against Arcel and company’s inclination towards a traditional movie act structure. All the lead-up to Jake making it to Roland’s Mid-World feels like it should be the first act but is about two act breaks too late. But that minutia is also where the movie has the most fun, drenching itself in the Lovecraftian horror and weird fiction shenanigans that King so loves.
This is especially true in an early set of events in some foggy woods. The darkness that the Tower keeps at bay trickles in ever so slightly after each attack by the Man in Black, and some have made it to this sylvan arena. (Where we also see a long-abandoned amusement park made in It‘s Pennywise’s honor.) Illusion, deception, and esoteric horrors culminate in a terrific and exemplary gunfight between Roland and some of the darkness, showcasing the special effects of the movie as much as the Gunslinger’s inherent ability to kick a bunch of ass.
In fact, if there is one thing that can be praised without reservation in this movie, it’s Elba’s portrayal as Roland. It’s the sort of leading role Hollywood has been jonesing for from him for years now, his side characters in Pacific Rim and the Thor movies hardly satisfying their lust for tall, dark, and handsome actors. But this role puts on full display his ability to be brooding and strong yet nearly defeated, reluctant hero, give him ample opportunity to flex his stony stares and broad shoulders.
He’s compelling and complex and rife with character in the face of a character that is largely defined by vagueness and inability to show character. Elba whips around his revolvers with panache, infusing battles with stoic history. He takes what easily could have been a cringe-filled romp through modern New York and injected it with pain and an eerily mirthful sadness. If there’s anything holding this film together, it’s Elba.
That’s because it sure as hell isn’t going to be McConaughey, who mostly muddles his way through his time as the Man in Black. He’s fine, but the film has a hard time keeping straight his motivations, or at least properly revealing why he would seem so bored of himself. There are flashes of his full acting brunt (especially towards the end), but he’s largely forgettable in all of this.
In their mishmash character Jake, however, the filmmakers have crafted a suitable foil for Roland’s downtrodden perspective. While Roland aimless wanders his world, Jake knows what he wants and that’s all that matters. One is weary and broken while the other is driven and (shakily) confident. Taylor does a mighty fine job making the character that steals the protagonist title away from Roland into something endearing.
Talking about a breezy 95-minute film adaptation of a series of books and graphic novels that would take years to read is weird. You never feel like you’ve said enough but also like you’re wringing water from a rock. As it stands, though, The Dark Tower could perhaps be best summed up as a stumbling, shaky film that’s never as good as you’d hoped but far from as bad as you’d feared.
Final Score: 5 out of 10