A thoroughly average adaptation of some truly incredible source material.
While watching the film version of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, I couldn’t help but dwell on the final line of the Gunslingers’ creed. “You do not kill with your gun. He who kills with his gun has forgotten the face of his father. You kill with your heart.” While this line is spoken several times by a pair of incredible lead actors, the movie doesn’t seem to truly understand it. This Dark Tower adaptation abandons the nuance and gravity of its source material and all too often lacks any trace of a beating heart.
I always have a hard time describing King’s series without sounding completely bonkers. Equal parts horror, spaghetti western, and Arthurian myth, the sprawling, epic book series pulls in a multitude of genres to create something that is fantastically unique in its own. Completely contrary to this, The Dark Tower film is a superficial adaption that, while not terrible, fails to leave any sort of a lasting impression.
Mixing in parts of several of the books in an attempt to tell a new story, the film takes a handful of the the saga’s main elements – the battle over a magical Tower that acts as the nexus of all universes, the revenge-obsessed Gunslinger Roland (Idris Elba), the dark sorcerer Walter (Matthew McConaughey), and a psychic kid from New York City named Jake (Tom Taylor). But what the film fails to do is capture any of the subtly, lore, and heartbreak that makes the books so remarkable.
The deeply flawed and compellingly tragic characters that King created are one-dimensional in their on-screen adaptations because the motivations that give them that depth are completely lost to the wind. That’s not to say the performances are bad – in fact, I absolutely adore the casting of the leads. Elba’s furrowed brow, curt delivery, and impressive handling of twin pistols effectively channel Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. Likewise, McConaughey exudes a terrifying glee in playing an ancient, diabolical sorcerer with the swagger of a man who truly believes he’s about to end all existence. But there’s no meat on the bone of the script for arguably two of the finest actors of our time to really dig in and give us something we haven’t seen before.
The actual storytelling in The Dark Tower is a bit all over the place. At a scant 95 minutes, the film barrels ahead at a breakneck speed, with no time to flesh out the backstory of the world and its inhabitants before the moment we encounter them on screen. During the few times the pace does slow down for a quiet moment of conversation, we’re subjected to an exposition dump for what’s going to happen in the next scene instead of any sort of personal character reflection.
It’s from here that the problem with a lack of motivation arises. While the events unfolding in front of us are relatively easy to follow, I was continually confounded as to why anyone on screen was doing what they did. Roland is a stuck and bloodied bull, focused only on revenge against the red cloth that is Walter. But the film simply glosses over his noble past and tragic downfall, both of which contributed to him becoming the man he is. Likewise, Walter is using Jake and other child psychics to bring down the Tower and end all existence because…well, again, in this movie, we don’t really know why. Because he’s evil and that’s what evil people do, I guess? As a fan of the series, I came into the theater knowing the answer to many of these questions. But a standalone movie absolutely shouldn’t have 5,000 pages of prior required reading in order to understand the reason for its central conflict.
This problem is compounded by the disposable supporting cast. Skirting past the leads, the rest of the bunch quickly fall into trite stereotypes: the bitter step-dad, the nerdy computer whiz, and the ethereal seer are contained within those brief descriptions. We never get enough time to get to know anyone past a surface level, which makes any death or sacrifice or betrayal carry little to no weight. If the characters themselves are able to get over the loss of a loved one by the end of the scene in which they die, then why should we possibly care?
While there may not be a whole lot of depth to the events transpiring on screen, they’re at least nice to look at. Director Nikolaj Arcel does a great job of juxtaposing the hustle and bustle of Jake’s modern-day New York with the harsh, empty wasteland of Roland and Walter’s Mid-World. Likewise, the Low Men, a race of creatures who pass among us by awkwardly wearing the skin of humans like a suit a size too big, are thoroughly creepy the few times we see them serving Walter. And the enigmatic Tower itself, stretching high up through the clouds, is every bit as grandiose and impactful as the center of the universe should be.
But as is indicative with the rest of the film, we never get a moment to pause and reflect on any of this before being dragged along to the next event. I wanted to spend more time getting to know Mid-World, more time growing to fear the Low Men, and more time reflecting on just what the Tower is.