The Dark Tower movie review: 'Saga based on Stephen King's novels is missed opportunity and a mess'
Stephen King fans are a passionate bunch. I've always considered him a pulp writer with brilliant ideas, but might get assaulted if I mentioned that to one of his devotees. The cinematic resonances in his work are obvious and he's probably been adapted for film more than any living author. Plans to adapt his Dark Tower novels have been rumbling on for a decade and, at one point, JJ Abrams was on board as a possible director.
He might have been uniquely qualified to whittle King's eight-book fantasy series into a meaningful film, or franchise, but sadly for this project, he withdrew.
Danish director Nokolaj Arcel ended up in charge: he's also involved in the script - and that's the real problem here. The Dark Tower condenses various parts of King's saga into a quasi-manageable story that jumps around like popcorn in a microwave and lacks a unifying focus. In an era where two-hour films are the norm, Dark Tower's 95-minute length is suspicious and suggests radical post-production cuts. Whatever went on, the results are not edifying.
In the earliest and most coherent part of the film, New York teenager Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) struggles at home and at school. He's seeing a shrink and is plagued by vivid, recurring dreams about a dark tower that controls the universe and which a sinister, prowling magician is trying to destroy. But Jake is a gifted psychic, the dark tower he keeps dreaming about is real, and when two monsters wearing human faces start hunting him, he's drawn into a dark parallel world.
After reaching 'Mid-World' by means uninteresting and scientifically half-baked, he encounters Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last of a wandering breed of cowboy knights called the 'Gunslingers'. He is the mortal foe of Walter Padick (Matthew McConaughey), the sorcerer from Jake's dreams. Padick calls himself the Man in Black (Johnny Cash's estate should sue) and uses the minds of clairvoyant children to bombard the Dark Tower with psychic beams (this will not make any more sense when you watch it). Jake is the most gifted of all, which is why Padick wants him: together, Roland and the boy might just be able to thwart his plans.
The Dark Tower books were apparently inspired by King's love of JRR Tolkien and spaghetti westerns, which explains the puzzling collision of genres. His books usually bristle with good ideas, too many sometimes, and in Arcel's car crash of a film we get teasing glimpses of what might have been. The Arthurian undertones of the Mid-World are intriguing and its feudal structure might have been compellingly cinematic. Those creatures with borrowed faces are the stuff of nightmares and classic King, but here get thrown hastily in the mix and are soon forgotten.
How does the Dark Tower sustain and calibrate the universe? That and many other vital plot points are not explained to us by a film that jumps back and forth aimlessly between Mid-World and the present, filling dull moments with uninspired Cgi fight scenes.
There are constant, tiresome references to King's oeuvre and other, better adaptations of his work. At several points, characters refer to Jake's powers as "the shine", a nod to Stanley Kubrick's Shining, which King once hated - I wonder how he feels about it now.
Matthew McConaughey struts through this mess like a hairdresser in a hurry, dressed in black and looking like a man who's itching to dance: it's as if Michael Flatley had learned some card tricks and earned himself a residency at a Las Vegas night club. I'm not sure what film McConaughey's performance might have belonged in, but it has no place in this one, and his character's menace is undermined by his mincing.
Only Idris Elba briefly steadies this sinking ship, giving gravitas and coherence to a character who doesn't always make sense. He's an unlucky actor in film terms, who often seems so much better than the movies he ends up in. That's certainty the case here.
The Dark Tower
Films coming soon...
Detroit (John Boyega, Will Poulter, John Krasinski, Anthony Mackie); Logan Lucky (Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough, Daniel Craig); Terminator 2: 3D (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, Edward Furlong).