Written by: Akiva Goldsman & Jeff Pinkner (screenplay), Anders Thomas Jensen & Nikolaj Arcel (screenplay), Stephen King (novels)
Directed by: Nikolaj Arcel
Starring: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, and Tom Taylor
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"You can't stop what's coming. Death always wins."
Few adaptations arrive to the screen with as much baggage as The Dark Tower, and even fewer ask that you kindly drop it at the door. Whatever preconceived notions you may have had about this long-gestating attempt to bring Stephen Kingís magnum opus must be altered, if not dismissed outright. Calling it an ďadaptationĒ might even be generous since itís not even trying to capture the epic series but rather remix it and sequelize it into a Dark Tower fantasia of sorts. It sounds like a nobleóif not daringóenough gesture, one that could match Kingís grandiose vision with something of a companion piece rather than a typical adaptation. Unfortunately, whatever good intentions that may have existed arenít nearly enough to overcome the sinking feeling that Sony Pictures and its creative team simply didnít trust audiences to get The Dark Tower, which makes you wonder why they even bothered in the first place. Nothing of the grandeur, majesty, or intrigue from Kingís novel survives a weak translation that waters down and distills this massive tome into an utterly common, cookie-cutter summer blockbuster.
Given Kingís ending for The Dark Tower, a sequel approach is technically fitting, or at least it would be if the film bothered to engage with the text in any meaningful way. Instead, it feels more like a shortcut, one that allows the filmmakers to hold the audienceís hand with an easier entry point into this universe by starting in the familiar, earthy confines of New York City. Along with other prominent locations around the world, itís been shaken by a series of earthquakes, all of them mysteriously coinciding with the bizarre dreams of Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), an odd adolescent still reeling from the death of his father. His mother, stepfather, and psychiatrist all agree that his dreams are merely his way of processing his grief; however, heís convinced theyíre glimpses into another realm, where a sinister Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) harvests the brains of children to topple The Dark Tower, a mysterious structure holding together a delicate balance between various worlds.
When The Man in Blackís legionsóa couple of demons using human skin to hide their true formóarrive under the pretenses of taking Jake to a clinic for special children, heís forced to escape and seek refuge in an abandoned house from his dreams. In actuality, itís an old waystation, capable of transporting Jake to Mid-World, a realm thatís been ravaged by an ongoing war between The Man in Black and The Gunslingers, a group of soldiers charged with protecting the realm and The Dark Tower. Only one of their number remains in Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), whoís locked in a seemingly eternal quest to avenge his friends and familyís deaths at the hand of the Man in Black. With Jake at his side, he mounts a desperate, final mission to rid both himself and the universe of the sorcererís fiendish plot.
Obviously, this is a far cry from the plot of Kingís novel. If you squint hard enough, you can at least see the pieces and the skeleton outline in the form of the trio of main characters, but, otherwise, itís more or less a clean slate. Imagine someone taking action figures from one familiar sandbox and plopping them down into another one: thatís this take on The Dark Tower, which frames this is as Jakeís story rather than Rolandís, an interesting but not completely compelling wrinkle that gives the entire thing a YA vibe. Itís less a mystical quest story and more a techno-sci-fi riff on The Neverending Story, only without nearly the amount of imagination that went into that filmómuch less the smorgasbord of strange, delirious ideas that formed Kingís entire universe in the novels.
Which is kind of a problem: itís one thing to alter The Dark Tower and make it more digestible for audiences, but itís another thing altogether to do so without much inventiveness or a clear vision. The primary problem with this take isnít that itís not The Dark Tower many of us may have expected; itís that it largely lacks any kind of spark that could bring even this alternate universe take to life. Thereís a weird sense of inevitability around it, almost as if it were on rails designed to take audiences on a familiar thrill ride cribbed from other films. One scene even unfolds in the shadow of an abandoned amusement park, an apt visual metaphor for this entire endeavor: this is a hollowed out husk of former glory, yet it still somehow stands. Perhaps if you strain enough, you can still hear the distant echoes of that glory, which are vaguely alluded to throughout the film, assuring readers that this is following up their beloved series of books.
Those echoes are all but drowned out by Nikolaj Arcelís insistence on the typical blockbuster bombast and generic world building. When the film does spring to life, itís still only retreading familiar action movie beats from various other films. Everything in The Dark Tower feels cribbed by something else youíve seen before, even a scene where Roland fends off a demonic creature of some sort (itís honestly difficult to tell what it is since it unfolds under murky lighting in a dense forest). The filmís general aesthetic is the sort of grim grittiness that would have been more at home in films a decade ago, when studios felt less willing to trust in wild source material.
Honestly, the whole thing has a Bryan Singerís X-Men vibe that seeks to mute the cool, colorful qualities of this tale in favor of grounding it in something more palatable. Even the decision to go more sci-fi feels half-bakedóitíd be one thing if The Dark Tower went full cyberpunk, but the decision to couch the film in this aesthetic mostly amounts to McConaughey standing in a command center, barking orders at his underlings, surrounded by various monitors and machinery. Oh, and the decision seemingly dictates that this yet another movie that climaxes with a fucking portal threatening to open over a large city to usher in the apocalypse. Itís been, like, months since Iíve seen that.
Some bright spots do emerge, most of them emanating from Elba and McConaughey, both of whom are terrific choices to embody their respective characters. Rolandís weariness hangs on Elbaís face, giving the character a haunted but dogged presence on Mid-World. While you wish you had already spent eight movies (or more) with him already, Elba adequately conveys the breadth of the Gunslingerís endless struggle to defeat the Man in Black. He also handles the fish-out-of-water bits in New York quite well too, as he obviously spits out odd dialogue to the bewildered handful of folks he encounters.
McConaughey matches Elbaís rugged charm with a wry, Luciferian turn as the Man in Black. His devilish presence is amplified with each sly line reading, revealing a character that relishes being evil and a performer thatís just as eager to step into such shoes. The Man in Black tends to feel a little sillier than you might imagine, but his depiction here is fairly accurate, with McConaughey doing what he can to drag this thing to life alongside his co-star. Too bad it proves to be a herculean task, one thatís undercut by a script that stuffs in too much mythology and too many beats in its rushed attempt to stage what should be an epic final confrontation between Roland and the Man in Black, especially if you keep the novels in mind. Instead, Arcel treats us to a perfunctory showdown where the two trade gunfire and shattered glass in a dull corridor for about 30 seconds.
If that sounds underwhelming, just know that itís completely emblematic of The Dark Tower, a film that breezes through the bare minimum of Kingís tome in 90 minutes. Such a runtime makes it nearly impossible to capture the heft and grandeur of a tale that spans time, space, and dimensions, much less its resonance. What should be a culmination feels like a perfunctory appendix to a series of films we never saw. Pitching this as a vague sequel ultimately feels like a lazy attempt to let the novel do most of the legwork, a gambit that misfires since we still need time to become acquainted with this particular version of the characters in this universe. You really miss that lived-in quality of The Dark Tower, not to mention its voluminous sense of scale, which eventually came to encompass the entirety of Kingís universe. This film tries to compensate for that with a bevy of references to other works, but they only serve as an ironic reminder that youíd really love to see a more faithful adaptation where these sight gags could matter.
To be sure, thereís an obvious debate to be had about the viability of any Dark Tower film adaptation. After all, thereís a reason itís taken this project over a decade to make it to the screen, and while I hesitate to say itís unadaptable material, it certainly poses a mammoth challenge that no one was up to tackling here. Sony insists that this is indeed the first of further Dark Tower entries, with a recently confirmed television series purportedly on the way to fill in the backstory sorely lacking from this film. I want to believe that will still happen: even if this foundation is shaky as hell, it at least has some nice pieces in Elba and McConaughey that Iíd be more than willing to continue watching, especially on a format thatís better-suited for this material.
Hopefully further efforts will be more inspired than this one, though. To be clear, The Dark Tower is not a complete disaster, if only because itís not nearly ambitious enough to be one. Nothing that reeks of this many studio hands and script notes could ever be anything more than safe mediocrity, which might actually be worse. With a masterpiece sitting their laps, Sony managed to turn a grandiose vision into something utterly commonóitís mythology without gravitas, an epic without scope or scale. Not only does King deserve better, but so too do his fans, who have been subjected to underwhelming adaptations for the past decade, and The Dark Tower is just another disappointment. Same shit, different day, indeed.
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