Without even seeing The Dark Tower, it’s easy to point out what could go wrong. Stephen King’s eight book story being adapted into a film that barely squeaks past an hour and a half is borderline ridiculous. Imagine a world as rich and full of character and ideas as Westeros or Middle-Earth boiled down to less than two hours. Of course, such an effort would be impossible.
Yet this isn’t what makes The Dark Tower bad. It’s actually admirable that writer/director Nikolaj Arcel and his three co-writers – including Akiva Goldsman (Transformers: The Last Knight, Rings) – believe they can harness the heart of what fans love about The Dark Tower into such a small package. The Dark Tower’s true error is that when you grill this story down to its bare essence with room for little else, it becomes a bland, unimaginative disaster that negates what made audiences interested by the story in the first place.
The Dark Tower is the story of Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) – the last of a group known as “The Gunslingers – and his quest to stop the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), a being of pure evil. The Man in Black wants to destroy the eponymous Dark Tower, which holds our universe – and many others – together.
Well, that’s sort of the story. This arc mostly happens in the background for Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a kid who constantly has dreams of The Dark Tower, the Man in Black, and the Gunslinger. His friends, mother, and comically mean stepfather think he’s just losing his mind, but Jake knows his visions are a sign of something real. It’s all Jake can think of, leading him to constantly draw these dreams and post them on his bedroom wall, like he’s hunting down the Zodiac killer.
Jake finds a portal to the world he dreamt of and discovers The Man in Black is looking for a child whose mind will unlock the power able to destroy the tower. Jake teams up with The Gunslinger and together, they try to stop The Man in Black from his nefarious plans.
The Dark Tower on film seems like the type of world that would be exciting to explore in a larger context – like, say a book series – but every aspect of this story is given short shrift. The Man in Black and The Gunslinger are so poorly defined, there’s no motivation given for their conflict that has gone on for years, and neither are much more than “constant good” or “constant evil.” Both are one emotion and little else. Instead, The Dark Tower wants its audience invested in Jake, but this turns this tale from a battle of light versus dark into a banal YA adaptation – likely due to Goldsman’s recent writing on banal YA adaptations like The 5th Wave and Insurgent.
Even the fleshed out world is full of unresolved questions. It’s clear that a great disaster has happened, but absolutely nothing is done to explore this world full of potential. There’s never even any semblance of what the tower actually is. Once again, The Dark Tower is ground down to its core elements, which leaves confused reactions rather than awe-inspiring imagination.
Since The Dark Tower is King’s attempt to corral all of his various stories into one world, The Dark Tower at times becomes most interesting simply as just a King scavenger hunt. The car from Christine and the numbers “1408” can be found for eagle-eyed viewers, but even for those not paying close attention, the film drills it into the audience’s head that yes, Jake has “the shine.” Each character lingers on these words in a way that is as obvious as just staring into the camera and winking. But again, these nods to King’s library are just hints at a much deeper, intricate world that The Dark Tower film just doesn’t have time for.
It’s wonderful to see Idris Elba starring in a gigantic production, and as the Gunslinger, he’s the strongest link in this film. Especially in scenes with Tom Taylor, there’s a charisma and earnestness that escalates the film when he’s the central focus. McConaughey is hammy and laughably fun as the embodiment of pure evil. McConaughey looks like he’s playing himself in a Lincoln commercial, and his version of “darkness” and unspeakable power is throwing glass shards at characters, forcing people to quit breathing, and at one point, leaves a threatening message that includes a smiley emoji. As evil incarnate, McConaughey doesn’t pull the role off, but as a campy version of Satan, sure, he’s fun.
Most disappointing however is director/co-writer Nikolaj Arcel, who wrote the original Swedish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and directed the fantastic Oscar-nominated historical drama A Royal Affair. With The Dark Tower, Arcel is doing the bare minimum visually, creating scene-after-scene of dark-blue, scattered with terrible special effects. Considering how gorgeously rich A Royal Affair was in its sparse, candle-lit castle, the grandiosity of The Dark Tower deserves to look better than this.
There’s such promise and possibility within this tale, but insane amounts of cramming and compromises ruins this story, forcing fans to question what they saw with the book. The Dark Tower on the screen unfortunately turns into a story that goes for a younger audience that doesn’t exist for this story, ignores its current audience, and is only fun for its occasional references to better media. The Man in Black would be proud of the disaster that is The Dark Tower.