In the Stephen King universe, no single work looms larger than his gargantuan Dark Tower series. Seven books and one companion piece, it’s a sprawling, messy, highly ambitious and strangely gripping series, one often so preposterous that it teeters between insanity and brilliance. Mixing elements of fantasy and spaghetti westerns, whilst pulling on ideas, figures and events from the rest of King’s literary works, it has long been in the sights of Hollywood, despite the fact that they are almost too ambitious to be filmable. Now, after decades of stalled attempts, we have director Nikolaj Arcel’s ‘The Dark Tower’, the first in a proposed franchise that will cover both cinema and television. If this first instalment is any indication of what is to come though, I doubt anyone is going to be interested.
Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is having dreams of an enormous tower, a man in black and a gunslinger at war with him. His parents think they’re just dreams, but Jake knows that they’re real, and they lead him through a portal into Mid-World and into the path of Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last of the Gunslingers. Roland must protect Jake from the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), who wants to use Jake’s psychic powers to bring down the Dark Tower, the nexus that holds up all worlds, including our own.
I’ve decided to take a slightly different approach to this review. In a nutshell, ‘The Dark Tower’ is an awful film. A truly awful film. Much like the structure it is named after, its awfulness has many layers, each as disheartening as the last, so I’m going to look at this film from two perspectives - for those who don’t know King’s novels, and as an adaptation for those who have. It’s a terrible mess either way, but considering how this film essentially wasted an hour and a half of my life, I might as well have some fun reviewing it.
As a film
It’s hard to imagine the uninitiated wanting to see anything further after this film, or believing there was anything there worth being excited in the first place. To begin with, the screenplay is confusing and atrocious, introducing characters and concepts with little to no clarity, dialogue that is entirely exposition and an endless series of groaning clichés. It's little wonder when you have Akiva Goldsman as one of your screenwriters, all these being hallmarks of his work in the past, such as the golden turd of crap ‘Batman & Robin’. At 95 minutes, the film moves way too quickly for anything to sink in, making it hard to have any sympathy for any characters other than Jake, who is sketchily constructed to begin with.
Arcel’s direction is fine, but it lacks any ambition or scope. The action sequences are frustratingly slight, the rhythm of the film is scattered to hell and the visual storytelling is inconsistent. There’s a definite sense that world-building is the intention of this film, but it tries to cram way to much of that in, resorting to monologues about towers and beams and a war being lost and knights known as gunslingers and shining without either showing us these things or giving them any space to make sense. The film also can’t get around its obvious budget constraints, and while the New York setting seems like a roundabout way of dealing with this, it can’t overcome the fact that the fantasy sequences look cheap. This is a film that clearly has no idea what it is - it wants to be a fantasy film and a western but ends up doing neither particularly well. Its lack of identity means it’s hard to care about anyone or anything happening in it, and its thunderously dull climax doesn’t make you want to take any further journeys with Roland or Jake. If the team behind this film were hoping to lure those unfamiliar with King’s books into the fray with this first film, they have failed unequivocally.
In a nutshell, ‘The Dark Tower’ is an awful film. A truly awful film.
As an adaptation
Fans of the books are going to be pissed. Based on none and all of the books at once, the film attempts to cram all the world-building that took King seven volumes to achieve into an hour and a half, leaving behind any of the interesting ideas and retaining all of the bizarre ones, none of which work without the wider context. It refocuses the story to be told from Jake’s perspective, which is fine but the introductions of Roland and the Man in Black are woefully mishandled, Roland now being as dull as a piece of cardboard and the Man in Black basically the shittiest sorcerer in cinema (he’s like an even more boring Chris Angel Mind Freak). The characters are what suffer the most in the adaptation process - Roland’s motivation is almost completely gone, given nothing more than a crappy flashback to his father’s death that has no emotional weight at all. The importance of the Tower for him is reduced to "we just have to save it" rather than the existential quest to stand before and question the creator that drove the books. I could go on and on about all the missteps in this adaptation, but what it all boils down to is that it makes it impossible to care about any of it, all the worse when you know the material and know how moving it often was. On top of that, the film is littered with visual references to many of King’s other works, which the film obviously thinks is fun and cute but just comes across as lazy and obnoxious.
On top of this, the performances are barely worth mentioning. I had no idea Idris Elba (such a fabulous piece of casting) could be so lacking in charisma, and Matthew McConaughey’s performance highlights all his worst qualities. It doesn’t help that the filmmakers are trying to make the Man in Black into more of an active villain than he actually is. There’s no chemistry whatsoever between the two, and while Elba and Tom Taylor find some nice moments, they end up just looking like a crap Doctor Who and his lacklustre companion.
I knew I was going to be let down by ‘The Dark Tower’ when I sat down to watch it, but I didn’t realise just how inept it would be. This ranks as one of the worst films of the year - in fact, the only thing I was impressed by was how it could actually be a worse film than ‘Beauty and the Beast’. As an audience member, I was bored shitless and resentful of being asked to care about these characters and this set-up when no effort was being made to justify that, and as a King fan I was deeply insulted and severely let down at this missed opportunity. ‘The Dark Tower’ well and truly forgets the face of its father, though somehow I doubt it knew what that face looked like to begin with. It certainly looked nothing like this mess.