For over a decade, some of Hollywood’s most successful storytellers have wanted to turn Stephen King’s eight-book Dark Tower saga into movies. Few, presumably, started out with the idea that the best way to wrangle this mountain of plot was to write a new sequel to it. That’s roughly what Danish director Nikolaj Arcel offers in The Dark Tower, weaving elements from the published books into a new premise suggested by the series’ end and paring the whole mythology down enough to fit into a mere hour and a half. Recent industry gossip described a troubled shoot and early edits that were so confusing to test audiences they prompted much postproduction tinkering by producers and studio execs. That’s tough to believe when looking at the finished product, a save-the-multiverse sci-fi fantasy that is, if anything, too easily digested.
Though far from the muddled train wreck we’ve been led to expect, this Tower lacks the world-constructing gravitas of either the Tolkien books that inspired King or the franchise-launching movies that Sony execs surely have in mind. Though satisfying enough to please many casual moviegoers drawn in by King’s name and stars Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, it will likely disappoint many serious fans and leave other newbies underwhelmed.
A decent but uninspiring attempt to wring straightforward adventure out of a sprawling mythology.
Things begin promisingly, with visions of impending doom that haunt the nightmares of a New York City kid named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor). Despite (or maybe because of) the specificity of these John the Baptist-grade revelations, Jake’s parents and shrink are sure it’s all a fantasy, the emotional fallout of a death in the family. But the mysterious Man in Black that Jake has seen in his dreams knows otherwise, and his minions are already en route to kidnap the boy.
The Man in Black is McConaughey’s Walter O’Dim, a sorcerer known by several names in King’s books. We’ll soon learn that he’s attempting to harness the psychic energy of gifted children to destroy the eponymous Tower, which protects not just our planet (known here as “Keystone Earth”) but an unknown number of parallel worlds. Beyond these worlds lies a void full of monsters, we’re told. Though nobody ever hints at why Walter might want to set unpredictable, violent monsters loose on infinite Earths instead of just ruling over them — he coos commands to people and they magically do whatever he asks — it’s hard to have a save-the-universe adventure without a villain bent on destruction.
Jake manages to find a teleportation gizmo that sends him into one of those parallel Earths — a post-apocalyptic place called Mid-World whose inhabitants have fought Walter for, presumably, eons. Elba plays Roland Deschain, the last of an honorable warrior clan called the Jedi Knigh— er, the Gunslingers. Somehow resistant to Walter’s spells, he has endured while the Man in Black killed everyone he loved. He agrees to help Jake on his quest, but only in order to slay Walter; Roland no longer has the stomach for saving the galaxy.
Heaven knows, the books offer more invention than could fit in one feature film — reading just the first two paragraphs of Wikipedia’s entry on Jake Chambers excited me more than anything Dark Tower contains — but in their effort to introduce newcomers to this world, the filmmakers make the saga’s contents look not archetypal but generic and cobbled together. Walter’s giant weapon looks like the Starkiller from The Force Awakens, spitting a giant beam of fire out toward a de-Sauroned version of the scary edifice in Tolkien’s Mordor; Jake, who has great psychic gifts, looks like the same “One Who Was Prophesied” we’ve met in every wish-fulfillment fantasy targeted at youngsters since Luke Skywalker learned to see things with his eyes closed.
Elba and McConaughey give the movie exactly what it needs from them: tarnished righteousness and stoic wisdom from the former, unruffled indifference to humanity’s suffering from the latter. Production and effects departments make the picture quite good-looking, action scenes play well and, though the setups are sometimes inelegant, a few comic moments land nicely. But no scene in this film even approaches the rousing, lump-in-the-throat power of the first Lord of the Rings film, or even of the initial chapter of The Hunger Games. An optimist would say that the Harry Potter movies survived a couple of stiff opening chapters to hit their stride midway through. But that series relied on the loyalty of a different sort of fan. Older and wiser, longtime Stephen King readers know how much Hollywood wants their attention. If they shrug their shoulders at this Dark Tower, a better one might come along before you can say “reboot.”
Production company: Weed Road Pictures
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Cast: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Claudia Kim, Fran Kranz, Abbey Lee Kershaw, Jackie Earle Haley
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Screenwriters: Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinker, Anders Thomas Jensen, Nikolaj Arcel
Producers: Akiva Goldsman, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Stephen King
Executive producers: G. Mac Brown, Trish Hofman, Erica Huggins, Anders Thomas Jensen, Jeff Pinker
Director of photography: Rasmus Videbaek
Production designer: Christopher Glass
Costume designer: Trish Summerville
Editors: Alan Edward Bell, Dan Zimmerman
Composer: Junkie XL
Casting directors: Marisol Roncali, Mary Vernieu
Rated PG-13, 94 minutes