A film review by Craig J. Koban August 12, 2017

THE DARK TOWER j

2017, PG-13, 95 mins.

 

Matthew McConaughey as Man in Black  /  Idris Elba as Roland  /  Tom Taylor as Jake  /   Katheryn Winnick as Laurie 

Directed by Nikolaj Arcel  /  Written by  Arcel, Akiva Goldsman,  Jeff Pinkner,  and Anders Thomas Jensen, based on the book series by Stephen King

Very few films that I've seen during my 13 years as a critic have failed as spectacularly at basic franchise world building as much as THE DARK TOWER, which seems to lazily rush itself out of the gate from its opening sequence with seemingly no creative game plan in place.  

Of course, THE DARK TOWER is based on Stephen King's revered science fiction/fantasy/western literary odyssey that spanned eight novels and took nearly three decades to craft by the legendary author.  Unread by me, the novels seem to have elements that beg for cinematic treatment, but this resulting and long gestating treatment of THE DARK TOWER is such a staggeringly incompetent and incoherent mess of a movie that I'm quite sure that the most loyal King devotee will probably want to protest post-screening.   

Just how categorically awful is THE DARK TOWER at world building?  Let's put a few things in perspective: The film is not a singular adaptation for any one particular King novel in the multiple volume series, but rather cheery picks elements from multiple books and desperately tries to homogenize them all together to form some semblance of a meaningful and understandable whole...and all in the span of 95 minutes.  

95 minutes.  

 

 

The obvious negative side effects of this are beyond damning, seeing as (a) it'll endlessly infuriate the most ardent fans of the novels and dash their hopes of a semi-faithful adaptation, (b) those unfamiliar with the novels will be left scratching their heads as to what's going on and (c) it ultimately leaves the film feeling like one big squandered opportunity for all involved.  How anyone - from director Nikolaj Arcel to the film's four screenwriters to King himself - would think that producing an egregiously short silver screen appropriation of what amounts to over 4000 pages of source material is positively stupefying.

Last I checked...I'm no dummy.  I pay attention to what's happening on screen for every film I see.  Yet, THE DARK TOWER confounded me from its opening title cards, which read "A tower stands at the center of the known universe.  Only the mind of a child can bring it down."  You know you're in trouble when even a film's title card exposition appears laughably vague.  The film awkwardly opens and then repeatedly segues between our universe and a fantastical one of sorcerers, monsters, gunslingers, and, yes, Dark Towers.  A young New York residing teenager, Jake (Tom Taylor), is having repeated visions of the aforementioned mystical realm, replete with vivid images of the tower and an ominous and frightening Man in Black.  Predictably, Tom's mother (Katheryn Winnick) fears that her son is going bonkers and makes plans to send him upstate for more advanced clinical testing.  Realizing that his pleas to his mother to believe him are failures, Jake decides to run away and seek out an abandoned house that was also a part of his nightmarish visions. 

While there Jake finds a portal that - wouldn't ya know it - whisks him to the universe of his dreams, known as "Mid-World."  While there he's befriended by Roland "The Gunslinger" Deschain (Idris Elba, doing what he can to class up a fairly classless film), who brandishes guns that were forged from the metal of Excalibur (not making this up) and fights a never-ending battle against the Man in Black (a hilariously slumming it Matthew McConaughey), a nefarious wizard that is kidnapping children and using their minds to harness a weapon that will destroy the Dark Tower and allow for him to control all of the known universes.  But, hang on, Jake is no mere mortal boy, seeing as he has untapped "shine" abilities (mental powers) that could prove to be the key for the Man in Black's plan to decimate the tower.  He proceeds to hunt down Roland and Jake through multiple universes, which culminates in a climatic standoff in Jake's own home town.

THE DARK TOWER hopelessly comes off as one of those extremely rough first edits that's several edits - and scenes - short of a final and satisfying cut that's worthy of big screen consumption.  With its anemic running time there's barely enough meat on the bones of this narrative to fully flesh out the characters, their respective worlds and powers, and what the Dark Tower, well, actually does.  It's mind blowing that a book series about multiple dimensions, time portal jumping cowboys, vile monsters, evil necromancers, and clairvoyant teenagers is condensed so much to the point of making the material uninviting, convoluted, and lacking in meaningful payoffs.  Everything in THE DARK TOWERS' plot is in hyperactive rush mode; we never feel attachments to any of these characters and their dilemmas because the screenplay has no breathing room.  The concepts and ideas at the core of King's mythology seem rich and fascinating, but THE DARK TOWER struggles to find a way of unleashing them.  All in all, the film feels like yet another in a long lineup of disposable and interchangeable Young Adult fantasies about a young hero learning of his power and potential to rid the world of evil. 

Most distracting is the fact that Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey - two of our finest actors that are capable of elevating middling to atrocious material - inhabit respective characters in THE DARK TOWER that are only sketchily developed abstractions instead of a fully forged hero and villain tandem worthy of our interest.  Elba arguably comes off the best, if I were to give the film one compliment, in the sense that he does manage to bring a commendable level of world weary vigilance to his mystical gunslinger that will stop at nothing to end the Man In Black's terror campaign (granted, he has to deliver oh-so-many lines of clunky expositional dialogue like "They sense your weakness, Jake, and create illusions to distract you" that would have proven campy if uttered by a lesser actor).  McConaughey is the large disappointment here, seeing as he never once plausibly comes off as a truly frightening antagonist.  He looks, more or less, like he just stepped away from the set of one of those pretentious Lincoln car commercials.   

That, and so much regarding this villain is ill explained and makes no sense.  He's capable, for example, of making any victim do what he wants by simply instructing them to do so ("Stop breathing," he instructs one poor sap, who does just that and very quickly dies).  Yet, he's incapable of using his vast and unstoppable powers to locate and find Jake, instead relying on his semi-bumbling minions to do his duty work (rather conveniently, his mind powers don't work on Roland).  Then there are other things that make not sense whatsoever, like, for example, scenes involving Roland acclimatizing himself to Jake's world (some of which are fun).  He has no idea what Coke, a hot dog, or painkillers are, but later in the film - during one sluggishly choreographed gun battle - he throws a propane tank, shoots it, and blows up his enemies.  Now, how did he know that a propane tank is flammable in this strange world when he has no concept of what soda pop is? 

I know...I know...trying to find logic in a logic-free narrative such as this is a fool's errand, but THE DARK TOWER - especially during its latter stages - doesn't even to seem to be aiming for modest coherence.  The film also went through a tortuous production history, which led to re-shoots after a very problematic initial audience scores after test screenings.  The glaringly obvious re-shot footage sticks out here like a proverbial sore thumb, seeing as there's horrendous continuity errors revolving around props, hair, and costumes.  McConaughey's inky black hairline seems to be the product of some obtrusively fake wigs during some scenes, and Jake from moment to moment seems to have matured back and forth by a few years.  In some shots he looks like a boy, whereas in others he appears to have coasted through puberty.  Not since perhaps the wrongheaded FANTASTIC FOUR reboot have the post production tinkering of a film in an eleventh hour mission to improve it have been so readily apparent.   

I've read that THE DARK TOWER is essentially a launching off point for a vaster TV series.  This begs one question: Why wasn't King's massive and dense eight book series just given, say, an eight part HBO-styled mini-series that would do thorough justice to his material?  Diluting his literary world to a film like this that's so simplistically and confusingly designed makes no creative sense whatsoever.  There have been a multitude of sensational adaptations of King's material over the decades (that, to be fair, played fast and loose with his storylines) as well as many that were unmitigated failures.  THE DARK TOWER is the kind of soulless, careless, dissatisfying, and languid paint-by-numbers hatchet job affair that most definitely belongs in the latter category.  It's not so much a franchise starter as it is a franchise killer.  

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