The Dark Tower has had quite the long journey on its way to the screen. The film is an adaptation of the book “The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger” written by Stephen King and originally published as novel in 1982, but its roots go back even farther than that as it was first published in installments from 1977 to 1981 in “The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction”. Rumors of a film or series of films chronicling the adventures of Roland the Gunslinger have been circulating for decades due to the books’ huge fan base, but until now, 40 years after the initial story was printed, no one has actually been able or willing to make it happen. Columbia Pictures has plans for this movie to be the first of a number of installments which will be released both in movie theaters and as television shows, another cash grab ala Marvel Studios and their Cinematic Universe, but while the rabid fanbase of the books may be able to still make that a reality, the quality of the flagship film in this series’ launch does not bode well for future endeavors in this Stephen King franchise.
The Dark Tower focuses on three main characters, two protagonists and an antagonist. We are first introduced to Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) a young man of an indeterminate age, but young enough that if he has hit his teenage years its barely. Jake has dreams which he draws in his art book of a tower, a man in black, a man with two six shooters, and the numbers 19-19. His dreams are accompanied by earthquakes when he wakes up and everyone thinks he is crazy. Matthew McConaughey plays the Man in Black from Jake’s dreams, and he is an evil sorcerer who uses psychic children as a weapon to destroy the Dark Tower which will allow demons to entire our universe and several others attached to ours. Finally, Idris Elba plays the Gunslinger Roland who wants to kill the Man in Black as revenge for the murder of his father and the rest of the Gunslingers at the hands of the Man in Black.
Let’s start with the good in this movie, which would be the acting. Matthew McConaughey in particular is a lot of fun as the villainous Man in Black chewing the scenery with aplomb and radiating a cartoonish charm which you can’t help but enjoy. Idris Elba is much more subdued as Roland, but an actor as accomplished as he can’t help but ooze charisma even if he tries to hide it. Finally, while Tom Taylor is not the greatest child actor, he holds up his part of the story well enough to never be distracting.
Past that, there is not much to like about The Dark Tower. The film is shot in the annoying fashion of the day with incredibly tight close ups at inappropriate times, jerky camera movements, and lighting dim enough that what we are seeing is barely more than a sillhouette. Trying to follow the action here is nearly impossible as we are never given any anchor for our perspective and the action takes place willy-nilly with no context as to positions and movement. The camera is more interested in framing whatever is the most spectacular thing to look at at the moment than it is with giving us a coherent vision of the action of the story.
As bad as the camera work is, though, the script is far worse. The visuals are at least decent during The Dark Tower‘s quieter moments and the special effects are fun, but the script has no saving grace whatsoever. The entire story is written to formula, and very obviously so at that, with no thought given to anything beyond how the action of the story would fit into said formula. Character motivations are non-existent. Why does the Man in Black want to destroy the universes? Er, he’s evil, and evil guys do that? What did the Gunslingers do before they were all killed? Hell if anyone knows. What is a Gunslinger for that matter? A guy with guns as far as I can tell. Decisions made by the characters are nonsensical, doing something 2 seconds after they said they couldn’t do exactly that thing for reasons never really explained well, or just plain idiotic. Characters make relationships just because it seems like they should and all of a sudden can do incredible things because they need to do it at that moment. The story is easy enough to follow, so it isn’t Michael Bay level bad, but it is so obviously contrived it’s distractingly hilarious.
I’ve never read “The Dark Tower” series of books, so I can’t speak to the quality of the film compared to the quality of the books. However, I can say that knowing the books have such a large and loyal fan base, consisting of quite a few people whose taste I respect, I can only guess that fans of the books are going to come away greatly disappointed by the film, and those who have never read the books are not going to understand what others see in this series.
Final verdict: With good acting and absolutely nothing else going for it, give The Dark Tower a big miss. It’s possible Columbia will go ahead with further film and television installments in this series, and it’s possible some of them could be good – the premise does have promise and Idris Elba has charisma and talent to spare. If this is the case, then maybe come back and give this one a watch to catch up on the action. Until then, though, I can’t see this formulaic to a nonsensical degree story appealing to anyone, fan of the books or no. And, what is it with the Gunslinger’s mantra they say over and over in the film? That thing isn’t cool or comforting, it’s downright creepy and disturbing.