Over forty years and eight sprawling novels, the Man in Black fled across worlds and the gunslinger followed. They chased from comic books (a prequel series), an animated TV show (in an alternate universe), and now, finally, there’s a big-screen, big-budget adaptation of The Dark Tower that was more than a decade in the making. Less an adaptation proper of Stephen King‘s series than a continuation that begs, borrows, and lifts ideas, concepts, and characters into a hyper-condensed running time (all of 95 minutes, including credits), The Dark Tower won’t (and shouldn’t) win any converts to King’s self-described multiverse-spanning magnum opus (including a planned TV series) or thrill longtime fans who’ll rightly feel cheated by The Dark Tower’s failure to convey the wonder and awe, the scale and spectacle, of King’s work.
Instead, The Dark Tower looks, sounds, and feels like any other late summer, generic, committee-made tentpole wannabe that will be quickly forgotten a week or two after it hits multiplexes. It didn’t have to be that way, but the top-level insistence on turning The Dark Tower series into a film franchise practically doomed it from the start. With characters, plots, and themes running through the science fiction, fantasy, western, and horror genres, The Dark Tower’s sprawl was (and continues to be) best suited to a premium cable series (see, for example, American Gods).
And with all that sprawl to cut-and-paste into a straightforward, world-hopping adventure story involving yet another “Chosen One” (Joseph Campbell will never stop spinning in his grave as long as screenwriters continue to uncritically embrace his decades-old ideas). This time, we get Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a troubled, traumatized teen gifted or cursed with the “shine,” semi-defined psychic abilities that allow him to read minds, see visions of other worlds and people (like his own private Internet), and power weapons with just his mind. This can’t possibly go wrong…
Chambers’ “shine” puts him in the cross-hairs of the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), a sorcerer supreme (no, not that one) who, like any other embodiment of pure, unadulterated evil with a Texas drawl, wants to bring the multiverse crashing down, leaving the literal gates of hell open to the all kinds of monsters from another dimension or universe (paging Mr. Lovecraft, Mr. H.P. Lovecraft). He believes in nothing except chaos, destruction, and bringing on the end times (insert yawn here).
At least the evil sorcerer in last year’s Doctor Strange had his reasons for opening an inter-dimensional portal to let pure evil into our universe: personal loss (his family) made all the worse by his discovery of his mentor’s betrayal (using Dark Dimension energy to prolong her life indefinitely). And without anything beyond “He’s evil, get used to it,” as motivation, the Man in Black starts and ends as a bland, blank character.
The Dark Tower, of course, pits Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last Gunslinger of Mid-World, a near-Earth world brought low by cataclysm and catastrophe, against the Man in Black. Roland’s motivation? Simple: Revenge. He wants to terminate the Man in Black with extreme prejudice for killing everyone close to him, including Roland’s father, Steven (Dennis Haysbert).
It’s as good as any motivation apparently, but it also sets up the tired, “not this again” conflict between Roland’s desire for revenge and stopping the Man in Black’s plan to usher in Apocalypse 2.0. The Man in Black wants to destroy the Dark Tower of the title, a magically empowered building that holds and binds together multiple worlds, protecting said worlds from the Darkness (or something) and its minions (no, not those Minions, other ones). And all the Man in Black needs is a pure of heart, innocent child with super-sensory gifts like Jake, and use him like a battery (hello, Matrix fans, feel free to stay awhile) to power up the equivalent of a universe-destroying death ray, or something.
That’s a lot of story, a lot of world- and universe-building ideas to get across to newbie moviegoers without lulling them to sleep, but the filmmaking team behind The Dark Tower adaptation, co-writer and director Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair), plus Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, and Anders Thomas Jensen on screenwriting duties, decided on a frantic less is more approach. (As opposed to the more leisurely more-is-more approach of the original 2-hour, 20-minute cut.)
The theory was that this is the best way to get those newbie moviegoers in the multiplex doors and tell their friends and family about what they just saw, but it’s a mistake that will haunt everyone behind the camera associated with The Dark Tower. While it certainly moves at a rapid clip, The Dark Tower never stays too long in one spot to let the story breathe or get to know the characters beyond a few words here or there of necessary exposition. That ruthless approach to storytelling also means that supposedly important characters get a few minutes of screen time before they’re unceremoniously dumped, never to be seen or heard from again except maybe to confirm their untimely end.
Like the faceless henchmen and drones that repeatedly take hits from the Gunslinger’s magically empowered firearms, flopping and falling out of frame bloodlessly (PG-13 rating and all that), almost nothing in The Dark Tower makes a positive or lasting impression. The obligatory action scenes may be passable, but they’re also blandly directed, dully executed, and all but sleep-inducing. At worst, the action scenes feel like placeholders, where the filmmaking team jotted down a few, unformed ideas, storyboarded them with the expectation that they would be revisited at a later time before principal photography, but then never did, accepting that third- or fourth-rate ideas were the best they had.
Even the climactic showdown between the Man in Black and the Gunslinger feels way too rushed. Maybe it was a budget thing, maybe they wanted to save a bigger confrontation for a later (never to be made) entry, but the sorcerer vs. gunslinger battle feels seriously uninspired. It takes place in a single location, the equivalent of a backroom or warehouse, with Roland spraying bullets every which way but loose while the Man in Black calmly throws all kinds of objects at Roland with a furrow of his brow and a flick in this wrist.
When all is said and done, The Dark Tower looks, sounds, and feels like a stillborn franchise starter (because it is), bound to leave a bitter taste in the mouths of Dark Tower fans while leaving non-fans wondering why the series generated so much interest or obsession from fans for the better part of four decades.
Ultimately, The Dark Tower may not be the utter disaster pessimistic fans of King’s series thought it might be, but it’s also so glaringly, aggressively mediocre, so short on invention that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a future that includes a string of big-budget sequels and a follow-up, expansive TV series. Then again, when it comes to valuable IP like The Dark Tower series, we can never say “never”, but we can say, “not now and not for a long while.”