The Dark Tower

‘The Dark Tower’ Review: Epic Mediocrity

'The Dark Tower'

Movie Rating:

2.5

Another summer, another batch of popular pre-existing fantasy franchises turned into blockbuster hopefuls. It’s so common now that it’s rarely exciting. There was a time when transforming Stephen King’s cultish epic ‘The Dark Tower’ into a film franchise would have felt like a film nerd’s wet dream. Now, its just business as usual. As developed by Ron Howard, this blockbuster edition of ‘The Dark Tower’ is predictably bland and functional. It’s fine, but it could and should have been more.

Our protagonist is a young boy named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor). He’s got a psychic gift or “shine” (hey, Stephen King wrote this!) that manifests in strange visions of a gunslinger and a demonic man in black. It doesn’t take long to become clear that Jake’s dreams are real. A Gunslinger (Idris Elba) is destined to battle the evil Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) to destroy a Dark Tower that holds the universe together. The Man in Black also kidnaps psychic kiddies as part of his plot to take over the universe and Jake is a particularly powerful one, so he’s got him in his sights. Fortunately, Jake’s psychic gifts lead him to a portal in New York that takes him to a realm where the Gunsligner wanders and mopes. The kid needs to convince the Gunslinger to save the world, and if you know how movies work, you can probably guess how that will turn out.

There’s been quite a bit of salty internet commentary about the troubles with the production of ‘The Dark Tower’ that led to it getting chopped down to a trim 85 minutes from a far longer and more ambitious running time. I haven’t read the King novel, so I can’t comment on whether or not the mythology has been tampered with. I can say that the whole film feels rushed. While it’s kind of exciting that a big summer tentpole is under 90 minutes long (that should be more common), ‘The Dark Tower’ feels like it’s racing between events and set-pieces with no time to breathe. There’s little chance to get a sense of this universe and how it operates, just an endless stream of exposition and action that flies by so quickly you can’t quite describe the mythology when it’s over. On the plus side, the flick is rarely boring. On the downside, it’s hard to care much about what’s happening when there’s little time to develop empathy for the characters or worry how their adventure will turn out.

In the midst of the rush, Idris Elba at least cuts an imposing figure as the Gunslinger. His eyes hide pain and sorrow we’ll never know. His presence feels imposing from the first second he appears and somehow, through sheer will and acting prowess, he makes bullet-bending silliness seem plausible. He’s a fantastic wandering warrior and the one character not betrayed by the film’s frantic screenplay.

McConaughey is equally entertaining as the Man in Black, clearly having a ball delivering cartoony demonic villainy, even if he has no personality or presence beyond playful deadpan evil. No one else really registers, and if the marketing machine for ‘The Dark Tower’ has made anything clear, the studio mandate was to stick to the stars. Everyone else is on screen just long enough to serve a narrative purpose and little else. Sadly, that’s even true of Tom Taylor’s theoretical hero. Other than the fact that he has a “shine” and is the key to something big, we essentially learn nothing about the kid. He just bobbles around connecting scenes without much growth or nuance.

It’s clear that there’s some deep, dark and intriguing mythology at play in ‘The Dark Tower’, but sadly we see little of it. For the most part, it’s just action beats, basic good vs. evil moralizing, and just enough exposition to get by. The production design is borrowed from other, better movies with most of the personality removed. The story clings to beats we’ve seen before (a little ‘Matrix’ here, a little Spaghetti Western there, etc.). Even the action is rather bland. Director Nikolaj Arcel (‘A Royal Affair’) shoots it in a typical underexposed grimdark manner. The movie has a couple of fantastic action beats near the end (especially the climactic moment), but by then they’re mostly noticeable because they represent brief moments of surprise in a movie dominated by routine. Even the occasional stabs at humor mostly remind you that Akiva Goldsmith wrote ‘Batman & Robin’, getting mild smirks and eye-rolls rather than laughs.

‘The Dark Tower’ is mostly a rather blasé experience. It’s not terrible. It has a variety of highlights and the whole thing races by too quickly to ever be a slog. It’s the sort of thing that will fit in well to a TBS lineup of movies that you kind of remember and are willing to sit through for a few commercial breaks on a sick day. However, it could have been more. This series is beloved and Sony clearly wants it to be a franchise. That likely won’t happen. The movie is merely passable entertainment and the box office will likely be acceptably mediocre. The world will shrug and say, “Eh, that was OK” and move on.

14 comments

  1. Chris B

    Ummm….85 minutes? 7 books in the main series, written over 35 years, thousands of pages and they try and make a film out of the thing in less than 90 minutes?! That’s insane.

    • Chris B

      On another note, I have a suspicion this will turn out to be the biggest bomb of the summer(if not the year). I’m not sure what the production budget on the thing was but I can’t really imagine a wide audience for this movie. The vast majority of the current female movie-going population doesn’t seem to be a fan of westerns. And if your wife or girlfriend doesn’t wan to see the same movie you do on Saturday night, the two of you aren’t going to watch it.

      • The production budget was $60 million, which is pretty modest for a summer tentpole. I agree that this will probably be a bomb, but it’d be very difficult for anything to bomb harder than Valerian.

    • I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you, but I believe the first book was fairly short (by Stephen King standards).

      My understanding is that the movie isn’t a direct adaptation of any of the books (the first one was largely a straightforward Western without any dimension hopping, as I recall), but sort of mashes up things from throughout the series to make a new introduction.

      • Chris B

        I get that it’ not supposed to be a literal adaptation of the entire series and I understand a lot of material must be cut for the screen, but 85 minutes is crazy short for a story of this magnitude. Most studio comedies these days run around the two hour mark, and it’s not like they have any elaborate world-building to do or introduction to a vast universe for the viewer. Even the insanely fastpaced The Force Awakens ran about 2 hrs and 15 minutes, and with that property most of the audience already knew and understood the backstory.

        It’s too bad HBO didn’t get their hands on The Dark Tower, or someone like Guillermo Del Toro didn’t adapt it to be a trilogy ala’ LOTR. Just seems like a real shame. 🙁

        • Chris B

          Years back before I became a parent and had way more free time I started reading The Dark Tower series of books and made it all the way to the midway point of Part V. Then life got in the way and I never got around to seeing it through to the end. This movie’s release has officially inspired me to go back to the begining and read the entire series all the way through…finish it once and for all….

          • Plissken99

            You definitely owe it to yourself to finish the books. As the movies aren’t going to deliver. I’ve read all 8.. yep the movie is extremely disappointing. It really skips the 1st book entirely, then takes elements of book 2 and 6 and mashes out a horribly convoluted plot line.
            I actually hope this doesn’t bomb, if the rest gets made it MIGHT redeem this movie, though that seems unlikely.
            Idris as Roland absolutely killed it, for all the movies faults, he plays the character perfectly.

          • Chris B

            Yeah I noticed juat from the tailer they had cut two of the main charcters from the book “The Drawing of the Three” so that set off alarm bells right away.

            I think I’m just going to brush up on tbe first four and then start Wolves of the Calla from the begining, seems less daunting that way.

            As a long-time fan of the series were you dissapointed with the ending of book 7? I’ve heard it was incredibly divisive…

      • Plissken99

        The book 7 ending was definitely disappointing after the 1st read. However it was really appropriate upon reflection, it respects the readers imagination. I don’t wanna give away anything, but in that regard King has told fans to consider the film adaptation as a sort of sequel. In that regard, a lot can potentially be forgiven, but this movie pushes it. I’m hoping against hope that we get a directors cut on video.
        The two biggest things overall that pissed me off were, Jake being psychic. They made him psychic to write out a character from books 6 and 7, who was confusing in the books really.
        Also the portal travel.. there wasn’t this much portal travel in all the books combined. And it wasn’t mechanical.. portals were guarded by demons (like what attacks Jake) and those had to be fought or negotiated with. The 1st time Roland actually has to have sex with one in order to pass over lol.

  2. Lemule

    90 minutes would be fine if they were just adapting the first, fairly short book (and why didn’t they??). But from what I’ve read they’ve jammed in plot points from all seven books, so no wonder it feels rushed.

  3. From what I’ve seen this is actually a continuation of the books, starting a whole new cycle. It’s also known that this is just an introduction and was stated today that the TV show expanding on the world is going through whether this is a flop or not, one of the walking dead crew is taking it on, so I’m hopeful that it becomes a bigger hit and it sounds like this movie is good to get started but obviously not what fans wanted but since there is more coming, I’m still down 😊

    • Plissken99

      That’s the best way to look at this movie, as a continuation of the books rather than a direct adaptation. I’m hoping for a directors cut.

  4. Les

    I just came for The Dark Tower and loved it and will not hesitate to purchase. Like usual, I am glad I do not listen to critic reviews. I rarely agree with them. Admittedly, I know nothing of the Stephen Kings books so maybe I did go in with no opinion one way or the other and no expectation of what I was going to get other than the trailers I have seen. For me, maybe more so, because of all of the crappy reviews, it delivered. Go figure.

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