'The Dark Tower'
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.