It’s hard to think of a bigger missed opportunity.
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
That, up there, is the opening line to Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, and thus the opening line to the The Dark Tower series. A sprawling epic that hops across genres as easily as its characters hop across worlds, it’s quite literally King’s magnum opus, taking two decades to construct its initial seven volumes (with an eighth recently inserted into the middle of the chronology just a few years ago). It’s a western, a supernatural chiller, a post-apocalyptic adventure, and in the sixth book — to some fans’ dismay — a meta-comedy that includes King himself as a pivotal character.
Most of all, it’s the connective tissue for nearly everything that King has ever written (all things serve the Beam). The chief villain, the Man in Black neé Walter O’Dim neé Randall Flagg, pops up all over King’s back catalog; the preacher from Salem’s Lot, The Shining’s Danny Torrence, and even the monster from It all make appearances or get referenced, along with sundry towns and locales. The Dark Tower is a big, big thing. It’s far from perfect, and often threatens to collapse under its own weight; many Constant Readers hate the series’ ending, which is at once anticlimactic and maddeningly ambiguous. But the series is frequently thrilling, and wondrous, with characters full of life and a mythos that crawls inside your brain and lives there like a grandfather flea. Roland Deschain, the titular gunslinger, is one of King’s greatest creations, a world-weary former hero on a quest he knows is doomed because there’s no one else left to undertake it.
I say all this as a means of apology for The Dark Tower, the film; if you see it (and given the box office, you likely won’t) without having read the books, you’ll certainly come away wondering what all the fuss is about. Take a look at that opening line again. Simple. Evocative. It’s also not this film at all. This Tower rewrites it as “The man in black used stargates to go wherever, and the gunslinger just kind of wandered around the desert.” Where that first novel ends with a philosophical Seventh Seal-style parlay around a campfire, the movie climaxes in a basement, with telekinetic glass shards, machine guns, and hot dogs.
The Dark Tower isn’t “terrible.” It’s not the worst film I’ve seen this year. But it’s aggressively mediocre, a case study in what happens when you hand a beloved and complex property to a hack screenwriter, an unimaginative director, and a studio that seems uninterested in what people loved about it in the first place. There have already been reports of contradictory notes, “brutal” test screenings, and salvage efforts in the editing bay by the film’s many producers. This
is was supposed to launch an unconventional franchise, a film series broken up by anthology-ish television seasons covering Roland’s early years. Now it seems it should have gone straight to TV and stayed there, as the success of Game of Thrones and American Gods shows obvious precedent for high-concept adult fantasy on prestige cable. Imagine if The Fellowship of the Ring, after a massive studio investment and with lifelong fans sweating in anticipation, was terrible. All of that planning and it’s just over, dead on arrival. Perhaps never to be attempted again. That’s where we are now.
Lifting elements from several of the series’ installments, The Dark Tower’s plot is hopelessly muddled, but I’ll try to break it down: there’s a Tower that holds the universe together. There are many worlds, connected to it by (let’s say magical) Beams. If one Beam goes down, that world is consumed by fire and darkness. If the Tower falls, all worlds are. Teenager Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) has been having dreams about the Tower — he Shines! — and two men. The first is Walter, the black-clad sorcerer (Matthew McConaughey), who is using psychically-gifted children to shoot mind-lasers at the Tower (why? just because) and wants to collect Jake next. The second man is Roland (Idris Elba), the revenge-minded pursuer of Walter and the last gunslinger of Mid-World, a realm that has “moved on” — fallen into desolation and decay. Got all that? No? Too bad, this thing’s only 95 minutes long, and I haven’t even mentioned the human skin-wearing Taheen, or the elemental demons guarding the gateways between worlds, or the significance of the number nineteen.
Destiny is a major theme of the book series; they call it “Ka.” It’s described as a metaphorical wheel, spinning from fortune to misfortune and back again, every decision point reverberating back at you later like a harmonizing melody or the echoes off a canyon. You could also think of a flat circle, as in a timeline repeating itself, guided by a mysterious cosmic force until the desired outcome is achieved. When the producers of The Dark Tower revealed that their film would be set after the final book — later corroborated by a promotional image showing the Horn of Eld, a significant artifact that Roland infamously left behind before the events of The Gunslinger — my mind whirred with the possibilities. In many ways, I was relieved; the films wouldn’t need to be strict adaptations of the novels, because they won’t be the novels. They would be the next turn of the wheel.
Unfortunately, the events of The Dark Tower, the coincidences and contrivances, the half-hearted world-building and convoluted plotting, don’t seem to be the will of Ka, but simply lazy screenwriting. I’m not sure what more I can say about Akiva Goldsman that wasn’t covered in the A.V. Club’s well-justified takedown, but the man has torched more franchises than most people ever get to work on; the moment his name was attached to the project, presumably because of his good relationship with producer Ron Howard, warning bells began to sound in many fans’ heads. To be fair, he’s not the only credited writer here (a list that also includes director Nikolaj Arcel, best known for co-writing David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), but it is fair to say that everything his pen touches turns to… what’s the opposite of gold? Lead? Let’s say s–t.
I’m rambling, so I’ll get to the point: the film’s cardinal sin is in making Roland, the iconic gunslinger, a secondary character in his own story. It’s been refashioned from a Sergio Leone-inspired mythic drama into your run-of-the-mill YA adaptation, putting Jake’s journey to Mid-World and back (did I mention he Shines? Every character wants to remind you he Shines) center stage. Idris Elba seems to have less screentime than even McConaughey, which is inexcusable — not just because Roland is awesome, and Elba is awesome as Roland, certainly the best thing about the film, but because every moment spent with the Man in Black dissolves his mystery. Goldsman, et al’s script focuses on these big exposition dumps, supposedly to give viewers a bigger window of this world, but now there’s little left to reveal in whatever films would follow. If you’re going to “play it safe” and condense much of the saga into one movie, in case it’s the only one you get to make, you shouldn’t bother making it at all.
There are some cool things, though. I’ve already mentioned Elba’s greatness, and he upends the Eastwoodian mental image of Roland so effortlessly I’m actually eager to re-read the series with him in mind. Arcel doesn’t go as crazy as the trailers suggested with Roland’s gunslinger “powers,” letting us easily believe that he’s capable not just of what we’re seeing — the quick reloads, the deep focus while lining up a blind sniper shot — but of much more.
McConaughey’s squirrelly menace is a good counterweight to Elba’s natural gravitas, even when he’s forced to deliver lines about “resisting my magicks!” and other nonsense. (If this film had worked, we could have seen him as Flagg in the currently-delayed The Stand, an even better fit. Alas.) I love the Mid-World exteriors, largely filmed in South Africa; Roland’s early scenes with Jake (Shine, Shine, Shine on!) are the closest the film comes to visualizing the world presented on the page. It’s too bad the bulk of the film takes place in New York City, which provides some fish-out-of-water light humor, but little else that is interesting or memorable. (I did learn, however, that you can apparently have target practice with a pair of massive revolvers in a Manhattan loft and no one will mind.)
Taylor himself is… fine, but looks like Daniel Day-Lewis compared to the rest of the supporting cast, who may have been picked up at the local community theater after the entirety of the casting budget was blown on Elba and McConaughey. (Particularly egregious is the kid playing Jake’s neighbor, Dollar General Max Minghella.) Not even Kathryn Winnick, so great as the indomitable Lagertha on Vikings, escapes; Dennis Haysbert may have filmed his lone scene between AllState commercials; Jackie Earle Hayley is unrecognizable as a henchman, and probably prefers it that way. The film’s abbreviated length may have increased the cost-per-minute, but it doesn’t show; the Man in Black’s lair looks like a leftover set from a SyFy channel series. The score, from Junkie XL, is its own blown opportunity, boring and oppressive when it badly needed a touch of Morricone.
I’ve written far more than this film deserves, but it’s coming from a place of regret, not derision. There are moments, rare but present, that hint at the weirdness and emotional weight the film could have carried. In the novel (and I promise I’ll stop saying that), Roland eventually must make a decisive choice to either sacrifice Jake, or his quest. It’s a tense, agonizing scene with lasting repercussions, and it gives us greater understanding into Roland’s character. But here, that’s just gone. There is no choice. And so we learn nothing. There’s no groundwork laid for the choice to even be presented; there’s just a weightless thing that happens, and Roland does what action movie heroes do. Just another studio tentpole scrubbed of risk or surprise for the sake of an audience that will reject it anyway.
You know who I really feel bad for? Aaron Paul, who has been vocal for years about his desire to play the junkie-turned-gunslinger Eddie Dean, due to appear in the second film. But this thing ain’t getting a sequel, and if it is, he shouldn’t go near it.
(Idris Elba worth one half-star)