Review: The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower

Trailer

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Looking cool. For a moment.

Which The Dark Tower quote should I use to open this up? “Go then, there are other worlds than these”? Or “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed”? Some variation of “Forgotten the face of his father” maybe, or a simple “Thankee-sai”? Or maybe the under-rated “‘Geez Roland’, said Jake, ‘I sure hope a bunch of studios don’t make a terrible movie about our story someday'”.

I guess you can see where this is going. I’m a fan of Stephen King’s unorthodox fantasy/sci-fi series, that I devoured quickly in college, seeking, like so many others, to find out what would happen once Roland reached the titular structure (for the record: horrible disappointment). In preparation for this film I recently re-read The Gunslinger, and it’s good as I remember, a great introduction to this mish-mash world of wild west shootouts, Arthurian legend and dark inter-dimensional magic. And a great introduction to Roland Deschain, a character crying out for an adaptation worthy of his quest.

Instead, he got his.

13-year-old New Yorker Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is haunted by vivid nightmares of another world, a demonic “man in black” (Matthew McConaughey), a gun carrying wanderer (Idris Elba) and an imposing dark tower that lies at the centre of the universe. As New York is ravaged by mysterious earthquakes, Jake discovers his nightmares are real as he crosses over to “Mid-World”, where gunslinger Roland, the last of his kind, endlessly pursues Walter, a dark sorcerer who aims to bring down the Tower and unleash the horrors of the abyss beyond our universe.

It doesn’t take much research to see what went wrong here. You have two competing studios, that require compromise on every production decision of consequence to satisfy both. You have an original author who retains enough control over the property that he also has a say in what is finally shown to audiences. You have a director tackling a project of this scope and budget for the first time. You have a more experienced producer who probably should have been the one in charge. And you have poor test screening results that result in the most morale sapping word in film-making: “re-shoots”. Taken together, what should have been an adaptation that captured the spirit and tone of this ambitious and discussion-worthy series, is instead little more than a forgettable 90-minute action movie, that strays so far from the source that it would be easier to turn it into something new entirely than go for the purist approach.

And it really isn’t a case that I object to the changes from the source material. Being truthful, King’s The Dark Tower is a sprawling mess of a series that goes down numerous strange avenues and narrative dead-ends, and it’s perfectly possible to make an adaptation of the story that remains faithful to the series while still altering details. Adaptation is a fascinating art form in itself, and when it’s done right, it can be a joyous thing to witness. But retaining that spirit is all-important, and Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower does not do that.

It comes down to, primarily, to problems of character, of the three main players in the story that Arcel is telling. Mistake #1 is making Jake Chambers the central pole, as opposed to Roland. In a first act that felt far lengthier than the 25-30 minutes that I presume it actually was, we get an in-depth look at Jake, his nightmares, his fractured family, his douchebag stepfather, his best friend across the hall, his problems at school and his therapy sessions, a lot of which seems very superfluous – the best friend especially, who pops up in a few scenes to no effect – before we finally, gratifyingly, get into the meat and bones of the issue, with Jake finding a portal to Mid-World, wherein he lands in a desert that a man in black may be fleeing across and that a gunslinger may be following over (but not really). Altering the manner in which Jake ends up in Mid-World from that of The Gunslinger, is all well and good, but not if it takes over the narrative to this extent. Jake, played in a reserved manner by Taylor throughout, doesn’t have enough in him to carry this film in the way that he is expected to, and, at the end of the day, this should always be Roland’s story primarily.

But Roland’s story it isn’t. Idris Elba is commanding enough as the jaded wild-west knight, but no performance could overcome the side-lining that occurs here, along with the numerous cuts and edits that rip Roland’s character development apart. At no point do we get a proper feel for Roland, who he is, what he’s doing or what he wants out of life, beyond blind, simple revenge. A brief flashback with his father – Dennis Haysbert, in a one-note cameo, in a film full of those – is all we really get to fill him out, and what should be a surrogate father relationship with Jake is not given the consideration it should have. I guess maybe the missing internal narrative is a serious obstacle to overcome for making us get on-board with Roland, one this film is not all that interested in clambouring over. In a crucial, and in my view regrettable, departure from the books, Roland here doesn’t care a jot about the Dark Tower itself, or any quest to find it or keep it standing. In the books, Roland’s single-minded desire to reach the Tower was a huge part of what drove the narrative forward and what kept the audience hooked: here, sure we want the Tower to stand because it’s what the villain is trying to undo, but no one else seems to care all that much.

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He’s good, but he can’t save this.

Speaking of, what about Matthew McConaughey’s Man in Black/Walter Padick/Randell Flagg/whatever Stephen King called him somewhere else? McConaughey is pretty much perfect casting for O’Dim, as he could be charmingly creepy if asked to do so in any role. And he is easily the best actor in the production, given free reign to chew the scenery a bit here, but still coming off as eerily threatening and spooky whenever he is needed to be. The problems lie in everything else around him: the fact that his plan to take down the tower revolves around something I have decided to describe as the “child cannon”; the never-rightfully explained nature of his magic powers, that are near omnipotent when used against anyone but Roland; or the fact that he himself never gets to expand on his own motivations for doing what he is doing. McConaughey has the demeanour down pat, but there’s little depth to him really, he’s just an obstacle for Jake and Roland to overcome.

The central, pivotal point of the whole thing, the Tower itself, doesn’t get the due diligence it deserves either. In a way this is faithful to the books, where, in the first few entries, the Tower was a distant intangible concept that was intentionally difficult to comprehend. But what works on the page doesn’t necessarily work on the screen, and the Tower is a weird MacGuffin thing in this film, a distant structure that is somehow holding the fabric of reality together (yet, “the mind of a child” can bring it down?). The general world-building in the film is alright, replete with references to King’s other works, and there is something fun and engaging in taking the kind of character Roland is – a cowboy/Arthurian knight/Dirty Harry type – and plopping him down in the middle of New York and seeing what happens. The film could have used a bit more of that grab your attention at times, even if it is in the pursuit of predictable laughs (most notably in a scene where a wounded Roland gets attention in an ER, paying his way with silver coins).

But the messed-up editing job, tonal problems and pacing would bring any story down. The cuts are so jarring at times: one example, where Roland dangles Jake over a cliff-edge and in the next scene they are sudden companions, reminded me of a similar disastrous production choice in The Room. The film dallies with the idea of being the kind of dark, grimy, oft-sexually charged affair that the books are, but always turns away in favour of largely PG action and obscured libido. Not that the film needs romance or sex, but that only makes another bad editing job, wherein Jake briefly interacts with a Mid-World girl his own age only for her to vanish, all the stranger. And the pacing is regretfully manic: slow and steady at the start, too fast for the rest, the film struggling (and failing) to say everything that it needs to say in just 90 minutes.

Like every film that has been cut to pieces in the editing room and pulled apart from studio interference – Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four and David Ayers’ Suicide Squad immediately spring to mind – there are elements of this production that do work. When Roland recites the gunslinger creed – “I do not kill with my gun, he who kills with his gun has forgotten the face of his father”, etc – it actually does get the heart stirring (provided you’re a veteran of the books of course). The action is generally shot well, with Roland’s almost magical skill with his eponymous guns brought to life really well on-screen, from the trick re-loading to an especially awesome moment when he seeks out a distant target using only his ears (probably the films best moment). That’s all notwithstanding the henchmen of the antagonists, that my girlfriend likened to Power Rangers’ Puttymen. The film as a whole is directed with passable skill really, meshing well with the fine job from the production/set construction department.

But then there is so much else, so much fridge logic and odd choices, that you can’t help but get distracted by them. Jake discovers a portal in a decrepit old house: rather than use any one of the pieces of debris around him, he takes off his shoe and throws it through. Walter literally has the power to stop people breathing, but for reasons never explained, it doesn’t work on Roland. Walter keeps a bullet that Roland tried to kill him with, refers to it later, but then it is never seen again. No one seems to be all that bothered by a series of earthquakes hitting New York (or the red skies that accompany them). Monsters appears, are dealt with in seconds, and are never brought up again. There’s a somewhat touching scene where Roland teaches Jake to shoot, then he suddenly declares that Jake’s psychic powers are his weapons, and that’s it. The famous opening line of the book is used, but doesn’t actually apply to the story being told here (the Man in Black isn’t fleeing across the desert, and the gunslinger doesn’t even know where he is).

And there is the ending too, so consider this lone paragraph SPOILER-filled. The final moments of The Dark Tower miss the point of the film so much that it’s hard to think that it was formulated for any other reason than to wink at the audience to inform them to look for a sequel. Jake and Roland tag-teaming up to go on further adventures, complete with an off-camera flash and bang as they disappear through a portal, is more Rick and Morty that Dark Tower in my estimation, and just feels wrong considering the source material: it’s too “fun”, too child-friendly, and not doing nearly enough to capture the darker essence of the books.

It’s my understanding that a TV show is on the way, an adaptation of Wizard and Glass (my favourite of the eight books) and I do think that this series will benefit from such an elongated format, where the (moronic) necessity of cutting what must have been a two and a half hour film down to 90 minutes is not a factor. The Dark Tower deserves some Game of Thrones-esque treatment. It would be a damn sight better than this: a film that misses the point of its source material, that puts the focus on the wrong characters, that sucks the life out of the kind of story that it is telling, and is just all-round kind of unexceptional. I wanted a film that would make me shout “Gunslingers, to me!”. Instead, I got a film that made me murmer “Gunslingers, back away”. Not recommended.

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The studios have forgotten the face of their fathers.

(All images are copyright of Columbia Pictures).

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3 Responses to Review: The Dark Tower

  1. Pingback: indiescifi451 in 2017 / the best & worst

  2. Pingback: My 2017 Complete Movie List: #114 – #101 – I See Movies

  3. Pingback: Review: The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs | Never Felt Better

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