For as long as I can remember, films adapted from Stephen King’s novels or short stories have resulted in either outright classics or box office failures that eventually turn into cult classics. I confess that I have not read his novels, especially The Dark Tower series, but I have been enamored with the films that have come from his novels over the years. Those films that resonated with me have done so because they have something to say. They may not say it perfectly; they may not be very well-acted or well-told stories, but their message is always clear.
Unfortunately, Nikokaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower is a poorly framed hodgepodge of all three of the attributes I just mentioned. It is a semi-well-acted film, full of really interesting characters that have little-to-no life in them. The antagonist is the Devil incarnate played by Matthew McConaughey. As ‘The Man in Black,” McConaughey is a gate-keeper of sorts, trying to tear open a dimensional wall between his pseudo-future world and our present day world where his agents are taking kids who he has deemed special.
In the real world, New York City is experiencing unusual earthquakes, shaking the city to its core. The 11-year old Jake Chambers, played by Tom Taylor, has lifelike dreams of people and events he’s never witnessed, yet they are as real to him as the world around him. He is able to capture these dreams in a sketchbook, but his fellow students and his parents believe he is hallucinating, forcing them to send him to a special clinic that they believe can help him.
After a rather unique escape, Jake finds a house which he saw in his dreams. The house is a portal to the Mid-World, where The Man in Black is awaiting him. As Jake makes his way into the Mid-World, he happens across Roland Deschain, better known as the Gunslinger, played by Idris Elba. The Gunslinger, the last of his kind, is on a quest that fills his heart with rage.
It is this rage that Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Arcel tap into. Unfortunately, the overly limp characters don’t translate into a coherent story. It was as if the four screenwriters pulled elements from several 1980’s fantasy films and 1960’s Spaghetti Westerns to create a visual background for these characters. Despite the incoherent nature of the story in The Dark Tower, the visuals were as good as any other film, but they were not enough to overcome the other elements in the film. Tom Holkenborg’s score provided background noise, creating an environment rather than supporting the characters and their motivations, which is a shame because he is known for bombastic scores in similar style films.
McConaughey was fascinating to watch, his creepiness came through loud and clear, but it doesn’t serve the character very well; he is too boisterous to be moody, though I imagine he was selected for the broodiness he exudes in his Lincoln commercials. Elba plays rage quite well, but Arcel’s direction doesn’t allow him to fully transition from a “man of action” to being a mentor/protector for Jake. Taylor seemed the most wooden, both in his approach to the role and his acting, though he did loosen up by the end of the film.
The strongest moment of The Dark Tower is when Elba’s Roland recites the Gunslinger’s Creed as he and Jake bond. The moment is not truly earned, but it emphasizes each character’s respective motivations later in the film. McConaughey’s moment comes in the middle of the film when he visits Jake’s family. His performance here is classic McConaughey, conveying so much through his looks and his actions rendering him less creepy. If only for a moment.
Since I hadn’t read the novels before seeing the movie, I can’t speak to their true influence on the film. It was obvious that the screenwriters tried to cram in as much as possible into one movie with the intent of creating a universe of filmic stories. Unfortunately, the sheer lifelessness in The Dark Tower has sealed the dimensional gateways shut. Though it does appear that a television series is being developed, which is the proper platform for something of this magnitude.
For a film that spent 10 years in various stages of development, it shows. There is a lot of potential created in various moments and yet, they go nowhere because none of the moments are truly earned. If they do develop a The Dark Tower television series and create some of the backstory that was missing here, I think I would be interested enough to catch it, but as a standalone film and an entry to another cinematic universe, it does not work.