There are a lot of people who have been waiting their whole lives, or thereabouts, for a feature film adaptation of The Dark Tower. Those people are probably going to need a hug this weekend. You may want to send them a few words of encouragement, and possibly even take them out for ice cream, because the movie that has finally been made of Stephen King’s beloved fantasy epic is… well, it’s not “bad,” but it sure as hell ain’t great.
I am not a fan of the books, not because I dislike them but because I simply haven’t gotten around to them yet. There will be multitudes of detailed analyses of Nikolaj Arcel’s adaptation of The Dark Tower this weekend and for years to come, describing the many differences from the text and whether or not the film is a misfire, a complete disaster, or merely not as good as it could have been. Their opinions on the film will be invaluable to pre-existing fans of The Dark Tower, and I encourage you to read them.
But those of us who haven’t yet read The Dark Tower are, in many ways, the film’s target demographic. Filmmakers like to say that they’re adapting these sorts of stories “for the fans” but the pre-existing fans already have the original stories, and don’t necessarily need an expensive feature film illustration. A big part of the reason why motion picture adaptations exist is to capture new fans, who may be more inclined to test drive a story like The Dark Tower in movie format before diving into the novels.
So when I say that The Dark Tower, though brisk and generally entertaining, made me less interested in reading the books than ever before, that’s not a good sign. Nikolaj Arcel and Sony Pictures have taken a series of books with a passionate fan base – many of whom are my close personal friends, and members of my immediate family – and turned it into a mediocre fantasy, full of promise but very few wonders, with exceptional actors who have very little to do, and more exposition than plot points.
And smack dab in the center of it all is a kid named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), who dreams every night of a fantasy world in peril. Nobody believes his stories but eventually Jake falls into the apocalyptic realm and teams up with Roland (Idris Elba), a gunslinger on mission to save the universe or at least kill The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), who is hellbent on destroying the wall between realities by shooting psychic missiles out of the brains of children.
You would think, with a description like that, that The Dark Tower would be a pretty weird movie. But the most frustrating thing about it is how conventional Nikolaj Arcel’s vision for the franchise really is. Jake’s surrogate father relationship with Roland is perfunctory and plot-driven, and at no point do they form a bond that gives the film any personality. That’s because they themselves have no personality to speak of. Roland is a badass with a past. Jake is The Chosen One #1408. Even Matthew McConaughey, who can usually be relied about to jazz up even the silliest of movies (just watch Reign of Fire sometime) is gliding through The Dark Tower letting his sexy black wardrobe do most of the work.
The adventure Jake and Roland embark upon does the film no favors. They travel from one set piece to another, making little use of the novelty inherent to Roland’s fantasy universe, and doing battle with low-concept monsters who may as well be on loan from a CW series. When they eventually return to the real world, Roland is reduced to fish-out-of-water jokes lifted from Star Trek IV, Crocodile Dundee and Last Action Hero. Idris Elba gets the film’s only chuckles out of his various reactions to our decidedly more frivolous world (his response to the concept of hot dogs is probably the film’s biggest highlight), but then the obligatory action-packed climax comes into play, and our hero and villain are reduced to shooting CGI junk at each other like a passive-aggressive game of Crossfire.
The Dark Tower is a short movie, but that’s because it’s rushing through the paces. Nikolaj Arcel’s film moves fast enough that it’s hard to get bored, and the cast is elevating the material just enough to make it engaging, and as such it might make a halfway decent matinee distraction. But even though the characters explain what’s going on, and constantly, the film never successfully explains why this story about a special child saving the world from a metaphor for his personal baggage is any better than all the others.
Still, it’s adequate. The Dark Tower is an appealingly mediocre, enjoyable but largely forgettable movie. Of course, given that this film was designed to excite the fans of the book series, engage all-new fans, and lay the groundwork for a multi-film franchise, that’s obviously not what the filmmakers were going for. Those filmmakers, like the fans of The Dark Tower, are just going to have to take what they can get. And what they can get, apparently, is disappointment.
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Top Photo: Columbia Pictures
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on Canceled Too Soon and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.