Film Review: ‘The Dark Tower’

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Courtesy of Jessica Miglio

Stephen King's eight-novel multiverse has been turned into a slice of lean-and-mean metaphysical action pulp, featuring a stylishly stoic Idris Elba and a magnetically evil Matthew McConaughey.

As a critic, I know I’m supposed to do my homework. So let me confess right up front that I did not prepare myself to review “The Dark Tower,” the droolingly anticipated film version of Stephen King’s multiverse novel series, by consuming all eight books in the series. I had a go at “The Gunslinger” back in the ’80s (my one period of submersion in all things King), but I never followed through on the sequels. And when I learned that the movie version was going to clock in at a mere 95 minutes, I thought: It’s clear that the filmmakers have taken the 4,000-plus pages of King’s time-tripping, parallel-universe-hopping genre mash and compressed them into something that doesn’t pretend to be a page-by-page transcription of the novels. As a result, I decided to devote myself to what’s up on screen instead of what isn’t there.

Here’s what I saw. “The Dark Tower” has been plagued by tales of last-minute re-editing and multiple cooks in the kitchen, but the movie that’s come out of all this is no shambles. It aims low and hits (sort of). It’s a competent and watchable paranoid metaphysical video game that doesn’t overstay its welcome, includes some luridly entertaining visual effects, and — it has to be said — summons an emotional impact of close to zero. Which in a film like this one isn’t necessarily a disadvantage.

The movie, which centers on Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a teenager with psychic powers who becomes the epicenter of a battle for the fate of Earth, suggests an “X-Men” installment with exactly one underage mutant crossed with “The Shining” crossed with “The Book of Eli” crossed with “The Matrix” all wrapped up in enough pow! pow! blam! blam! to leave viewers who don’t even know who Stephen King is feeling like they’ve gotten their money’s worth. A few of the concepts drifting through the film suggest how far ahead of the curve King was, a few play as flagrantly derivative, but when you watch “The Dark Tower” you may not bother to separate the Kingian from the Jungian from the ready-made-for-DVR-ian. It all fuses into a glittering trash pile of déjà vu action pulp.

Jake, a kid from New York, is consumed by spooky visions of another world that he’s compelled to sketch into drawings. They include images of a mechanistic volcano, of human beings with fake skin, and of a glowering Man in Black and a hero known as the Gunslinger. Jake’s visions are all real, but everyone thinks he’s seeing things, including his mother (Katheryn Winnick), who arranges to send him to a psychiatric retreat. But one of its workers has the seared skin out of Jake’s nightmares. So Jake escapes, finding his way to a crumbling house in Brooklyn, where he goes through a portal that looks like a ’70s Spielberg light show.

He emerges in a rocky wilderness known as Mid-World, and it’s there that he meets the Gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), a stoic avenger in a frayed leather trenchcoat whose mission is to protect the Dark Tower, a force of cosmic good that’s been around since the start of time. The Gunslinger’s nemesis, the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), is out to destroy the Tower, and if he’s allowed to do so the universe will collapse. The Man in Black operates out of that sinister volcano, a medieval sci-fi lair where he places gifted children in a head-locking “Matrix” chair that sucks out their energy to destroy the Tower (or something), and what pulls you into the movie is McConaughey’s spiffy portrayal of evil with a dry-ice leer.

Sauntering around in spiky jet-black hair, he looks like the dark brother of Siegfried and Roy crossed with the world’s most lean-and-mean Elvis impersonator. Yet what makes the Man in Black nifty-campy-scary is the ominous nonchalance with which McConaughey imposes his power, commanding people to kill themselves on a whim (“Stop breathing!” he snaps at Jake’s icky stepfather, and the dude does, and dies). McConaughey makes the Man in Black a neatly purposeful demon, a roving executioner with style.

For a while, Idris Elba seems a little blank by comparison, but that’s just because the Gunslinger is biding his time. He’s got a deeply personal beef with the Man in Black, who killed his father (Dennis Haysbert), and he’s a broken but unbowed cowboy knight, with a pistol forged from metal right out of Excalibur. You’re all but waiting for the moment when he travels with Jake through a portal back to earth, a place that believes in bullets. In Manhattan, Elba’s recessive cool blossoms into badass swagger, and the protector/kid bonding takes. Tom Taylor is a good young actor who radiates tensile anxiety, even though he looks like he’s going to grow up into Jon Bon Jovi. Jake has been graced with the gift of seeing all, but he still has lessons to learn, like the proverbial one taught by the Gunslinger: “He who shoots with his hand has forgotten the face of his father.” This translates, roughly, as: “May the Force be with your ass-kicking.”

With any luck, “The Dark Tower” could be a solid box-office performer (at least, for a weekend), yet the picture’s no-frills design raises an interesting question: Would it be a more commercial movie if it were an ambitious, two-hours-plus sprawl that tried to stay digressively true to the layered weight of King’s novels? My instinct says that no, that movie would have been a slog. “The Dark Tower” works as a film because it’s not trying to be a multiverse — and because, in its forgettable derivative ballistic way, it packs in just enough of the King vision to remind you that everything old can be new again, especially if it wasn’t all that novel the first time.

Film Review: 'The Dark Tower'

Reviewed at AMC Lincoln Square, New York, August 2, 2017. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 95 MIN.

Production

A Columbia Pictures release of a Sony Pictures Entertainment, Imagine Entertainment, Weed Road Pictures production. Producers: Akiva Goldsman, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Stephen King. Executive producers: G. Mac Brown, Trish Hoffman, Erica Huggins, Anders Thomas Jensen, Jeff Pinkner.

Crew

Director: Nikolaj Arcel. Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, Nikolaj Arcel. Camera (color, widescreen): Rasmus Videbaek. Editors: Alan Edward Bell, Dan Zimmerman. Music: Junkie XL.

With

Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Claudia Kim, Fran Kranz, Jackie Earle Haley, Dennis Haysbert, Abbey Lee, Nicholas Hamilton, Katheryn Winnick, José Zuñiga, Victoria Nowak, Ben Gavin, Michael Barbieri, Andre Robinson.

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  1. PennAgain says:

    OOPS, SORRY, I had Debruge in my head from another review. All kudos to OWEN GLEIBERMAN!

  2. PennAgain says:

    Thank you, Peter Debruge, for yet another ten-minute chortle-and-guffaw fest. It would have taken perhaps three minutes to read, but I kept interrupting myself to speak your lines aloud. After I’ve rehearsed a bit more, I will take a copy of the review to a friend in the hospital and watch him bust his stitches. (or have me tossed out; he is a King fan)

  3. AllWiledUp says:

    Thanks for the review. Saw it tonight and this is the only review I agree with. I’m a Dark Tower fan and realized it was impossible to ever adapt The Gunslinger as Roland is so absolutely unsympathetic in it.

    Goldsman’ screenplay won’t win any Oscars but it did an adequate job of introducing various elements of the series. The performances were excellent and the cheap special effects may have appalled all the little Marvel fans out there, but this guy loved the artisanal quality of them.

    I suppose the bad reviews will kill it off, but I saw it in a very pricey Dine-In theater tonight (because obnoxious teenagers can’t afford it) and those patrons read reviews before going to the movies. The theater was packed – I thought I’d be alone. Hopefully, it will do well enough that the TV sequel introducing the ka-tet will get made.

  4. John says:

    Too afraid to go big and too small to do any justice to the source material. That about sums it up in a sentence.

  5. eddie willers says:

    Looks like (judging solely by this review) they solved the absurdity of casting Elba by gutting everything meaningful and making it a magical shoot’em up instead.

    Good luck with that.

    • AllWiledUp says:

      Sorry literal-minded Constant Reader, Elba is excellent. He captures perfectly the stoicism, the brutality and the angst of Roland and an American actor could never have handled the archaic language – certainly not (mediocre actor) Clint Eastwood in his prime.

  6. Kenneth Logel says:

    Not even gonna watch on Netflix. Love the two lead actors but not for this. Also director made some comments before this even had a trailer that struck me wrong. Should of made a T.V. show of it. Look how well westworld turned out

  7. déjà vu is each film in this genre. Within the film itself déjà vu upon déjà vu is much to bare for any movie half its length.

    Who is this movie for? King’s fans, first. An audition for Elba as the next James Bond? Or an audience addicted to…déjà vu.

  8. stevenkovacs says:

    All these years waiting for a paper-thin interpretation of a classic Stephen King series of books?
    NO THANKS

  9. Cecil B da Mill says:

    Perfect of example why you never ever want to be a screenwriter in Hollywood.

    • Ellie says:

      I’m dense. Please enlighten me.

      If you mean the suits ruined it, from what I hear/read/see, the screenplay was messed up from the word go.

  10. I’ll be checking it out soon but obviously, they should have gone the Game of Thrones route with this one.

  11. Hu says:

    Wow. So its completley not the dark tower. The dark tower is a violent series with rated R material. This is some lowest common demoniator pc trash. Pg 13 bland lame crap and they ruined it. You as a crittic have failed at your job. This movie is a waste a time and a complete failure.

    • jason ross says:

      Opinions are like…. well, you know how that goes. It’s your opinion. No more or less valid than his. I suggest you read Roland Barthes essay ‘Death of the Author’. He was a cheese eating surrender monkey though, I’m unsure how you are on those.

  12. Paul Feldman says:

    “summons an emotional impact of close to zero. Which in a film like this one isn’t necessarily a disadvantage.” That is ALWAYS a disadvantage in a film.

  13. harry georgatos says:

    After seeing this empty slight film which runs for a thin 95 minutes is a pale imitation of Stephen Kings epic novel. If one takes out the credits it runs for 88 minutes. There’s not enough immersive story-telling exposition to explain The Dark Tower or the back-story of The Gungslinger and The Man In Black. Some films work quite well at 90 to 100 minutes of screen time but Stephen Kings epic novel has strong character motivation that lends to strong reader commitment to the novel that is strongly lacking in this weak film translation that is an insult to the fans of the novel. This film needed a longer running time that would have done justice to the novel. Stephen Kings IT has a solid running time of 135 minutes and have my hopes pinned on that translation. THE DARK TOWER movie is disposable entertainment for people who couldn’t care one way or the other. Disappointed!

  14. Morgan F Lewis says:

    Maybe this reviewer should read the books. I plan on seeing the movie and don’t have my hopes up, but this review is very “haughty”.

  15. So what says:

    They blew it, everyone knows it. Everyone. They took all the creativity and made the character black when he never was black, and they made utterly terrible promotional material. They turned a “you HAVE to read this” masterwork of fiction and turned it into trash where the essence of the promo is a dolt catching bullets in his guns like a DB. They blew it. Everyone knows it. Ron Howard worked hard on this, and they never gave it to him. I guess they preferred this trash.

    • It’s the next revolution of the wheel of KA. He can be black. It isn’t the same story. I too felt the same as you until I understood it was the next revolution. That doesn’t mean it won’t be a steaming pile of crud. It just means he can be black and maybe, just maybe, Detta won’t be so mean to him.

    • I honestly can’t believe anyone is still harping on casting Idris Elba. Bloody hell, it’s really not an issue.

      • Donovan says:

        It may not be “insurmountable” but it is definitely “an issue,” unless, of course, you didn’t read the books and therefore don’t know that in King’s multiverse, there appears to be not a single version of earth under any rotation of Ka that doesn’t result in whites being deeply racist. You can easily take that out for those ignorant of the story of Detta, whose struggle to know herself against the backdrop of being a viciously racist black woman trapped in a new reality with white Roland, Eddie and Jake as family is probably the most meaningfully developed character in the series.

        Where they probably made a wrong turn was in telling the Jake story first when they should have started with the much more straight forward and easy to relate to (with much better gun fights) Eddie Dean story. Then the film could have been a classic, western buddy story in the vein of Once Upon a Time in the West and The Unforgiven, rather than this.

      • Mostly Harmless says:

        You say it’s not an issue. You say you can’t believe anyone is still harping on the issue you say isn’t an issue.

        My $0.02?

        You’re not grounded in reality. You think something SHOULD be a certain way, and then stick your fingers in your ears and LALALALALALALALALA until everyone goes away.

        Despite all your insistence to the contrary, apparently it IS an issue. Not, perhaps, to you: but to others.
        And your obnoxious attempt to squelch dissent by implying that ‘anybody who’s anybody’ agrees with you doesn’t seem to be working. Imagine that!

        The box office totals are all that matter to the people who made the decisions here: perhaps they will learn a valuable lesson; perhaps not. We shall see.

      • So what says:

        Look at the grosses, mate. Maybe it’s time to cast him in black roles, where he excels. Isn’t it racist that once a black actor reaches the top tier you offer him white roles? Isn’t that… racist? Instead, you offered it as bait and waited for the anger to flood in… well, even worse… losses have come in!

    • kcopping says:

      Have you watched it? If not, how can you say they’ve blown it (although we’ve all seen the promotional material, so that statement is a bit more valid).
      Also, sorry to say it, but when one of the first things you talk about is the skin colour of the protagonist (and King has stated his support for Idris Elba from the beginning of production), it instantly undermines any credibility your comments may have, as it implies you’d never be happy with the film for potentially racist reasons. If the gunslinger still has those bombardier eyes, then it really doesn’t matter about his skin colour.

      • Donovan says:

        If anyone is racist if King himself, and you as well for you ham-fisted attempt to accuse anybody that supports the integrity of the canon of being a racist. Poorly done on your part. King himself made race an essential element in the development of his main characters. Supporting Elba in this role when others may not, based on being honest to the dynamics of the relationships that carry these books, simply for the sake of casting a black actor, does not make you (or Stephen King) non-racist.

        Personally, I always pictures Roland as a type of Charles Bronson, rather than Eastwood, myself.That said, for the broader audience, casting Elba is perfectly fine so long as he gets the “demeanor” or Roland right, which most believe he does. That’s the most important part of the role for both adherents to the canon and newbies alike.

      • So what says:

        from 4chan: “There was no campaign for this. There really was not even a campaign for Ghostbusters, it was a viral marketing scheme with the hopes of a mass of people attending the movie to “fight back” against supposed Nazis.

        We insulted the movie, like we do everything, but there was no actual “campaign” and this has held true for multiple “controversies”. Basically fluff blogs get paid (or just do it anyway) shitpieces about apparent evil Nazis or whatever. All of a sudden there is a “controversy” and people are “taking sides”. it’s rubbish. This movie in partivular proved this has all been fake because nobody even cared enough to make it seem like a “real” controversy.”

        You use a manufactured “controversy” to engine marketing, but the problem is you’re SO racial and don’t realize so much of USA is post racial. You make your money off racism and your tools are going blunt while you lose millions.

      • So what says:

        Maybe write a black character hero.. and not just trash any single human who speaks out against casting famous roles as capriciously black – in aid of… nothing but controversy. Again, everyone knows this. For a while it worked. But now, it backfired. All the READERS are white…

    • Michael Dwight says:

      I concur completely

      • limnerc says:

        All the readers are WHITE???? What? Capriciously black? Who doesn’t want great returns on their investment? Who sets out to create a loser? Some things never change. (sigh)

    • Morgan F Lewis says:

      Preach!

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