There are other worlds than these. Stephen King's The Dark Tower, the ambitious and expansive story from one of the world's most celebrated authors, makes its launch to the big screen. The last Gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), has been locked in an eternal battle with Walter O'Dim, also known as the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), determined to prevent him from toppling the Dark Tower, which holds the universe together. With the fate of the worlds at stake, good and evil will collide in the ultimate battle as only Roland can defend the Tower from the Man in Black.
Idris Elba | Matthew McConaughey | Tom Taylor | Claudia Kim | Fran Kranz
The Dark Tower has been called Stephen King's magnum opus for a good reason. Spanning eight novels and needing well over one million words, the saga took more than 30 years to craft (the first volume was published in 1982 and the most recent in 2012) and boasts connections to many of the author's other works. A movie adaptation has been in the works for a decade but various iterations fell through as several producer/director combinations came and went. Eventually, however, the stars aligned and a film was born. Die-hard fans might have good reason to wish it hadn't been and non-initiated movie-goers probably won't be interested enough to care.
The Dark Tower isn't a bad movie even though there's a clumsiness to its narrative and a cheapness to its appearance. Instead, it would be better to call it superficial, uninspired, and forgettable. Although incorporating elements from King's novels, The Dark Tower is intended to be a sequel, spinning off from where the 2004 novel concluded. (Note: King has a producer credit but not a screenwriting one.) As a follow-up to an epic, The Dark Tower is decidedly small in both scope and execution. The story is generic with little of the mind-bending, quirky twists that made the books enjoyable. And, although King has stated that his inspirations for the series were The Lord of the Rings and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, there's not the faintest echo of Tolkien or Leone to be found here. Instead, director Nikolaj Arcel (whose 2012 Danish film, A Royal Affair, introduced the world to Alicia Vikander) has done his best to ape the B-movie sci-fi/fantasy films that studios shuttled out irregularly during the 1980s and 1990s.
Whatever budget Sony provided to the filmmakers appears to have been spent securing the rights and paying the salaries of the two leads. Beyond Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba, the cast is comprised of lesser-known character actors, none of whom acquit themselves with distinction. The sets and special effects are far from cutting-edge. Scenes of energy weapons striking The Dark Tower resemble cutscenes from a video game circa 2010. The movie looks rushed, which is probably was, and appears to have been assembled more to cash in on the series' popularity than to advance the saga.
The story opens in modern-day New York City where a young teenager, Jake (Tom Taylor), is having visions of The Dark Tower, The Man in Black, and The Gunslinger. Fearing that he is mentally unstable, his mother, Laurie (Katheryn Winnick), sends him to an upstate clinic for testing. Realizing he is about to be kidnapped, Jake escapes and follows his visions to an abandoned house that contains a hidden portal. Entering it, he is transported to Mid-World, where he meets Roland Deschain a.k.a. The Gunslinger (Elba) and joins him on his quest to kill the nefarious sorcerer Walter o'Dim a.ka. The Man in Black (McConaughey). Simultaneously, Walter realizes that Jake is the boy he has been waiting for - someone with sufficient psychic power to destroy The Dark Tower, a monolith that protects the universe from the monsters that exist outside it.
The best thing about The Dark Tower is Elba, whose performance as Roland is good enough to make us wonder how good he might be in a straightforward Western. He has the toughness and gravitas necessary to establish an imposing figure (not unexpected based on his work in The Wire and Luther). Unfortunately, he's only a supporting member of The Dark Tower's cast; the script has inexplicably put the inexperienced and not always convincing Tom Taylor front-and-center. As for McConaughey, he's here for the paycheck, although he has fun hamming it up. He doesn't phone in the performance but no one is going to suggest him for an Oscar nomination.
The Dark Tower is short, barely making it past the 90-minute mark. The brevity, which would be welcomed in many films, feels like a cheat here. The intricacies of King's multiverse are only hinted at - so much that should be explored goes unmentioned and, as a result, aspects of The Dark Tower are hokey, incomprehensible, or both. The main narrative through-line is straightforward so at least there's no confusion about who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and what happens when they meet at the end.
This isn't the first highly anticipated adaptation to fall flat but, after the success of The Hunger Games trilogy, there was reason to hope that care would be lavished on The Dark Tower. At one point, there were grand plans for this franchise - multiple films with at least one TV mini-series in between. Now, all we have is this production, and, judging by its quality and the anticipated tepid response, it's unlikely that anything further will be pursued. For many, reading The Dark Tower is a rich and rewarding experience. It may be hard to find anyone who will say the same thing about watching the movie.