The Dark Tower (2017) Review
A FILM THAT HAS FORGOTTEN
THE FACE OF HIS FATHER
In the world of literature, Stephen King is an acclaimed author who has taken readers into the varying different worlds of horror, supernatural fiction, suspense, and dark fantasy. His books, which consists of novels, non-fiction books, and short stories / novellas, have sold more than 350 million copies worldwide, with many being adapted into feature films, miniseries, television shows. This includes Stand by Me (The Body), Shawshank Redemption, (Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption). The Mist, Under the Dome, Carrie, Children of the Corn, The Green Mile, It, and many others. However, with all these books, short stories, and novellas being adapted (on both the big and small screen), one of King’s most popular series titled The Dark Tower series has yet to be adapted. Considered to be his “magnus opus” of his writing, King’s The Dark Tower series is comprised of eights installments (nine you include a prequel novella) and tells of the tale of a “gunslinger” named Roland Deschain and his quest toward a tower, the nature of which is both physical and metaphorical. Now, Sony / Columbia Pictures and director Nikolaj Arcel present the very first film adaptation of King’s The Dark Tower series with the movie The Dark Tower. Does this page to screen film do justice to its celebrated source material or does something truly great get lost along the way?
In the center of the known universe lies the Dark Tower, a monolithic structure of protection that prevents the darkness from crossing into the universe’s various worlds and realms. On Earth, Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is a troubled 11-year old who dreams of the Tower, a gunslinger, and a Man in Black. His obsession of his dreams, which he continually sketches onto paper, lands him in trouble at school and becomes a main issue with his mother Laurie (Kathryn Winnick) and stepfather to argue about. With her concern over her son’s behavior, Laurie prepares to send Jake to clinic in upstate New York to get better. However, everything changes when Jake discovers that what he sees in his dreams are real. Jumping into a mysterious portal, Jake finds himself in Mid-World, where he meets up with the gunslinger Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) from his dreams, who is on a mission to kill the viscous sorcerer Walter O’Dim (Matthew McConaughey) aka the Man in Black, which began when Walter killed all the Gunslingers, including Roland’s father, Steven (Dennis Haysbert). With the Man in Black inching ever closer to finally destroying the Dark Tower and letting the unknown evils into the universe, Roland and Jake must figure out a way to save not just their own worlds, but all worlds from Walter’s apocalyptic plans.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Working at a bookstore for many years, I’ve always known of author Stephen King’s works (novel, short stories, and novellas) and seeing his steady popularity continue to grow with readers in both casual readers and devoted fans of his literary novels. However, I have not picked up and read any one of King’s books (I know…shocking), so I mostly known of his reputation from “word of mouth” and / or through some internet research on his writing style and famous books (i.e. The Dark Tower series). On the other hand, when it comes to the film adaptations of King’s work, I’ve seeing plenty of them, including Carrie, The Green Mile, Stand by Me, Shawshank Redemption, and several others. Thus, suffice to say that King’s writings, whether you like them or not, are well-known in both the literary world and in the various media facets of TV / movies realms.
As I said, King’s The Dark Tower series is one of his more celebrated novels in his career, which drew inspiration from The Lord of the Rings, the Arthurian Legend, and the film The Good, Bad, and the Ugly. With so many other stories and novels by King being adapted to “page to screen”, many believed that Hollywood would (eventually) get around to commission The Dark Tower into a motion picture, with potential to become a big-ticketed film franchise of sorts. This, of course, leads me into my review for The Dark Tower. Like I stated, I never read any of King’s novels, but I’ve read up on his Dark Tower series, but knew enough about to know the story’s premise and characters. Additionally, I was quite intrigued by the film’s theatrical trailer, especially with actors Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey being attached to movie. I was planning on reading the first book (The Gunslinger) before seeing the movie, but life happens and I got too busy to pick up a copy and read it. Nevertheless, I was definitely intrigued to see the movie. So, what did I think of it? Well, let just say that my expectations should’ve been lowered, for The Dark Tower, despite its much beloved source material, is a bland and conventional action-fantasy romp that lacks heart, imagination, and the expansiveness of its King’s mythos and world building. It’s not downright awful, just upsettingly frustrating of what the film could’ve been.
For those who don’t know, the journey of making The Dark Tower a reality has been quite arduous and long one; a one that has a decade of delays. Every so often, I would hear hearing rumors and internet buzz about a Dark Tower film being produced, but nothing materialized. Both J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard were once attached to direct the feature, but both left the project to pursue other films. Eventually, the directorial job for making The Dark Tower was finally greenlit and given to director Nikolaj Arcel, whose previous works include King’s Game, Truth About Men, and A Royal Affair. As a story, Arcel, who co-wrote the film’s script along with Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, and Anders Thomas Jensen follows a very familiar (and much beloved) narrative path that has grown accustomed to either YA stories and / or fantasy films. You know what I’m talking about: a wayward young boy from our world gets transported into another world, befriends a hero-like character, and becomes caught in the greater struggle (whether by accident or labeled as a “chosen one” McGuffin of sorts) between good and evil. It’s a tried-and true narrative plot structure, which has worked in many stories, including The Never-ending Story, Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, etc.). Thus, the story in The Dark Tower, for better or worse, weaves this narrative, which makes the film somewhat enjoyable, especially if you like that “fish-out-of-water” storyline (I certainly do).
In addition, Arcel makes a stark visual comparison between the two worlds with the lively world of New York City of Jake’s world (i.e. Keystone Earth) and the barren, broken, and desolate world of Mid-world. Also, the actual Dark Tower itself (an enigmatic and towering structure) looks amazing. Every time they showed it, my interest was kind of peeked. I’m kind of interested in learning more about what it is (i.e. I still might pick up a copy of the first book and start to read the series). Additionally, the film’s score by Junkie XL, while not incredibly awesome, is still a solid piece of work that has its moments of suites of melodies throughout the film.
Unfortunately, The Dark Tower is far from being a memorable movie (even more so a great one) as this condensed cobbled version of Stephen King’s novel series is more “inspired by” vs. being “based on”. The main problem I found with this movie is within its runtime, which is an unimaginable 95-minute long (i.e. roughly the standard runtime for an animated movie). Yes, the movie’s pace is swift and keeps things moving and to keep a viewer’s attention from wandering. This tactical decision is both a curse and blessing for the movie, but I personally found it to be a curse more so than a blessing, sacrificing story elements and character development to keep the film streamlined. For fans of the books, The Dark Tower’s mythology and world-building from King’s novels are hardly fully realized within the motion picture, condensing most of the material within a handful of sentences. This includes the realm of Mid-World, the war between the Gunslingers and the Man in Black as well as the Roland’s family and his past. Again, I never read one of the Dark Tower books, but at least have read up on them and have a vague understand of this universe that King was building within his books. However, any person who watches this movie can sense that the tale being told is larger (and grander) that what’s being presented in the film.
Perhaps this decision was to make The Dark Tower much more accessible to the casual moviegoer who hasn’t read the novels or aren’t familiar with King’s series. Unfortunately, this tactic is somewhat a double edge sword as the movie doesn’t overwhelm viewers with its world mechanics and mythology, but it also prevents the film from exploring the expansiveness of its own world that was initial created by King. This also creates a lot of vague and ambiguous questions that are either fully answered or fully realized. This includes real of Mid-world (how big is it? How did it fall? Why is it a cobbled-up version of different worlds?) or the Low-Men, Walter’s lackeys who wear the skinned-faces as masks (who or what are they?) Even the motivation for Walter’s master endgame plan (a bit cliché) is unclear. Yes, we know that he wants to uses the “shine” from children to destroy the Dark Tower to let the darkness in, but what’s in it for him? Does his power grow with the darkness? Was he promised something for destroying the tower? Or (like the Joker from The Dark Knight) does he just want to watch the world burn? Basically, imagine if Peter Jackson only made The Fellowship of the Ring 90 minutes long and kept most of the Tolkien’s mythos (legends, lore, and expositional world-building moments) out of the final cut of the film. That’s basically what The Dark Tower is like, with only the bare minimum of its source material’s history, backstory, and world-building nuances. It’s just a bit disappointing that Arcel squanders the movie’s potential as The Dark Tower ultimately becomes a generic fantasy-action story with a simplistic hero’s journey arc.
Additionally, Arcel and his screenplay writers, make the film set after the events of the book series, so it isn’t strictly an adaptation of King’s written work. For what reason…. I have no idea. However, Arcel does seems to pick stuff out from the series, including the appearance of Jake Chambers, who first appears in the first installment of the series. Again, why was this decision made… who knows? Also, the film’s action is in short supply as the film only has a handful of sequences for Roland to show off his gun-shooting prowess as a gunslinger. Some of these shots are really cool-looking, but it’s nothing really anything new or original from what we (the viewers) have seeing before (kind of reminds me of Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted). Thus, the action is sparse and mostly derive, even with the aid of several CG action shots, which unfortunately doesn’t help. Lastly, the dialogue written for the various characters in the movie is mostly clunky and cheesy at times, which (again) doesn’t help us buy into them as believable characters.
Of course, the two big-ticked stars of the movie are actors Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, who play the hero and villain of the feature as the gunslinger Roland Deschain and Walter O’Dim (the elusive “Man in Black”) respectfully. Elba, known for his roles in The Wire, Luther, and The Jungle Book, has the best performances of the entire cast, with the now current 44-year old actor capable of being a leading man in the movie as well as handling himself with enough action swagger as the western-ish hero archetype character of Roland. Additionally, Elba definitely looks cool in his gunslinger costume attire. As for McConaughey, known for his roles in Interstellar, Dallas Buyers Club, and Mud, his rendition of Walter O’ Dim (aka Walter Padick or the “Man in Black”) is one that is interesting for the Oscar-winner to play, using his soft-spoken voice to play the ageless deceiver antagonist of the feature. Yes, it can be a bit “hammy” at times, but McConaughey seems to relish it and fully committed to playing the part. Also, its kind of interesting to see him play a villain role. While both Elba and McConaughey are talented actors, which helps elevate the characters in the film, their characters themselves are not well-rounded. That’s not to say that both characters are interesting, but, given the incredible short runtime for the movie, their characters are afforded much depth beyond their initial insights (i.e. Roland revenge on Walter and Walter’s plans to destroy the Dark Tower). All in all, Elba and McConaughey do their best with material given to them as their on-screen presences and acting talents serve them well in the movie, but the film just lacks well-developed characteristics within Roland and Walter.
The third main lead in The Dark Tower is the character of Jake Chambers (the main protagonist in the movie) who is played by relatively unknown young actor Tom Taylor. Taylor, known for his roles in Doctor Foster, The Last Kingdom, and Legends, plays the stereotypical role of the young boy hero who ventures to another world and becomes entangled in their battle between good and evil. Unfortunately, Taylor (as Jake Chambers) is woefully unimpressive, despite him being the somewhat main character of the feature. As a character, he’s just not that interesting, following the very predictable path of a youthful hero’s journey and (unlike Elba and McConaughey) Taylor’s performance, which is mostly wooden, doesn’t help elevate his generic character. In short, despite the fact that Jake Chambers is the de-facto “chosen one” (aka his “shine”) of the movie, both the character’s evolution and Taylor’s performance are underwhelmingly bland.
The supporting cast in The Dark Tower fares about the same as Taylor’s performance of Jake Chambers; bland and not much depth given to them for us (the viewer) to care about. This includes Katheryn Winnick (Vikings and Geostorm) as Jake’s mother Laurie Chambers, Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen and Little Children) as Walter’s main henchmen on Earth Sayre, Claudia Kim (Avengers: Age of Ultron and Marco Polo) as the ethereal seer Arra Champignon (the coolest name in the entire movie), Abbey Lee (Mad Max: Fury Road and Neon Demon) as Walter’s lackey Tirana, and Dennis Haysbert (24 and The Unit) as Roland’s father Steven Deschain. Again, these performances are not necessarily bad in their respective acting talents or anything like that, but these supporting players of The Dark Tower story are so one-dimensional and flat that it’s hard to care about them whether they live, die, or get betrayed along the way, making their involvement in the feature stereotypical at best and disposable at worst.
The tower protects our world from darkness as Jake and the gunslinger Roland find a way to prevent the “Man in Black” from destroying in the film The Dark Tower. Director Nikolaj Arcel’s newest film brings to life author Stephen King’s beloved novel series to life on the big screen. Unfortunately, with the exception of Elba and McConaughey’s acting performances, there’s not a whole lot to get excited about with the movie’s final product. With its incredibly short runtime, abridged world-building, uninteresting action, formulaic hero’s journey arc, and lack of character development, The Dark Tower mostly comes off as a half-decent action-fantasy adventure that doesn’t come close to the celebrated work of King’s novels. To me, this movie was disappointing as I did have somewhat of high hopes for this film to be good. It wasn’t completely terrible, but the entire movie just felt lackadaisical and mostly derivate / bland from start to finish. Thus, I have to say that my recommendation for this movie definitely going to be a hard skip it as casual moviegoers will be somewhat confused by what they saw while fans of King’s The Dark Tower series will probably be frustrated by this condensed adaptation. While other King’s movie translations have become iconic and / or widely praised (i.e. Stand by Me, The Stand, and Shawshank Redemption), this movie isn’t one of them. Clearly, The Dark Tower has forgotten the face of his father (Stephen King).
2.5 Out of 5 (Skip It)
Released On: August 4th, 2017
Reviewed On: August 5th, 2017
The Dark Tower is 95 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for thematic material including sequences of gun violence and action