Editor’s Note: The Dark Tower opens in wide theatrical release today, August 4, 2017.
Over eight novels stretching out across four decades and two centuries, Stephen King’s Gunslinger has pursued his arch-nemesis, the Man in Black, across not just of the fallen Mid-World, a post-apocalyptic, post-industrial wasteland, but ours (or a reasonable facsimile) too, with the fate of the multiverse, as always, in the balance. King even inserted a fictionalized version of himself and an alternate version of the accident that almost took his life into the sprawling series as it meandered toward a seemingly open-ended conclusion. He’s nowhere and everywhere to be found in Danish filmmaker Nicolaj Arcel’s (The Royal Affair) loose adaptation/continuation, The Dark Tower, the first entry in what the film’s producers have promised will be an ambitious film and TV franchise. If the relentlessly unimaginative, aggressively mediocre The Dark Tower is any indication, however, those TV plans might have to go on the backburner for the foreseeable future (possibly longer).
With a streamlined running time of just 95 minutes, The Dark Tower introduces and drops characters with little regard for continuity, speeds through semi-comprehensible plot points, and stumbles through obligatory world building with little regard for moviegoers.
Rather than a straight adaptation of one or more of the novels of the series, The Dark Tower takes an entirely different approach, borrowing bits and pieces of story here, stray, loosely connected characters in service of a painfully familiar “Chosen One” narrative with Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a troubled teen afflicted with visions of the Gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), and the Man in Black, Walter O’Dim (Matthew McConaughey), and the Dark Tower of the title. In both King’s novels and the film adaptation, the Dark Tower – an obvious nod to Sauron’s tower in the Lord of the Rings trilogy – not only binds the universe together, it keeps the Lovecraft-inspired forces of darkness (or rather Darkness) at bay on the other side of a magically powered force field. The Man in Black wants to take it all down, not because he has some grudge against the forces of Light, but because he can. In King’s take, the Man in Black represents the purest form of chaotic evil. Unfortunately, that makes for a bland, boring villain.
The Gunslinger doesn’t want to save the world or the universe, at least not anymore. He just wants to take out the Man in Black for all of the personal grief and loss he’s caused Deschain. It’s not quite as bland or dull as the Man in Black’s motivation, but it’s not particularly complex or profound either. Jake plays a key role – maybe “the” key role – in convincing Deschain to set aside his quest for revenge and save the Dark Tower from destruction. Before we get to that predictably clichéd arc, however, The Dark Tower has to cycle through the “reluctant mentor, eager student” plotline. Deschain crosses paths with Jake inadvertently, after Jake has found an inter-dimensional portal between our world and the Gunslinger’s, Mid-World. Only Jake’s carefully composed sketches of the Gunslinger, the Man in Black, and the Dark Tower, save him from Deschain’s misplaced wrath. Plus, Jake has something called the “shine,” vaguely delineated psychic powers that make him a valuable, maybe even an invaluable, asset or pawn in the seemingly eternal struggle between the Gunslinger and the Man in Black.
The Man in Black wants to take it all down, not because he has some grudge against the forces of Light, but because he can. In Stephen King’s take, the Man in Black represents the purest form of chaotic evil. Unfortunately, that makes for a bland, boring villain.
Jake has a family, a mother, Laurie (Katheryn Winnick), and a stepfather, Lon (Nicholas Pauling), with varying levels of interest in his fate and future, too, but once Jake leaves our world, Keystone Earth, for Mid-World, they’re relegated to the margins, albeit with one or two important consequences for Jake, including problems at school and a visit from representatives of a supposedly well-meaning program for troubled teens in upstate New York that precipitates his flight to Mid-World and the Man in Black’s subsequent discovery of Jake’s psychic gifts. Given that kids with the shine power the Man in Black’s anti-Dark Tower super-weapon, Jake’s one-of-a-kind gift might be exactly what the Man in Black needs to kickstart the apocalypse. But all of that assumes that moviegoers instantly care about another “stop the apocalypse” story, one we’ve seen countless times in film and on television (e.g., Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, seasons 1-7) or the fate of the individual characters or their world. It’s an ultimately fatal assumption.
With a streamlined running time of just 95 minutes, The Dark Tower warps through character introductions, world building, backstories, and conflicts superficially. The Dark Tower introduces and drops characters with little regard for continuity, speeds through semi-comprehensible plot points, and stumbles through obligatory world building with little regard for moviegoers. Dark Tower fans will see the rough contours or parameters of King’s self-described magnum opus, but little, if any, of the magical elements or level of detail that made the series such an enthralling, captivating read. Instead, they’ll see by-the-numbers storytelling, uninventive action scenes that make the Gunslinger’s near superhuman ability to recover from serious injury and skills with his super-special firearms look practically routine, and a villain who walks and talks more than he actually does anything of significance outside of pursuing Jake in the back half of The Dark Tower. He never breaks a sweat, but it’s clear he also never changes his clothes — likewise for the Gunslinger.
The Dark Tower assumes that moviegoers instantly care about yet another “stop the apocalypse” story, one we’ve seen countless times in film and on television, the fate of the individual characters, or their world. It’s an ultimately fatal assumption.