Stephen King’s eight-novel multiverse – The Dark Tower has become a slice of lean-and-mean metaphysical action pulp, showing a stylishly firm Idris Elba and a charmingly evil Matthew McConaughey.
Being a critic, I know I should do my homework. So let me confess right from the start that I did not prepare myself to review The Dark Tower the highly anticipated movie adaption of Stephen King’s multiverse novel franchise, 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 realized that this installment was going to last a mere 95 minutes, I thought: It’s clear that the moviemakers have taken the 4,000-plus pages of King’s time-tripping, parallel-universe-hopping genre broad and mushed them into something that doesn’t try to be a page-by-page transcription of the books. Resulting, I decided to devote myself to what’s up on screen rather than what isn’t there. And here’s what I witnessed. 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 decent and watchable paranoid metaphysical video game that doesn’t overstay its welcome, adds some luridly amusing visual effects, and — it has to be included — evokes an emotional impact of close to zero. Which in a film like this one isn’t necessarily a disadvantage.
The Dark Tower film, which focuses on Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a teenager with psychic abilities who becomes the epicenter of a clash for the fate of Earth, suggests an “X-Men” installment with entirely one underage mutant mixed with “The Shining” mixed with “The Book of Eli” mixed with “The Matrix” all wrapped up in enough action to leave audience who don’t even know who Stephen King is feeling like they’ve well spent their money. A few of the concepts drifting through The Dark Tower movie indicate how far ahead of the curve King was, a few serve as flagrantly derivative, but when you watch The Dark Tower you may not bother to distinguish 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 have images of a mechanistic volcano, of humankind with fake skin, and of a glowering Man in Black and a hero named 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 grasped Jake’s nightmarish dreams. 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 engages in a rocky wilderness called Mid-World, and it’s there that he encounters the Gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), a stoic avenger in a frayed leather trenchcoat whose task is to protect the Dark Tower, a force of cosmic good that’s been around since the beginning of time. The Gunslinger’s enemy, the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), sets out to destroy the Tower, and if he’s accomplished it, the universe will collapse. The Man in Black operates out of that wicked volcano, a medieval sci-fi lair where he keeps gifted children in a head-locking “Matrix” chair that sucks out their energy to take out the Tower (or something), and what pulls you into the film is McConaughey’s spiffy play 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. Still, what makes the Man in Black nifty-campy-scary is the menacing nonchalance with which McConaughey imposes his power,forcing people to kill themselves on an impulse (“Stop breathing!” he ordered Jake’s icky stepfather, and the man does, and dies). McConaughey makes the Man in Black a neatly purposeful demon, a roving executioner with style.
For a while, Idris Elba feels a little empty by comparison, but that’s just due to 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 anticipating for the moment when he goes with Jake through a portal back to earth, a land 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 strong box-office performer (at least, for a weekend), however the picture’s no-frills design raises a question: Would it be a more commercial film if it were an ambitious, two-hours-plus run that tried to stay digressively true to the heavy weight of King’s books? My instinct says that no, that movie would have been a slog. The Dark Tower works as a movie as it’s not trying to be a multiverse — and as, in its forgettable derivative ballistic way, it’s stuffed with just enough of the King vision to remind you that everything old can become new again, especially if it wasn’t all that book the first time.