For Stephen King fans at the turn of the millennium, The Dark Tower series was what George R.R. Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire is now: a gritty epic that stood as its author’s most sweeping accomplishment, but looked like it might never be finished.
King’s genre-hopping franchise about a grim hero from a post-apocalyptic world, forever fighting his way across realities toward a mysterious tower, launched in 1982 with The Gunslinger. But the sequels came at distressingly long intervals, and it frequently seemed as though King had shelved his magnum opus entirely. Fans have been waiting for more than 20 years for the complete story, which lasted thousands of pages and seven books, adding a later anthology, a series of graphic novels that extended the franchise’s backstory, and a long series of crossover references in apparently unrelated King novels and stories.
So it’s unavoidable that the first movie adaptation would be something of a let-down for fans, as no one film — especially not one that clocks in at a scant 95 minutes — could possibly live up to the epic image of this character and this world in their minds. And it’s specifically hard to adjust to the way the tale has been remodeled for a mainstream audience, and steamrollered flat into a familiar fantasy genre. The Dark Tower, helmed by Danish director Nikolaj Arcel, is so simplified in places that it seems outright generic.
Simultaneously, though, it’s peppered with elements and inside jokes that only King fans are likely to understand. The Dark Tower film, which emerged from a well-publicized, troubled process of studio-switching development, reshoots, and delays, feels like it’s perpetually at war with itself. It’s alternately aimed at those who are new to the series, who presumably need hand-holding through the storyline, and insiders who can fill in the narrative gaps for themselves, and feel the weight of significance on stuffs given little gravity in the movie. But the struggle to appeal to both halves of its presumed viewers has left the movie conflicted and erratic, a puzzling mix of highly specific details and irritatingly wide fantasy strokes. That confusion over the intended audience isn’t the only way The Dark Tower works against itself. The script, written by Arcel and three others (including Akiva Goldsman, also a writer on the comically bungled adaptations of Winter’s Tale, Insurgent, and The 5th Wave), fails to establish whose story is essential, what tone the movie should take, and whether this is meant as a stand-alone story where the loose ends can be nicely wrapped up, or a series-launcher meant to draw people into a cinematic universe.
King’s series kickoff The Gunslinger starts immediately with its battle-weathered protagonist chasing a hated enemy through a desert. But Arcel’s Dark Tower tries to ease newcomers into its realm through the point of view of Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a young Yankee haunted by nightmares about the magical Dark Tower, and a terrified-looking child-powered machine that’s being used to rip holes in it. The dreams appear to be connected with an international rash of increasingly severe earthquakes, but naturally, no one believes Jake when he got annoyed by the possibility that his visions of otherworldly crisis might have importance in his world. His worried mother (Katheryn Winnick) and sullen stepfather (Nicholas Pauling) think he’s having a psychotic breakdown, and needs intense therapy.
But eventually, Jake learns what the opening titles already explained — that there are many worlds, and the tower is an artifact at the center of them all, holding back darkness and keeping demons at bay. It’s not truly clear what that means in the context of the movie, since Jake ends up facing demons anyway, and the tower appears to have no effect on the considerable darkness the movie’s villain brings into the world. The exposition comes awkwardly in The Dark Tower, with an unapologetic frankness that makes some of the potentially more poetic, mythic reveals land with all the grace of a dropped anvil. And there’s no attempt to build the world’s mythology past the most rudimentary levels. There’s a tower. An evil sorcerer named Walter (Matthew McConaughey) is attempting to destroy it. Jake has visions that might help. And that, apparently, is meant to be enough to carry this opening chapter.
Jake does have a reluctant companion in Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last of a line of honor-bound, gun-wielding fighters whom King figured after King Arthur and the knights of the round table. In King’s books, Roland is a fantastically scarred, weary man who’s spent his life obsessively looking for the tower. In Arcel’s film — consciously built up as a sequel to the novels, though only die-hard King fans are likely to notice — Roland has become down and embittered, and has given up on battling the good fight. Reminded of his oaths to protect the tower, he claims the war against darkness has ended, the forces of light have fallen, and the tower’s destruction is certain. His one and only goal is to have revenge on Walter, who killed Roland’s father Steven (Dennis Haysbert).
The movie adaption of The Dark Tower is as much about Roland reclaiming his faith and his determinate to fight as it is about Walter’s scheme. But the movie doesn’t do enough to show who Roland is, and why his fall from grace and come back to heroism should matter. Handled correctly, that lack of focus might just make Roland seem mysterious and compelling. King developed him around the epicc imagery of the Arthuriad, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Clint Eastwood’s dark, laconic “man with no name” character from Sergio Leone’s epic Westerns. He’s meant as a model of larger-than-life fairy-tale resonance that shouldn’t need profound explanations. And Elba portrays him as a haunted but mighty man, playing up his certainty and force of determination in a convincing way.
But the script does him no favors. King built up a whole civilization to explain Roland’s unfortunate backstory, and the movie reduces that entire history to one brief sequence, which feels both curiously offhand, and loosed from the film. (It was nearly definitely part of those late-in-the-game reshoots.) He’s framed not as a major and sorrowful figure, but as a standard-issue reluctant messiah, similar to so many others. In an overcrowded fantasy-film view, he doesn’t stand out, and the relatively simplified images of a magic tower and a devious killer feel more like lazy shorthand than like iconic roles.
The script has more success with Jake’s coming-of-age story. It does feature him as a frustratingly familiar Chosen One with special abilities (dubbed “the shine,” which will ring bells for fans of either the novel or movie version of King’s The Shining), but it also takes time to form his family dynamic, and linger on the pain of a pre-teen realizing he can’t rely on the adults in his life to understand or stand up for him. Tom Taylor portrays Jake as a sort of rolling tragedy, staggering through a waking nightmare with tenacious determination and admirable bravery. But he also steadily goes through the fear included in facing Walter, whom the script grants near-infinite powers, a towering head of rage, and a habit of occasionally murdering almost everyone he bumps into.
When The Dark Tower just depends on McConaughey’s dead-eyed creepiness, the alienness of Roland’s homeland of Mid-World, and Jake’s strive to settle reality and fantasy, it at least has an emotional balance that carries the story moving onward. Even so, Arcel never completely seems in control of the element. A battle sequence in the woods is so dimly lit, it’s hard to follow. Some fish-out-of-water humor scenes look like they were cribbed from the strange time-travel journeys of Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home. One action sequence, involving a demon in a decrepit house, is abandoned mid-stride, then hand-waved away much later in a way that just raises more questions.
And there lie too many other questions that seem like first-draft script issues that never got worked out. Why is Roland immune to Walter’s powers? Neither of them even appears quite curious about that, even though it’s core to their long-term personal enmity. Why does Walter tell a dying man there’s nothing waiting after death, then immediately turn around and claim hell is real, and he’s been there? Why did the writers think it would be a good idea for McConaughey to interrupt a battle to explain, to no one in particular, that Roland’s guns were forged from King Arthur’s sword? What is Joss Whedon favorite Fran Kranz doing in the middle of all the things, importantly reprising his role from Whedon’s TV franchise Dollhouse?
And most importantly, for who is this movie meant? In so many ways, it’s a victor for King fans, who can chuckle in satisfaction when they find a photograph of the Overlook hotel from The Shining, or the graffiti “All hail the Crimson King,” or the images of roses scattered from the beginning to the end of the movie. But it’s also a sluggish, halfhearted setup for a sprawling television and movie series that would see Roland filling in his backstory and pursuing his quest, whatever it may be at this point. King’s series-launcher The Gunslinger was also short, simple, and wide, and it gave virtually no implications of where the rest of the franchise would go over the course of its decades-long history. If that novel is any example, the Dark Tower movie series might still recover from this loose introduction, and rely on its strongest details to build the basis for a cinematic universe. But if later installments do get off the ground, they’re going to need to strive from more singular, confident views than this.