Movie Review: “The Dark Tower” (PG-13)
Full disclosure: I’ve never read Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” series (I know, I know, I have no excuse). Therefore, I’m coming into this as an eager movie fan with a lot of love for a fair share of cinematic King adaptations in the past. “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Stand By Me,” “The Dead Zone,” “Carrie,” and (dare I say it) “The Shining” (sorry, Mr. King) are high among the best of them. That said, even as someone who hasn’t read the source material, it’s very clear that by the time the end credits for “The Dark Tower” rolled, it was apparent that large portions of the plot were missing. And how could the movie not feel this way? After all, “The Dark Tower,” which attempts to cram in various elements from eight books, is only 95 minutes long.
This stuffed film’s primary focus is young Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a boy who suffers from bad dreams, presumably brought on by the passing of his biological father. Jake senses that there’s more to these visions, though, and as the days progress, these nightmares become more vivid to the point that he’s convinced they aren’t dreams at all but rather horrible visions of events that are actually taking place in an alternate dimension. Of course, if he dares to attempt to express this idea to his loving mother or others around him, he risks being thrown into a psychiatric hospital, so Jake is very careful with his words.
Before long, however, the cat is let out of the proverbial bag, and Jake soon finds himself running for his life. Ultimately, he’s thrust into an adventure that will send him to another realm where he eventually teams up with stoic and reluctant hero Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last in a line of mythic gunslingers whose sole purpose is to protect the almighty Dark Tower from certain destruction. Roland’s and Jake’s primary foe comes in the form of the evil Walter O’Dim (Matthew McConaughey), a powerful Man in Black hell bent on destroying the tower so that darkness will be unleashed upon the universe.
Sounds like a little too much for a single 95-minute movie, doesn’t it? You have no idea. And in fact, that brief plot description barely scratches the surface. And this is problematic because “The Dark Tower” is trying to appease purists, casual fans of the book, and your average filmgoer who’s simply out to have a good time at the movies. While this film certainly isn’t terrible, I don’t know that it will entirely appeal to any of the previously mentioned viewers.
“The Dark Tower” is rushed, convoluted, and lacking in the kind of scope one would expect from a film of this nature, but it does get a lot of mileage out of a charismatic Elba and a committed Taylor. Together, this duo do generate a nice rapport, but it’s a shame that the movie is so damn short, because there isn’t the kind of emotional arc one might hope for here. As for McConaughey, he’s a lot of fun as an architect of evil, but you take the popular Texan actor’s swagger out of the equation and you’re left with a bit of a one-note character. Thankfully, it’s an entertaining note.
Obviously, there was quite a bit of pressure put on director Nicolaj Arcel (the skilled director behind the original “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) to deliver big on this beloved property, even though he was working with Akiva Goldsman’s neutered screenplay, a smaller budget than expected, and a very tight shooting schedule. Having said that, he knew the risks when he took the job. As it stands, Arcel does mount a couple of fun set pieces here, including a sequence in which Roland busts out the guns and takes on a team of baddies during a big showdown. What’s more, the whole King shared universe vibe (watch for references to “The Shining,” “It,” “1408,” and “Christine,” just to name a few) will likely put a smile on the faces of many a King fan. And beyond the more obvious winks at the iconic author who created “The Dark Tower,” there are also fanboy-infused moments reminiscent of “The Terminator,” “Time Bandits,” “The Matrix,” and “Lord of the Rings.”
Ultimately, as a movie, this fantasy-tinged tale of good vs. evil happens far too quickly. There’s a lot going on and not nearly enough explanation. “The Dark Tower” has very little patience and is rarely, if ever, given an opportunity to just sit back and breathe — particularly where the final act is concerned. But through it all, you can still feel what could have and should have been, and it’s that sense of squandered potential that stuck with me after the movie was over.
There’s been much talk of a potential TV series, and in fact, when Ron Howard was still attached to this project, the initial ambitious plan was to do a theatrically released movie that would lead into a TV series before closing out with a final epic movie. If “The Dark Tower” does indeed shift gears and eventually go to the small screen, one would hope that perhaps the series would still feature this film’s trio of leads — because Elba, Taylor, and McConaughey are actually quite good and deserve a script worthy of their talent — but start from scratch in the story department and give the screenplay the rich attention to detail that it clearly deserves. Because this flat, rushed movie adaptation, while not without it’s moments, ultimately feels like a frustratingly condensed version of a much more grandiose story.
Here’s hoping that the much buzzed-about upcoming adaptation of “It” is a stronger representation of what a great Stephen King adaptation can be.