REVIEW: ‘The Dark Tower’ ventures into an entirely generic multiverse

 Idris Elba and Tom Taylor in  The Dark Tower , directed by Nikolaj Arcel.

Idris Elba and Tom Taylor in The Dark Tower, directed by Nikolaj Arcel.

How serious of an error is it when a movie is merely boring? Does it mean the film has failed outright in its efforts to entertain, and deserves a crushing score? Or does the film’s simple mediocrity rescue it somewhat; if it doesn’t inspire outrage or pollute the industry, is the film all that bad?

This is what comes to mind with The Dark Tower, the perennially-troubled movie adaptation of the epic fiction series by Stephen King. After a snarled history of different directors, screenwriters and producers, the film has finally dropped, and some would say with a depressing *thud*. And while fans of the books have every reason to be extra disappointed with the work we finally saw, for average moviegoers, there isn’t a lot to take exception to. Admittedly, there also isn’t very much to like. But if the film is able to hurdle its potentially poor box office performance and kickstart a TV series, it’s not impossible that the screen adaptation of The Dark Tower could find its feet in a serialized format (which it arguably should have pursued in the first place).

One of the biggest draws to the Dark Tower universe has long been how King blended genres like the Western, fantasy, and sci-fi. He then took this detailed setting and used it to stage a story that simultaneously operated on its own as an existential quandary and as a nexus for many of King’s other works.

When Nikolaj Arcel’s film is at its best, it does harness this mixture of genres, suggesting that there’s a fascinating world for audiences to explore. The realm of Mid-World contains derelict versions of technology from our world, but with a society that seems more like a 19th-century American frontier settlement, only equipped with electricity and futuristic capabilities like teleportation. Frustratingly, just as viewers are getting interested, the film has its characters travel to Manhattan, where a series of rote story beats plays out: the hero is injured and fortuitously healed before the final fight; the hero has a falling-out with his companion, only to bond over a shared experience; the hero stops a world-destroying space laser with a few well-placed, slow-mo bullets.

 Matthew McConaughey as Walter, the Man in Black.

Matthew McConaughey as Walter, the Man in Black.

You might expect the focus of the film to be on the gunslinger from the title of King’s first book in the series, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba). Instead, it revolves around Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a pre-teen boy who finds himself wrapped up in a quest to save the titular Tower from destruction by the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey).

Much more time is spent with Jake - his tortured dreams, the attempts by the Man in Black to capture him - than with Roland. For anyone interested in the history or society of Mid-World, this is extra frustrating. The concept of a special kid who has access to a unknown world (and no adults who believe him) is thoroughly played out in movies, and the decision to make Jake the primary character smacks of a lack of faith in the audience by a studio unsure of how to sell King’s world to the masses.

Time and again, you can feel the invisible hand of the studio in this movie, from its short runtime (95 minutes) to the Manhattan-based third act. Imagine a Hollywood boardroom where someone said, “No one’s gonna get this business of dimensions or psychic powers or portals. Let’s just do the finale in New York, and save some dough on post production!” “Yeah, and let’s have Roland get involved in some wacky fish-out-of-water sequences in the big city!” **Handshakes all around. Cigars are lit, and a three-martini lunch begins**

It’s worth repeating that The Dark Tower isn’t the worst movie of the summer. It may be the most disappointing to a certain section of the audience, but at least it resembles a functioning movie. Will Elba and McConaughey get to continue in their roles, alternating between seasons of TV and movie installments? Apparently, that will come down to an audience exit survey of all things - further evidence that this project ended up in the hands of people who value the commodification of entertainment over artistry.

 The massive structure from the title is supposed to link all the worlds in King's multiverse.

The massive structure from the title is supposed to link all the worlds in King's multiverse.

It’s not too late - maybe David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the showrunners of Game of Thrones, will bow to the will of the people, drop their Confederate project, and take up the TV component of The Dark Tower instead. If there was ever a project that could benefit from their skills in adapting complex novels into a beloved show, it’s this. But if the box office numbers and the critical reception are any indication, we’ll need some of the Man in Black’s sorcery to keep this adaptation alive much longer.

The Dark Tower gets two stars out of four.

 
 

Stray thoughts

  • The number of obviously missing chunks in this version of the film suggests that Arcel’s director’s cut would be interesting, though we’ll likely never see it.
  • Would it have been so hard to include a 5-minute flashback with some more info on the world of the gunslingers?
  • What was the point of Roland and Jake bonding over target practice? Roland says immediately afterwards that his weapons are his guns, and Jake’s weapon is his mind.