“He may be your father, but I’m your daddy, boy,” Roland might as well have said.
After nearly a decade of development hell, The Dark Tower arises from the ashes in the wastelands, and it now seems hell was a kinder place for it to stay.
Hopes were not high for many long-term fans as sparse advertising foreshadowed a film with little integrity in regards to its source material, material of which is so rich and abundant in character and lore. What what so wrong?
The Dark Tower follows Roland of Gilead, the last gunslinger, of the bloodline of Arthur Eld, on his perilous journey to the Dark Tower, a monument at the centre of the universe(s) that holds time and space in place. The man in black flees across the desert, and the gunslinger follows, the mysterious sorcerer a mere stepping stone in reaching his obsession, his final destination. At least, that is the case in the novels. In Nicolas Arcel’s critical and commercial flop, Roland is on a revenge mission, intent on killing the man in black. The Dark Tower, we are told, is important, but nobody seems to care, not even Roland himself. Everything else is secondary to revenge, including the tower that holds the universe and all of its revenge in place.
It is of course desirable that an adaptation works to mirror and compliment its source material tactfully, taking liberties only when necessary. One would imagine that the immense mythos of King’s magnum opus be dialed down a little for new audiences and potential readers, yet instead of dialing down from ten to an even eight, the Sony picture turns the nob down to one and then snaps it off. By all measures, this is The Dark Tower by name only, with only a few references from a handful of all the novels interlaced in amongst a generic, lackluster science-fiction plot. By now we all know, this was not one for the fans. Not even close. Here are, in my not-so-humble-opinions-due-to-large-disapointment, the reasons why:
Firstly, and perhaps most simply, Arcel’s film is too short. This is coming from a proponent of overly long running times, but the set-up, world-building and beginnings of a Dark Tower franchise needed to be longer than a meagre 95 minutes. In many ways, King’s fantasy novels pay homage and reflects elements of Tolkien’s works, and have become almost as important to nerds and fantasy readers as that of the tale of hobbits.
Peter Jackson gave The Lord of the Rings a running length it deserved, with extended editions to boot, where The Dark Tower gets almost half the running time of bum-numbing, superbly simple superhero movies. Realistically, Roland’s story needed to be told through a prestigious television network (HBO, Netflix, Amazon, AMC, any will do), and should have received the Game of Thrones treatment, considering the books have been in development for roughly the same amount of time. In relation, The Dark Tower, like George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series, is a dark, violent writing – seeing as darkness and violence is not trusted to sell tickets by Hollywood executives (regardless of the successes of Logan and Deadpool, and the latent critical acclaim of Dredd), Roland’s tale seriously needed a certificate far above a 12a or PG13.
Being an adaptation, the plot and script is going to be of most importance, and it generally boils down to nothing great but nothing so superbly dire as Suicide Squad. On its own merit, the film is extremely average blockbuster fare, but linked to its source material, the film is a total misfire, reload, misfire, reload and so on and so forth.
Jack Chambers has the shine, a psychic ability, and dreams of another world and two mysterious men. His dreams punctuate the film and, thus, Jake’s is the primary perspective of the film. Not Roland’s. This is the second blasphemy the film commits. With its 12a rating and teen perspective, the film essentially places itself into the same subgroup of teen blockbusters as Harry Potter and Twilight et al. instead of putting itself in the capable, steady hands of the gunslinger. What’s more, in this iteration, or this turn of the wheel, Jake is orphaned, like every other generic special teen protagonist going, because it’s easier to remove any subtlety and character building from the books in favor of driving in the same, easy slow lane as, for instance, The Mummy.
Jake being orphaned of course leads the way to yet more generic plot points, forcing Roland into being an unplanned surrogate, a plot that in recent years has become so overused it’s surprising at this point that it hasn’t picked up some diseases. Roland, of course readily accepts, instead of slowly, very slowly, being humanised by the friendship of his new pal as in the books. Rather than a straight adaptation, Arcel’s film is somewhere between that and a sequel to the books, in which the final moments see Roland taken back to the start of his journey afresh, unaware he has completed it an infinite number of times. In some zen-like narrative, Roland is to try to be better, less of a sacrificing anti-hero each time, so it is expected that he not be so bitter in this last turn of Ka’s wheel.
However, Elba’s Roland is so one-dimensional, driven by revenge (yawn) but yet so good (hugging Jake so short into their companionship) that it almost physically hurts. Furthermore, after the book’s turn of wheel, Roland is to have received the Horn of Eld, an icon that should make him do things differently next time around. King and Sony also teased this symbol in pre-release materials, insinuating to fans that this should be familiar yet different to what they have read.
The horn… it’s not in the film. Not once. Neither does it hang from Roland’s belt. Somehow, it feels like there is upwards of an hour of unused footage cut from the final film, as if filmmakers and studios got cold feet and decided to shred anything that they believed might confuse the consumerist simpletons that make up most cinemagoers instead of letting the large fan-base carry the film into a franchise. Simpletons is not even my word, but you can bet a few bullets that that’s how studio heads see their audiences. It is starting to become rather insulting – many would rather a critically acclaimed, commercial failure with integrity than vice-versa, one stand-alone film that only dips its toes into the source material while also only even slightly hinting at any sequels. As it stands, The Dark Tower could exist by itself, a generic, slightly under-average blockbuster.
Zero chemistry between any of the actors make the film more of a slog than it already is, with Idris Elba (Roland) and Tom Taylor (Jake Chambers) slapped together because they had to be. Again, perhaps the film needed fleshing out somewhat and required extended scenes of dialogue outside of the repetitive exposition that simply boiled down to tower – good, darkness – bad. Nonetheless, Elba and Taylor go together better than chalk and cheesed, forced into a sandwich neither fans or casual audiences wanted to bite into or enjoyed. By the end of the film, following a Star Wars-esque force battle of all things, the pair decided to go into world-hopping partnership (no, this isn’t Rick and *belch* Morty) and, in utter disbelief, we wonder why.
Matthew McConaughey has risen to the top in recent years, so it’s a shame that this is where it gets him. Rather than the mysterious villain of the books, a seemingly immortal sorcerer, McConaughey plays a camp, unstoppable villain so over the top and so over-powered it becomes a borish chore just to watch him. With his hair looking overtly dyed the black of the balding, aging man, he skips around worlds telling people to stop breathing, in other moments telling little girls to hate their mothers or co-workers to kill each other. He has been given the powers of the Preacher Jessie Custer, with no real reason.
Later, as highlighted in the trailers, the man in black has, it seems, increased his midachlorian count and gone to the dark side. Fire erupts from his hands one moment and the next he is hurling shards of glass and concrete pillars at his nemesis using Sith training. The catching of bullets is a nice addition to contrast Roland’s gunslinging abilities, but the rest makes him such a boring baddie with such little motivation that he could have been played by literally anybody else.
Of the three main action sequences in the film in which fans flock to see Roland’s killer instincts, only one really stands out, only to be partly ruined by stunts that mimic the hyperbolic eye-rolling actions sequences of Underworld or Resident Evil. Roland didn’t need to have the superpowers the film gives him, as he launches himself from one story of a building to another or catches two falling cylinders in his revolvers. All it needed was his keen aim and the guns forged from Excalibur. The rest of the films spectacle is very telling of the drastically low-budget, the Lovecraftian monsters of Todash space resembling the dog-monsters of The Great Wall than anything truly horrific. Only the score momentarily raises the momentum for the film to come crashing down into its own self-indulgent yet strenuously, repetitively basic exposition.
Arcel honorably tries to sprinkle in some references to King’s other works, given the way they mostly all connect to The Dark Tower, but these were all evidenced in the trailer material, making their appearance in the film somewhat redundant as fans check off what they have already seen. Otherwise, with the wealth of material to choose from, Arcel’s film manages to unceremoniously mash together elements from many of the books, bringing actual images of The Dark Tower into the first scenes of the film, rather than at the end where they belong. Think Frodo and Sam finally reaching Mount Doom, but raising that journey by eight books and adding in multiple universes and timelines to trip them up along the way. Here, instead, there is no whiff of a journey, no idea of trials and tribulations, where getting from one world to another has been made an easy thing to do from the off. Anything familiar to the books for the fans seems like more of an afterthought than anything.
What results, overall, is a bland science-fiction action blockbuster, an instantly forgettable delve into the multiverse narrative that has been dealt with in popular culutre both recently and frequently enough that the film needed as much from the books to make it as interesting and different as possible, Instead, we are delivered more of the same unsatisfying genre fare, no better or worse than a one-off Star Trek special or episode of Fringe. Stephen King gets a paycheck, and has reportedly said he wants the sequel to be R-rated, but alas it is much too late for artistic integrity now. Fans are majorly disappointed and rightfully so, and fresh audiences are none the wiser. If anything, there may be enough of a fuss to drive new fans to the books, but what it matters to this travesty of a sequel/adaptation is anyone’s guess.
The Dark Tower marks a disappointing end to commercially dire summer of cinema, while television powers full steam ahead. Perhaps it’s too early to propose that cinema could be in its death throes outside of superheroes, Star Wars, and grand science-fiction, but storytelling ineptitude is rife as of late in the mainstream industry, and The Dark Tower stands up out of its field of roses as a prime example.
The Film Fanatic