REVIEW – “The Dark Tower” Struggles to Break Past Clouds, Let Its Light Shine Through
by Joe Hammerschmidt
I was never a huge Stephen King enthusiast; it’s possible I might’ve grown up in the wrong generation to fully appreciate any of his books. The closest experience I have to any of his work in the media was the short-lived TV drama Under the Dome, which looking back was likely not his best novel. After a long waiting period, perhaps as long as when the first book debuted (1982), his small series The Dark Tower finally reaches the big screen, with Idris Elba in the lead role as the heroic Gunslinger, Roland Deschain.
For the uninitiated, it’s almost a fun little film that’s just enough to set up a mini franchise worthy of complimenting its respective print version. However, in attempting to set up its framework, so much is lost in the process. I was actually quite right in fearing the worst about the film’s lean 95-minute runtime. One could imagine that as a likely target director Nikolaj Arcel was wanting to reach, regardless of what important areas of plot would have to be sacrificed, like if we were seeing a bad TV edit of a film, or more accurately, the overbudgeted pilot for a forthcoming TV series.
Literally every scene appears as if it had been edited heavily, which badly affects our character development, and the bonds one could’ve built with our accidental hero, Jake Chambers (up-and-comer Tom Taylor). A youngster with a wild subconscious, Jake is obsessed with a fictional land he can only see in his nightmares, the subject of a bedroom’s worth of drawings, primarily involving the fictional Mid-World, gunslinger Roland, and his archnemesis, the elusive Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey).
His caring parents find concern in trying to save their kid from a serious mental lapse, encouraging him to consider transferring to a private “gifted school.” Somehow, the plot momentum gets its jumpstart as Jake loses patience in searching for the motives behind these dreams. Over time, the plot loses itself in the momentary action the closer Jake gets to Roland, then to the Man in Black in realizing Jake is the one most suited to destroy the titular fortress, and prevent a total cosmic extinction.
This was a film trapped in a ten-year development hell before Arcel finally grounded the project long enough to actually get it shot, working of a noticably worn-out Akiva Goldsman screenplay, which Arcel and Anders Jensen freshened up for shooting purposes; it had been reworked enough times to find where likely disjoints could spring up without warning. And they do, every time the setting changes.
Not only does the plot needlessly rush from one moment to the next, not much time is taken to allow the worlds the novels had built to breathe on screen. Each long shot has as much warmth and length as a GIF made by a sitcom fan; it is not all that convincing. What we do see of Mid-World, and how it blends with modern-day New York is an interesting feat in itself, with a striking look all its own, only to be muted by ADD editing.
To no surprise, Idris Elba is what keeps this barely stable trifle on solid ground. His heroics are likely the one thing truest to the books. There had been many A-list actors in consideration, yet even in writing, Idris would’ve blown all other potentials out of the water. He just manifests the qualities necessary to assume this all-important character, in both physical presence and emotional complexity. Still experiencing infrequent flashbacks to a younger day when he wasn’t the last of his kind, learning under the tutelage of his father (the calm Dennis Haysbert), a prevalence of guilty conscience still weighs upon him heavily. With Jake under his proverbail wing, Elba’s character now sees an opportunity to grow as an individual; the one sensical thing through the entire narrative, and what I hope could be expanded on should the planned TV continuation be able to succeed at.
McConaughey’s Man in Black appears far less welcome, however. He has a purpose throughout in trying to destroy what is known in the novels as “Keystone Earth”, yet his character, by comparison, is just less interesting, even borderline creepy. But granted, this is coming from someone who had never read the books, so I could expect my opinion to change when that time comes. As it stands now, he portrayed his character well, but he just wasn’t as exciting a villain as one would’ve hoped. If there was one likeable quality towards McConaughey, it would be how much scenery he’ll chew every time he’s encountered. And as for Taylor, the newcoming actor in his first major feature role easily has a long career ahead, once he can break past the shadow slowly being cast over this effort. He carries a wide emotional range, even if his actions almost meddle into mediocrity by the middle third.
From a wider perspective, there was plenty of hope and promise for this film, with a wide legion of fans over some of King’s other well-recieved works as an author. Alas, The Dark Tower is just one more in the category of “means well, but still comes up short of satisfaction.” Perhaps the potential small-screen followup may find a solution for where exactly the film strikes out, but in the present moment what is shown is far from substantial. Weak writing, shoddy editing, and unbalanced casting; not what one looks for in serious world-building. The struggle between dark and light appears more darker as a result, more so were it not for Elba who essentially rescues the picture just by standing in solidarity for all his fallen gunslingers. It would’ve been a great film if the focus was just on Roland, but instead one just has to settle for barely adequate. (C-)
The Dark Tower opens today at most area theaters; rated PG-13 for thematic material including sequences of gun violence and action; 95 minutes.