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Review: ‘The Dark Tower’ aims for the heart, but shoots itself in the foot
If you loved the books, prepare for disappointment.
The Dark Tower is not just a bad movie, it’s one of the worst mainstream films of 2017. That’s because it commits a cardinal sin: it’s boring. It’s unrelentingly, tediously boring. The film, an adaptation of Stephen King’s popular novel series of the same name, feels embarrassed by its own material. Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughy wander aimlessly in their roles, as if desperately searching for script that just isn’t there. McConaughy in particular gives an anemic, confused performance.
What makes The Dark Tower so overwhelmingly disappointing is how it undercooks so many ingredients that could have created a fantastic onscreen adaptation. You have a rich mythology, incredible source material, and a plot that screams cinematic potential. It feels like the film’s writers, led by Akiva Goldsman, wrote the script without bothering to read the novels at all.
The story of the film—and it strains me to find a coherent description of the narrative—introduces 11-year-old Jake Chambers (played by Tom Taylor) who can’t stop dreaming of gunslingers, sorcerers, and a dark tower. He’s petulant, beating up anyone who dare touch his notebook, which contains his prized sketches of the dreams that plague him. His mother and her atypically obnoxious husband, played by Katheryn Winnick and Nicholas Pauling in thankless roles, struggle to understand Jake. His therapist tries to talk some sense into him, explaining that his dreams are no more than his subconscious trying to deal with the recent death of his father. When that doesn’t work, it’s off to the looney bin.
When his handlers come to pick him up, Jake immediately senses something off about them. At this point, you’ll begin to sense something off about the film as well. One of them acts obviously evil, and the other has a physical scar that reminds Jake of his dreams. He tries to explain to his parents, like any rational child would, that he doesn’t want to go. His stepdad, in traditional Evil Stepdad mode, tells Jake if he doesn’t go he’s “going to drag him there himself.” Then, Jake gets his big moment, receiving a notification on a message forum with the location of a significant place from his dreams. Yes, in the mythical and magical world of The Dark Tower, a message forum informs the plot and motivations of our lead characters.
With that, Jake escapes his heartless parents and evil handlers and manages to find a secret portal in a mysterious, dilapidated house. It’s in this scene where I could tell somewhere along the way the filmmakers just stopped caring. As Jake investigates the house, he’s alerted to a very familiar sound: an old 1995 Apple computer starting up. The sound comes from a portal that opens up to another world. It’s like the sound engineers literally found the easiest and most accessible sound they could find, ran with it and said, “Time for lunch.” Jake enters the portal, which takes him to Mid-World.
In Mid-World, he quickly stumbles upon Idris Elba in the role of Gunslinger. Jake tells him about his dreams and shows him his drawings. The Gunslinger has of course lost his way, especially after the evil Man in Black (McConaughey) killed his father in a flashback so utterly devoid of tension or build-up you might actually start to hate the movie a little (and there’s a long way left to go). Jake convinces the Gunslinger to prevent the Man in Black from destroying the Dark Tower, a gateway that protects Earth from total darkness and weird, flying creatures. There’s one scene where a creature takes the form of not only Jake’s dad, but the Gunslinger’s dad. It’s just cringe-worthy bad. The creature, who is not explained or seen again, might as well have carried a sign that reads “Will kill for motivation.” Shape-shifting aside, the creature could have stumbled out of The Mist, an infinitely better Stephen King adaptation.
The Gunslinger brings Jake to a group of townspeople called “the Seers,” who have psychic abilities. It is there that one of the Seers, a woman named Arra (Claudia Kim), tells Jake he has enormous potential. If that seems dull and vague, it’s on par for how Arra explains Jake his abilities. The dialogue is so forceful and flat that it almost feels like Goldsman put phrases into a dialogue generator and then plugged them into the script. When the Man in Black finds out about Jake, he sends his Orcs—I mean, his minions—to capture Jake. The Gunslinger saves Jake, and the two of them enter yet another portal back to Earth where they must stop the Man in Black from destroying… well, everything, I guess.
What happens from here is so trite, predictable, and generic it’s not worth describing. This is a film on autopilot, made by a studio (Sony Pictures) desperate to strike gold on a franchise that will make money. It’s telling that the studio’s biggest movie this year, Spider-Man: Homecoming, was filmed by Marvel Studios though a partnership with Sony. Too bad the rights to The Dark Tower can’t just revert back to Stephen King, or another studio that actually cares.
There’s really not much in this film I can recommend. If anything, I can recommend you avoid it. If you’re a fan of these books, you’re going to be disappointed. If you’re a fan of the basic tenets of storytelling, you’re going to be beyond frustrated. I usually find a few things to enjoy in a movie, even one as bad as The Dark Tower, but even Idris Elba’s smoldering presence is completely wasted in this film. He deserves better, and so do the fans of Stephen King’s novels.
The Dark Tower is a thundering disappointment, a complete mess of a movie made by a studio hungry for an easy cash-in and filmmakers who just didn’t care about the material. It aims for the heart, but shoots itself in the foot. There are other, better movies that deserve your hard-earned money this weekend
So do yourself a favor and avoid this misfire. You’ll be glad that you did.
Dan Marcus is a geek culture reporter based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in First Showing and Trek Movie.