The Dark Tower is a motion picture in which a collection of scenes are strung together in a competent manner. Things happen and then it ends. It is the sequel to a series of books that most people have never read. Beyond these facts, it’s difficult to find a meaning or purpose behind director Nikolaj Arcel’s thoroughly disappointing fantasy/ action/ Western.
In the Fall of 2016, early screenings of The Dark Tower left audiences dissatisfied and baffled, ostensibly, because they hadn’t bothered to read the eight books and 1.3 million words that Stephen King wrote for them as a primer. Re-shoots and re-scheduled release dates followed, resulting in a film that will still leave audiences dissatisfied and baffled. And bored. Very, very bored.
“Everyone who walks with you dies.”
Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) is a cowboy of sorts. They call him ‘The Gunslinger’ because he shoots his gun so pretty. His only mission in life (or at least in this movie) is to track and murder the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey as the MIB!), a powerful sorcerer obsessed with destroying the Dark Tower. The Dark Tower is an interdimensional outpost (and righteous MacGuffin) that keeps beasties and baddies from alternative universes from invading our inconsequential little world. Roland once swore an oath to protect the Tower, but he abandoned those lofty responsibilities in favor of simpleminded vengeance against MIB, who murdered everyone he loved in a previous, presumably more exciting adventure.
If we needed more evidence that filmmakers have no idea what to do with Idris Elba’s commanding onscreen presence, The Dark Tower should close the case for good. With the possible exception of Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation (2015), which nobody saw due to its extremely limited release window, Elba has been relegated to movie roles far beneath his talent grade.
Here, he’s rendered monosyllabic, save for some metaphysical gibberish about “shoot with your mind” and “you have forgotten the face of your father.” He stalks about the screen, fruitlessly searching for something to do and some reason to give a damn. For a performer of Elba’s unique talents, the bolder, edgier approach of television drama is probably where he belongs until Hollywood filmmakers figure things out.
“His shine is pure!”
Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is the prototypical ‘boy who knows too much.’ He’s been having dreams about Roland, MIB, and the Dark Tower, which is pretty weird considering that he lives in modern day New York City. His walls are littered with enough sketches to storyboard an entire (and better) movie. Everyone thinks these visions are his subconscious attempt to deal with the death of his father, a brave firefighter killed in the line of duty, but the MIB knows better. He wants to harness Jake’s psychic abilities, or ‘shine’, to help him destroy the Dark Tower. The only things standing in his way are Roland and the need to fill 90 minutes of screen time.
It’s difficult to convey what an uninteresting, emotionless exercise The Dark Tower is. Each scene is ruthlessly crafted by Arcel (A Royal Affair, 2012, Truth About Men, 2010) and his screenwriters to include only the expository dialogue and action plot points needed to move forward. Each scene bleeds lifelessly into the next with the disappointing stench of necessity. There is no character development or escalating tension. Nothing builds toward anything.
When the action finally starts, it’s little more than a glorified videogame. Opponents flash across the screen for Roland to dispatch with his otherworldly shooting skills. When he murders a building full of bad guys, you expect a counter to appear on the screen and tally Roland’s experience points for clearing that level.
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Mostly, the action consists of running through boring locations or shuttling between boring dimensions. Roland and Jake run through the desert of Mid-World. MIB uses fancy portals to transport from his dark kingdom back to Earth. Roland and Jake run through New York City. Occasionally, everyone stops to explain what the hell is happening, why it matters, and the stipulations necessary to ensure future sequels.
“You’re going to like Earth.”
For one fleeting moment, The Dark Tower threatens to become interesting when Roland first transports from the mystical Mid-World to modern New York City. Several mildly amusing ‘fish out of water’ gags connect, including an awkward visit to the emergency room, where a perplexed doctor informs Roland that he has every strain of hepatitis known to medicine.
MIB also has a fateful encounter with Jake’s mother (Katheryn Winnick, who must have delivered Jake when she was 12 years old) that hints at the true menace McConaughey might have brought to the role if given a chance.
These moments, so full of potential for character development and escalating drama, are quickly abandoned for drama that flounders on the level of Young Adult fare. When MIB intones that he left behind “a little surprise” for Roland after his encounter with Jake’s mom, you expect something truly sinister. Instead, you get some juvenile graffiti scrawled on Jake’s bedroom wall in the form of a smiley face with the inscription “Hello There.” Terrifying, indeed.
The premise is further undermined by the fact that nothing is more cinematically boring than watching gunslingers shoot guns and sorcerers perform magic. Where is the tension when the gunslinger never misses and the magician can seemingly do anything? To its credit, The Dark Tower foregoes any car chases, which would have completed the ‘Boredom Trifecta’.
The Dark Tower certainly flirts with plunging into entertaining schlock territory, but it’s in too much of a hurry to indulge those tendencies. It feels like the sequel to a movie that was never made and the prequel to a film that will (hopefully) never be made. Methodically, it goes about its business, only to fade from your mind the instant you leave the theater. The Dark Tower is a 90-minute portal into dullness.