Cursory, dull, and as forgettable as any movie you’ll see this year, The Dark Tower’s best virtue is its brisk 90-minute runtime. Its second-best is Idris Elba, who plays the desert-wandering, sharpshooting, stone-faced Roland, a Gunslinger from Mid-World. Few working actors are as magnetic and commanding a screen presence as the gravelly-voiced Brit, but even he can’t buoy this wannabe epic, which encompasses two worlds’ worth of mythology but feels impossibly small-scale, to the point where the climactic battle feels as dinky and cheap as of one of those superhero movies from the ’90s (you know, when superhero movies were a joke), except less inspired.
Unlike the Stephen King books the movie is loosely based on, Gunslinger Roland doesn’t serve as our protagonist; instead, our proxy is Jake (Tom Taylor), a 14-year-old from our world whose life is consumed by ominous visions of a Gunslinger, a man in black, and a Dark Tower from another world. The man in black in Jake’s visions is a Mid-World sorcerer called Walter (Matthew McConaughey, dressed like a SoCal sleazeball), who kidnaps Earth kids who have psychic gifts (“Shine”) and uses them to power a laser thingy that he shoots at the dark tower, which would lead to the universe falling apart… or something.
Before Jake meets the quasi-cowboy, his visions guide him to the realization that there are otherworldly beings inhabiting his native New York City, distinguishable by a seam in the neck that indicates they’re wearing a human mask made of loose skin, which occasionally droops like thin-sliced deli meat (disgusting). These demon-like grunts are working for Walter, of course, and come after Jake in his home (under the guise of special needs school representatives), forcing him to run from home to an abandoned building in Brooklyn he saw in his visions. There, a demon-spirit-guardian-thing (the movie’s world-building is delivered almost exclusively via flat expository dialogue, making most details near impossible to retain) possesses the house’s creaky floorboards and tries to swallow Jake whole. Jake narrowly escapes a splintery death in the first of the movie’s two pretty-cool moments (I’ll touch on the second shortly) and finds a portal to Mid-World, which brings him to the lonely Gunslinger.
Writer-director Nikolaj Arcel and co-writers Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, and Anders Thomas Jensen take an approach to King’s epic that saps it of all scope and atmosphere. The film desperately wants to be cool when it should be more concerned with capturing the spirit of the source material. While King peppered his story with a hodgepodge of cultural references (from King Arthur to Robert Browning to Harry Potter to Sergio Leone), the film pulls from the most tired modern action movie clichés, focusing on poorly-executed gun-fu and generic urban-goth and western imagery in an attempt to appeal to general audiences.
Elba does shine through on a handful occasions, imbuing the otherwise sullen, humorless film with a bit of personality. When a wounded Roland travels with Jake to Earth, he has a funny little interaction with the hospital staff that hits obvious fish-out-of-water jokes rapid-fire and is actually genuinely entertaining. The scene only lasts about a minute, so it helps the movie about as much as a glass of water helps put out a wildfire, but Elba makes every second count. He tries valiantly to add wrinkles to the material with his physicality and delivery (his accent is hard to place, which is actually a good thing), but Roland’s obsession with killing Walter is about as basic a revenge story as they come, and his role as Jake’s chaperone is even less compelling. McConaughey appears less motivated to elevate the film and leans on his typical smooth-talking routine.
Matthew McConaughey as Baddy Randall Flagg
About that second, pretty-cool moment: It happens in the middle of an action scene that sees a Mid-World village being burned to the ground by Walter’s grunts. One of the baddies has snatched Jake but Roland is too injured to pursue. He lowers his head slowly and lifts his good arm, pointing it in the general direction of Jake’s fleeing captor. The sound drowns out as he focuses his hearing, standing still in a zen-like trance. He fires, and the bullet tears through the environment before finding its target. The sequence is terrific and provides a glimpse of what the movie should have felt like all the way through.
It’s been made public that The Dark Tower is essentially a television pilot for a series starring Elba and Taylor but released in theaters to gauge mainstream interest, and it would come as a shock to me if the show actually made it to air. If one were to watch this movie without any prior knowledge of King’s series, one would likely assume the books were bargain-bin young adult novels in line with The Hunger Games and Divergent. That’s how middling, misguided, and brutally boring this adaptation is.