Saturday, August 19, 2017

Movie Reviews: The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower
directed by Nikolaj Arcel
This film is based on Stephen King's The Dark Tower series. It takes bits and pieces from multiple books in that series. King has alternately described the series as his magnum opus and stated that sequels to many of his other works can be found within. I haven't finished this book series though it is one of my sister's favorites. King has placed references to and explanations of this series in many of his other novels. This series, or at least the books I've read, combines King's gifts for both High and Low art. In fact you could even say that it blows away those arbitrary distinctions. It's pretty complex stuff with dense plot, conflicted damaged characters who don't necessarily fall into neat boxes of good or evil, detailed universe building and intricate mythologies with lots of back story. As with the Gormenghast or A Song of Ice and Fire works, some people thought that The Dark Tower series was essentially impossible to adapt to the screen. Almost by definition someone working in the visual arts would be unable to translate the soul of King's words to the big screen.

I haven't completed The Dark Tower series so I had no fixed idea in my head about how the film should look. I had no fierce feeling about which characters should be included or dropped or how they should look or act, with the exception of the primary good and bad guys, Roland and Walter O'Dim. Probably if I had read all of the books I would have much stronger ideas on this. But for me ignorance was bliss. Or at least it could have been. 

Because even as someone who was not a source material expert I could recognize that there were large swaths of information, events, and motivation left out of the cinematic adaptation. I wouldn't go so far as to say that this film was incoherent but I would argue that it failed to tell a deeply compelling story or create characters which I appreciated. The lead adult actors did the best with what they had but this movie was all sizzle no steak. It felt like a dumbed down and abbreviated version of King's work made for people with very short attention spans and a taste for the obvious. Action was good but that wasn't all this story was supposed to be about, from what I can tell. This is an epic tale but I didn't get that feeling from the movie.

And again, I am only vaguely familiar with The Dark Tower series, primarily through King's other works. So I would imagine that if you've read this series from beginning to end, you would be even more disappointed. And no I don't think that the film must follow the books exactly. But the film should capture the books' spirit. It seems to me that not only would King's work have been better served by being adapted into a film series but also the director and writer should have taken their time and adapted some of the story's slower or talkier portions as well. That would have made the inevitable crowning moments of awesome that much more impressive and cathartic. Instead because I thought the characters were missing motivations I couldn't invest too much into the movie. If someone has fallen from grace and lost his identity and mission I need to know exactly WHO he was before I can care about him finding his mojo again. If someone really wants to destroy something shouldn't we ask WHY? 


Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is a troubled NYC pre-teen boy. Jake has visions of the apocalypse, a man in black, and a gunslinger. Jake wonders if his visions and dreams are related to the many strange earthquakes which have been taking place. Jake's father recently died. Jake lives with his mother Laurie (Katheryn Winnick) and stepfather. His stepfather is not a bad sort but would probably prefer that weird little Jake wasn't around. Jake is cramping his style you know. To that end the stepfather has suggested to Laurie that Jake be sent to a psychiatric facility for children. Laurie has been resistant but comes around to her husband's pov when Jake gets into yet another fight at school over his drawings and visions. Jake gets warnings from hobos about things that look human but really aren't. These things want to kidnap special children like Jake. And wouldn't you know it but Jake notices some tell tale signs in the social workers sent to take him away. They're not human. Jake escapes. Tracking down a real life house that he's seen in his dream Jake goes through a portal from our world to the parallel world of Roland/The Gunslinger (Idris Elba) and Walter O'Dim/The Man In Black (Matthew McConaughey). 

There are infinite parallel worlds and universes. All of existence is linked. The linchpin of this linkage is the Tower. If the Tower falls, reality as we know it ceases to exist. It's not explicitly explained in the film but a being known as the Crimson King wants to destroy current reality so that it can rule the chaos which follows. As the Crimson King is outside of reality, generally speaking, it mostly works thru agents such as The Man in Black, who is an alter ego of (or the same character as) King's demonic villain in The Stand, Randall Flagg


The Man in Black is kidnapping psychic children from across the multiverse. He enslaves and tortures them to harness their power to destroy the Tower. So far he's been unsuccessful but the Tower takes more and more damage with each strike that The Man In Black's machine makes. Jake is so powerful that under the proper duress he might be able to destroy the Tower all by himself. So the Man in Black wants to find Jake. Badly.

Roland wants to find the Man in Black in order to kill him in revenge for his murder of Roland's father and his other evil deeds. Roland is the last of the Gunslingers, an order of warriors sworn to among other things, protect the Tower. Roland, a descendant of King Arthur, wields revolvers made from Excalibur. His skill at shooting is unmatched. But Roland isn't feeling knightly these days. As Roland has seen defeat after defeat after defeat at the hands of The Man in Black, Roland has become cynical, pessimistic and depressed. And that's on a good day. When Roland happens upon Jake he's not sure what to make of him. Elba and McConaughey are professional. Elba does his baritone bada$$ to perfection. He is undeniably cool. McConaughey shines as the whispering world weary wicked wizard whose every movement and word drips with casual understated malice but neither of their characters had enough to do or were adequately filled out. It's a shame that good acting performances were handicapped by limited screenwriting. With the exception of the gunfights, which were quite good, the special effects are pedestrian. Seen it, done it. And why is Roland immune to Walter's magic? What does that mean? What does it mean that Roland fights with a remade Excalibur? 

Contrary to the books there is no strong female presence in this film, which automatically eliminates some key motivations for heroes. This is a movie which hopefully might make you want to start or in my case finish reading the source material. But all in all I didn't think that this was a must see first run film. Flip a coin.
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