Dark Tower, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 08/04/17 04:00:09
Like many people, I am an enormous fan of Stephen King and his work—I consider him to be one of the key American authors of the last century and would cheerfully describe a number of his books as being absolute classics, both fiction (“The Shining,” “The Dead Zone,” “It”) and non-fiction (his great horror history “Danse Macabre” and “On Writing,” one of the best examinations of the entire writing process I have ever read). And yet, I have never successfully made it through a single book of his mammoth eight-volume series “The Dark Tower.” I have made a couple attempts over the years but my general antipathy towards the sprawling fantasy saga genre as a whole caused my eyes to glaze over after only a few pages every time. Of course, millions of readers out there have felt otherwise and over the years, a number of filmmakers have tried to figure out a way to bring the stories to the big screen that would do justice to the sprawling fantastical narrative King had created—at one point, there was talk that Ron Howard was planning a massive adaptation that would have begun with a epic film and continued with a mini-series before wrapping things up with another feature film. That take inevitably fell apart but now we finally have a film version of “The Dark Tower” at long last (with Howard as one of the producers) but after watching it, most people will wonder why anyone bothered in the first place. What was clearly an epic on the page, based on volume alone if nothing else, has been rendered distressingly puny in its screen incarnation and the end result feels like an almost random assemblage of footage from a much larger work that is destined to annoy fans of the books while leaving newcomers trying to figure out a.) what is going on at any given point and b.) wondering why they should care about any of it.The concept of the film is that there a multitude of universes out there that are all bound together by a single imposing dark tower in a land called Midworld that can only be brought down by harnessing the powers found within an unknown but very special child. Hell-bent on destroying the tower and the universes is Walter O’Day (Matthew McConaughey), also known as the Man in Black, who divides his time between snatching promising kids and using them to launch attacks on the tower from his lair and wandering the universes killing off those who would try to stop him. His chief adversary is Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), also known as The Gunslinger, the last remaining member of a group charged with protecting the universes with the aid of his trusty six-shooters, supposedly forged fro Excalibur itself. Unfortunately for the Man in Black, Roland is the one person impervious to his powers and so he tries to break his adversary by systematically killing everyone that he cares for, leading to a series of standoffs that inevitably end in draws and promises to meet another day.
Meanwhile, in the mystical land known as New York (which has been plagued by earthquakes set off by the attacks on the tower in Midworld, a troubled kid named Jake (Tom Taylor) is haunted by dreams of Roland, the Man in Black and Midworld that he captures in a series of disturbing drawings. Fearing for his mental health, his mother and stepfather decide to send him off to an experimental clinic for an examination but when the representatives arrive to take them away, Jake recognizes them from his nightmares and makes a break for it, displaying some sweet parkour moves in the process, that eventually leads him to a dilapidated house hiding a portal (not to mention a low-level demon protecting it) that deposits him in Midworld. Before long, Jake meets up with Roland and they visit a seer who determines that the kid possesses advanced psychic capabilities known as “the shine” (oh yeah, apparently the saga shares ties with a large chunk of the other titles in King’s bibliography). Before long, the Man in Black picks up on Jake and, after realizing that he is the one kid powerful enough to bring down the tower, begins pursuing him relentlessly. Roland, however, is determined to protect Jake from this and destroy his enemy for good and their battle eventually returns to New York, where there are enemies in plain sight everywhere, gun stores filled with the precious ammo that Roland needs on every corner and those confounding but tasty things known as hot dogs.
As someone who, as I mentioned earlier, has never read the books, I cannot vouch for how closely the film does or doesn’t match the source material. (According to a couple of colleagues who have read the books, it apparently starts off following the arc of the first book for a bit before abandoning them more or less completely.) What I can vouch for is how the end result plays as a film and the answer to that is “quite badly.” In trying to get King’s massive tale to fit into a feature-length running time—actually a much-shorter-than-expected 90-odd minutes—the quartet of filmmaker have completely failed to give the story any semblance of coherence, narrative drive, interesting characters or compelling set-pieces. Other than the mention of the tower linking the various universes, we get precious little sense of what Midworld and its populace are like or why the Man in Black is so determined to bring it all down. The return to New York is equally uninspired—the notion of a bizarre underworld living in the shadows of the Big Apple sounds intriguing but nothing is made of it, though there is time for wackiness involving Roland’s first exposure to Coca-Cola. There are so many loose ends, unanswered questions and seemingly major characters introduced and then largely discarded that even if you didn’t know the details of the troubled history of this film’s production, you would still instinctively know that this was a film plagued with reshoots and rewrites that were presumably instilled in order to make things more coherent but which end up having the exact opposite effect.
Instead, the film is more like an exceptionally bleak Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote cartoon in which two adversaries face off in a series of poorly conceived battle scenes that are not especially exciting and which, in a couple of instances, are shot in such darkness that it becomes difficult to see what is actually going on. (The film isn’t in 3-D but some of the visuals are so murky that it might as well be.) Any hopes that the proceedings might be saved by the performances by the two normally excellent actors in the lead roles are pretty much scratched within the first few minutes. Elba’s character is saddled with chunks of indigestible exposition in lieu of dialogue and while he does eventually work up some kind of vague rapport with the kid as things go on, his scenes with McConaughey fizzle because you never get a sense of the long and painful history between them. His Roland is bland but about as serviceable as can be under the circumstances, which is more than one can say about McConaughey. Now he has shown himself to be an excellent and remarkably subtle actor over the years but when he is asked to play a deliberately over-the-top character, as was the case in “Larger than Life” and that “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” movie he did when he was just starting out, the results can be embarrassing. The role of the Man in Black is made for scenery-chewing of the highest order but he has no flair for it and comes across not such much as the epitome of evil as an occasionally malevolent goof who just wants to sit somewhere and smoke a bomber. The two actors presumably signed on in the hopes of finally landing a hit franchise that could serve as an annuity for them but based on the results seen here, they might want to consider looking elsewhere even if the film confounds all expectations and somehow becomes a hit.The worst thing about “The Dark Tower” is that it isn’t even bad in any intriguing ways. Hell, if this story had been transformed into something completely screw-loose, the end result might have been dreadful but at least it might have been interesting. This feels more like a busted pilot for a second-rate TV series designed to fill the gap that is about to be left by the departure of “Game of Thrones” than anything else, the kind of thing that you completely forget a few days after watching it. Hell, this isn’t even the worst new film opening this week (that booby prize goes to the monstrously lousy “Kidnap,” which I definitely won’t be forgetting anytime soon). Maybe the best thing about it is that it is such a dud that it will kill any interest in continuing the franchise in its current incarnation for the time being and, when the time comes (probably in about 3 years tops), a new group of people will attempt a reboot that will hopefully give the books the screen adaptations that they presumably deserve.
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