Stephen King spent more than three decades writing his self-declared magnum opus, “The Dark Tower” series, which comprises over four thousand pages. It’s taken a decade of development for the project to make its way to movie screens.
The film’s epic source material and extended origin story were always going to cast a long shadow over the final product, but the film should stand on its own merit, or lack thereof. After much anticipation, “The Dark Tower” that’s now in theaters is inconsistent, incoherent and often cheesy.
First, a caveat – this critic hasn’t read the book series, but this is not a review of the books, but of the film, directed by Danish director Nikolaj Arcel. There’s no doubt the story is built on an intriguing mythology, though some of the metaphorical aspects of the literature come across as obtuse and over-simplified on screen. There’s a tower, it’s dark, and it keeps “darkness” from invading the universe. In the books, that oblique symbolism may have worked, in the movie, it’s too vague to inspire real stakes.
The Man in Black, aka Walter (Matthew McConaughey) is attempting to destroy the tower by shooting lasers made of children’s brain power at it. He and his nebulous group of henchman in human suits have been kidnapping psychic kids from the streets of New York City for this purpose, and Jake (Tom Taylor), a boy beset by terrifying nightmares and apocalyptic visions, is their next target.
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Walter is most definitely the weakest link of “The Dark Tower.” Firstly, there is no stated motivation for why he so desperately wants to destroy the tower and unleash darkness. Secondly, McConaughey has chosen to play this role with all the over-the-top swagger of a Las Vegas magician. With his shirt unbuttoned to the navel, fancy vest, black hair spiked to the heavens, he is incredibly flamboyant in this performance, dramatically tossing off scarves and whisper-growling into giant magic marbles.
Whatever movie McConaughey is in is not the same film in which Idris Elba co-stars, as The Gunslinger, aka Roland. Jake also dreams of this gunslinger, and he travels through a portal in Brooklyn to another, post-apocalyptic world, to find Roland and stop Walter. Elba is fantastic in this role as a weathered cowboy with a singular motive: vengeance.
“The Dark Tower,” while hinting at a horrific and fascinating story, has problems with scope, which results in problems with stakes, and emotional attachment. The mythology is at once too dense and imprecise to hook into on a general level, but the specific details included are often bewildering, like some unexplained tree demons, and a troupe of rat-faced ninjas. While these references may delight book-readers, their inexplicable nature will keep newcomers at arm’s length.
King drew inspiration from Westerns and other genre iconography for this saga, and the film maintains a fixation on ideas of manhood – the relationship of fathers and sons – and an obsessive fetishization of symbols of masculinity, most notably, the gun. The Gunslinger’s Oath becomes a prayer, as he promises, “I kill with my heart.” Watching him heroically shoot up a club filled with Walter’s minions, even if they are bad guys, doesn’t sit right. The Gunslinger doesn’t feel like the hero we need, or want, at the moment, and “The Dark Tower” doesn’t successfully make the argument either.
starring Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Jackie Earle Haley, Abbey Lee, Nicholas Hamilton, Dennis Haysbert and Claudia Kim. Directed by Nikolaj Arcel. Rated PG-13 for thematic material including sequences of gun violence and action. Running time: 1:35