The Dark Tower Tom Taylor, Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey. Directed by Nikolaj Arcel. Rated PG-13. Now playing citywide.
One of the great things about Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower fantasy-novel series is the way the author mashes up genres, throwing together familiar elements of epic fantasy, Westerns, science-fiction and horror into an idiosyncratic hodgepodge of a story that just keeps growing. The series might be a bit of a mess, but it’s King’s unique vision through and through, complete with hokey made-up folklore; questionable takes on racism; and narcissistic metafictional appearances from the author himself. The long-in-the-works movie adaptation has taken all the personality and quirkiness from the story and turned it into a streamlined action-fantasy, making the sprawling mythology feel limited and small.
A sort of quasi-sequel to the cyclical story told in the books, The Dark Tower plays like a greatest-hits version of King’s novels, simultaneously cluttered and empty. Idris Elba stars as Roland Deschain, a cowboy-style itinerant warrior known as a gunslinger, who's on a quest across the post-apocalyptic Mid-World to stop Walter (Matthew McConaughey), also known as the Man in Black, from destroying the Dark Tower, a structure that holds together an infinite number of parallel worlds. But the movie’s main character is really teenage Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a misfit kid from New York City who has visions of Roland and Walter and is eventually transported to Mid-World to aid Roland in his quest.
Although Jake is a major character in King’s books, his more prominent role here (along with Roland’s demotion to more of a sidekick/mentor position) makes the movie come off like an opportunistic C-level YA adaptation rather than the realization of an author’s unique vision. It doesn’t help that the flavor of King’s prose is completely absent, replaced with functional, often clichéd dialogue and a generic linear quest storyline. Cut down to 90 minutes, with an ending that is surprisingly definitive (and yet also anticlimactic), The Dark Tower seems likely to join dead-end would-be franchise-starters like The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones or Eragon, rather than kicking off the multimedia experience that was promised years ago (although a TV-series prequel is still theoretically in development).
Elba is the best thing about the movie, giving Roland a weariness that hints at a long life of hardship (almost none of which is explored in the movie itself) and anchoring a couple of decent action scenes. McConaughey makes for a poor villain, though; Walter is meant to be a threat to the very existence of the universe, but McConaughey delivers Walter’s sinister platitudes like a parody of those Lincoln commercials he stars in. The editing is choppy, the special effects are mediocre, and Danish director/co-writer Nikolaj Arcel seems to have completely missed the appeal of King’s books. Given how prolific the author is and how popular his work remains for adaptation, it’s not generally a disappointment when a King movie or TV show turns out poorly. But The Dark Tower is his magnum opus, and it deserved better than a late-summer studio cast-off that will be forgotten in a month.