While condensing several of bestselling author Stephen King’s most ambitious and iconic works into a single, slim motion picture that barely runs ninety minutes might give some fans of the horror and fantasy icon pause and raise the eyebrows of unfamiliar critics, the stripped down approach taken by the big screen adaptation of The Dark Tower remains competent, surprisingly watchable, and briskly entertaining. While some might bristle that it doesn’t feel keen to explain many of its more fantastical elements and notions, I would counter that fantasy (much like comedy and beauty) lies in the eye of the beholder. Presented in this manner, King’s work does come off as slight and more than a little tongue-in-cheek at times, but in an age of lugubrious, seemingly never ending, bloated tent-pole blockbusters, the equally ambitious and succinct The Dark Tower feels like a breath of fresh air.
Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is a troubled kid in his early teens from New York City. He grieves over the loss of his firefighter father, hates his stepdad, loves his mom, constantly gets bullied, has trouble in school, and is constantly drawing pictures of a post apocalyptic world based on visions that come to him in nightmares. He envisions an enormous tower, an evil Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) who kidnaps kids, and a roguish gunslinger hero (Idris Elba). Jake’s ardent belief that these visions are more than figments of his imagination are proven true when the Man in Black’s ghoulish henchmen attempt to kidnap him. In his investigating the source of these visions, Jake stumbles upon a portal to another world where he teams up with the reluctant gunslinger, named Roland, and learns that he’s a chosen, but powerful pawn in a villainous game that could lead to eternal darkness and monsters from outside our realm taking control of the universe.
Danish director and co-writer Nikolaj Arcel – best known for the Oscar nominated A Royal Affair and for penning the first adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – has his work cut out for him with The Dark Tower. The world Roland inhabits has served as a connective tissue between many of King’s other works since the 1980s, with countless visual and narrative Easter Eggs popping up throughout the film (including many referencing King works not previously explicit in their connections to the series). References to The Dark Tower series appear in dozens of other King tales, and yet, these passing nods are hardly anything one could easily (or would want to) adapt into a “cinematic universe.” Even taken on their own merits, King’s Dark Tower novels are inherently inadaptable. They’re elliptical, time shifting, world hopping fantasies with sometimes surreal asides, dense mythology that doesn’t always pay off, and a rhythm that none of King’s other works share.
Despite the disappointment some might feel when noticing that not a lot of King’s visions have made it to the big screen (which the writer probably had to sign off on since he was a producer here), it’s hard not to admire Arcel and his team of screenwriters and editors finding a yeoman like way of getting the sprawling narrative down to its basest essence. Sure, that means that plenty of details regarding the history, mythology, and mechanics of this world are easily explained and in some cases never discussed, but The Dark Tower curiously never feels like anything is missing. It moves along at its own relentless clip without stopping, and for those willing to take the leap with Arcel, that could prove to be a fun, unique little journey.
Knowing that he can’t fill in too much of the mythology or backstory surrounding this battle for control of the universe, Arcel wisely takes a decent amount of time at the start to make sure that the viewer at least cares for Jake and his plight. While only the bare minimum of information is needed to make viewers understand the motivations of Roland and The Man in Black (whose not-so-terrifying real name is Walter), the investment placed into making Jake a well rounded, YA fiction hero is appreciated. When Jake is placed into perilous situations, sometimes his decisions don’t make a lot of sense (like entering a mysterious portal on his own when he previously never saw one before in his life), but we fear for his well being just the same. In some ways, Jake is a stock main character trucked in from “the school of misunderstood bad kids,” but at least there’s an effort being made to flesh him out, which makes his interactions with Roland and Walter all the more weighty.
Elba’s a fine choice for a gruff Thor-like hero, while McConaughey constantly darts between doing too much and too little. Like most fantasies, the dialogue of The Dark Tower is chockablock with often risible dialogue, but both actors put their own unique spin on lines that almost no actor could deliver with a straight face. Elba allows Roland to let his guard down and imbues the character with a sense of both cluelessness and curiosity in several scenes where Jake brings his new protector back to Earth. Elba plays his role just straight enough so that the film built around this heroic quest doesn’t totally fall apart. McConaughey, on the other hand, adopts the same speaking voice and cadence that he trots out whenever he’s trying to sell TV viewers on buying a new Lincoln. The magical Walter is silly, only occasionally menacing, and in McConaughey’s hands, a villain that the audience appropriately doesn’t want to root for in any way.
The tone of the performances here are unique given the now reduced adherence to the film’s source material, and Arcel’s directorial tone strives to give viewers something different. While Arcel is better at staging large scale shootouts and paranoid freak outs than he is at brooding tension or hand-to-hand combat sequences, he more or less gets the job done in the action and suspense departments. It might be unsubtly handled, but Arcel handles the material’s undercurrent of loss and regret respectfully, never losing sight of his characters’ torments. Dutch cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk also gives Arcel some gorgeous, if sometime awkwardly blocked images to work with throughout.
It’s hard to tell if my liking of The Dark Tower is because I never felt a fervent connection to the series of novels or because the state of modern studio blockbusters has weakened my resolve completely. Was I just happy that I was entertained by a silly fantasy that had the sense to wrap everything up in a reasonable amount of time? That could be part of it, but I think a big key to my liking The Dark Tower lies in Arcel’s relaxed sense of silliness and wide-eyed wonder. I honestly haven’t been this entertained by something this borderline nonsensical and strange since Cannon Films adapted the Masters of the Universe property with Dolph Lundgren back in the late 1980s. That was also a weird, idiosyncratic, unabashedly goofy fantasy, but it was enjoyable, heartfelt, and made by people who genuinely acted like they wanted to make a good movie and not just another cash-in franchise. Films like The Dark Tower don’t come along very often and probably with good reason. That doesn’t mean I won’t continually grin from ear to ear whenever they pop up.
Is The Dark Tower essential viewing?
For fans of King’s work willing to somewhat overlook the film’s faithfulness to its source material, and anyone longing for an old school matinee popcorn movie, The Dark Tower could be a lot of fun. I would happily watch this three times in a row rather than being forced to sit through even five more minutes of another exhausting Pirates of the Caribbean or Transformers film.
The Dark Tower opens Friday, August 4, 2017 at Cineplex locations. Check their website for more information.