“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” These iconic words open Stephen King’s first novel of “The Dark Tower” saga, “The Gunslinger.” The sentence is plain, yet it has so much momentum and intrigue. It’s the kind of sentence that tells you, “Adventure awaits.”
It’s almost criminal that the cinematic version of “The Dark Tower” fails to open on something akin to these words. But it’s also a sign that the grand, creative mythology of King’s Mid-World — which blends high fantasy, spaghetti westerns and horror — has been largely ignored. “The Dark Tower” settles for generic action movie, holding back more interesting stories for a franchise it presumes will see the light of day.
Unfortunately, expecting greatness from a film adaptation of “The Dark Tower” is a tall order. The franchise is bold and strange, with many trippy elements that would be hard to explain within the standard running time of a movie. The studio executives and producers must’ve recognized this, because there are reports of multiple cooks meddling in the kitchen to produce this tired and conventional product.
To work around the thick mythology of the books, the filmmakers make the protagonist a young boy, Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), who is featured prominently throughout the franchise. Fans of the series will note that this is indeed an important change, as the gunslinger Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) actually plays the central role on the page. The logic is, perhaps, using a main character unfamiliar with Mid-World would give the audience a surrogate.
Jake’s been suffering visions of attacks on the titular Dark Tower by a sorcerer called the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey). The Tower holds the universe together and protects it from forces of evil. If the Man in Black succeeds, the universe will be consumed. When the Man in Black learns of Jake’s psychic powers, he attempts to capture him so his abilities can be used to destroy the Tower. Jake uses his visions to travel into Mid-World, where he meets Roland, who is hellbent on killing the Man in Black.
When Jake finally reaches Mid-World, there’s little to see or care about. The production design is bland and the costumes look cheap. The creatures which inhabit Mid-World are run-of-the-mill monsters that could pass for orcs. “The Dark Tower” gives little history to its otherworldly setting, only scratching the surface of what made King’s novels so engrossing. The film doesn’t even stay in Mid-World for that long either, because the plot soon finds a way to bring Jake and Roland back to New York to meander through a truncated and emotionally unsatisfying third act.
Jake and Roland don’t get much in the way of characterization, though Taylor and Elba do fine with what the script gives them. They are the classic mentor-pupil duo, only they lack an interesting dynamic. The pair rarely find themselves beset by conflict and often hold uninteresting expository conversations. Jake and Roland are the kind of heroes which make you think good is dumb.
It’s a problem compounded by the fact that McConaughey is so deliciously evil as the Man in Black. A movie about McConaughey traveling between worlds killing people with a grin on his face would be delightful because the man is charisma incarnate.
Due to the film’s lifeless writing and shoddy world-building, King’s magnum opus does not get its due. “The Dark Tower” is an adaptation without confidence in its own source material, and running at a trim 95 minutes, it can hardly be called epic. While the movie features a man in black, you won’t find adventure following him.
“The Dark Tower”
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 95 minutes
Score: 2 / 5 stars