This Movie Has Forgotten The Face Of Its Father
You already know that making a good movie is hard. The alchemy is peculiar, and it requires combining the skill of a craftsman with the soul of a poet to create something uniquely itself. If you think that’s tough, try adapting a novel into a movie.
Sometimes the filmmaker can be faithful, too faithful to the source material, and suck the life out of it. That’s when you get works like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone or Watchmen.* Other times the filmmaker taps into the story and themes with great precision, and you have situations like Jaws or The Godfather, where the film is an enormous improvement. Then there are adaptations like The Hobbit or The Bonfire of the Vanities, where the filmmaker either doesn’t understand the material or doesn’t care about doing it justice. Guess which category The Dark Tower falls into?
I know, Stephen King’s stuff isn’t always a mark of quality. For every Misery we thoroughly enjoy, there’s a Maximum Overdrive inflicted upon us. But when King is good, man, nobody can touch him, and his The Dark Tower series is some of his best work. It’s a mishmash of Arthurian legend, spaghetti Westerns, and fantasy tropes, and it concerns Roland, part of a noble order known as gunslingers, on a quest to find the nexus of all realities.
The story winds its way through 8 books and numerous comics. It’s sprawling, epic, absurd, tragic, and thrilling, so of course, it was going to be adapted eventually. You would think it would work ideally as a multi-season series on HBO like Game of Thrones. There’s so much material that the idea of squeezing it into one 95-minute movie is laughable at best, and criminally insane at worst. But that’s what we’ve got, guys.
I believe in ripping the Band-Aid off fast, so here are a few of the elements you won’t be getting in the film:
- The destruction of Tull
- Slow mutants
- Cyborg bears
- Insane trains
- The duel with Cort
- Cuthbert, Alain, and the romance with Susan Delgado
- Stephen King interacting with his own characters
- The entire concept of the ka-tet
- The man in black fleeing across the desert, and the gunslinger following
It sucks, I know. I’m a casual fan of the series, and I’m not thrilled about it. My frequent filmgoing companion, Devila, was positively enraged afterward, and she launched into a profanity-fuelled rant that would have made Joe Pesci proud. Let’s take a moment to examine the source of her ire.
We’re introduced to young Jake (Tom Talor), a New York boy plagued by visions. He has nightmares about a Man in Black who seeks the destruction of a Tower, and a Gunslinger who seeks to oppose him. Jake’s mother, Laurie (Kathryn Winnick), fears that her son is having mental health issues and that it all comes from the tragic death of Jake’s dad. Jake’s stepfather, Lon (Nicholas Pauling), is an insensitive dick, and he’s not helping Jake’s state of mind.
It would be weird and upsetting if it turned out Jake was simply having a psychotic breakdown, so we learn the visions are real! The Man in Black is Walter (Matthew McConaughey) a jazz-hands flinging sorcerer who is committed to destroying the Dark Tower. Why does the Tower matter? Well, it’s the lynchpin of reality, all realities, and if it’s eradicated, demons from the outer darkness will swarm in and envelop everything. But wait, I hear you asking, if Walter destroys the Tower and everything that exists, wouldn’t that also destroy him? Yes. Yes, it would. As we’ve seen in previous bad movies with similar poorly thought-out antagonists**, Walter isn’t big into long-term planning.
Anyway, Walter has a team of creatures, including the (underutilized) Fran Kranz and the (also underutilized) Jackie Earle Haley, that wear faces made of human skin. Why do they do that? Reasons. His team is tasked with finding children that possess psychic abilities. A shining, if you will. The kiddos are strapped into machines and, due to more reasons, their ESP energies are sucked out and placed into a big-ass cannon that blasts away at the Dark Tower. Well, it turns out that Jake has a particularly powerful shine, and if Walter can properly harness his hoodoo, the Tower will go bye-bye. You’ll notice I haven’t even mentioned Roland yet. Don’t worry, that happens in the next paragraph.
In the guise of workers from a psychiatric facility, Walter’s minions attempt to abduct Jake. The lad leads them on a merry chase and manages to elude them. Jake travels to an abandoned house he saw in his dreams and discovers a portal which leads to the post-apocalyptic Mid-World. As so often happens, Jake impulsively decides to travel through the portal and ends up in a desert. It’s there he (finally) encounters Roland (Idris Elba). Roland is the last gunslinger, and he seeks vengeance upon Walter for the murder of his father Steven (Dennis Haysbert, utterly underutilized). I should also point out that Roland couldn’t give less than a damn about finding the Dark Tower, he just wants to bust a cap in Walter’s ass. Now, Jake and Roland must team up to defeat Walter, and I must examine my poor life choices that led me to pay actual money for this movie.
As you may have deduced by now, I did not care for The Dark Tower. Let’s make something clear, though. This film isn’t a cinematic war crime equal to bombs like Batman and Robin. From the acting to the script and direction, there’s a baseline of competence here. They unequivocally made a movie, one with no soul, and no passion. Part of the problem is director Nikolaj Arcel. He’s a Danish writer/director, best known for writing the original film adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and there’s nothing in his filmography that tells us he’s the ideal choice to adapt an epic fantasy about a knight-cowboy fighting a sneering wizard. Everything feels too small, too contained. It’s like the pilot to a TV series, just with a slightly larger budget. Sure, his shot composition and direction is okay, but the film is paced way too damned fast. There needs to be time for the story to breathe, for us to get comfortable with Mid-World and all of its inhabitants.
While a few characters pop up here and there, there are really only three roles that matter. I don’t like to bad-mouth child actors, and in point of fact, Tom Taylor as Jake isn’t bad. He can’t quite hit some of the big emotional beats needed, but he’s okay. With the right filmmaker behind him, he would do good things. The same can be said for our pal, Matthew McConaughey. He doesn’t show up in this kind of genre stuff too often. When he does, like his snarling lunatic in Reign of Fire, he can be great fun. McConaughey is holding back here, for the most part. However, there’s a great moment in the film where Walter is walking down a New York street and spies a young girl with her mother. As he passes them, Walter whispers, “Hate.” The smile drops off the girl’s face and she gives her mother a murderous look. The film tells us that Walter is one of those guys who just wants to watch the world burn, and we needed more of that.
The only actor who escapes unscathed is Idris Elba as Roland Deschain. Despite a misplaced motivation, Elba has the physicality and the thousand-yard stare that the character requires. We believe that this guy would go to the ends of the earth to reach his objectives. The literary Roland is a guy who will gladly sacrifice literally anything and anyone in his quest and were things done properly, Elba could bring that terrifying single-mindedness to the role. Would it have killed them to put Elba in a cowboy hat, though?
If you have a rickety foundation and you build atop it, your structure will collapse. In a movie, the script is your foundation and the script for The Dark Tower is rickety as hell. Multiple writers on a film is usually a bad sign, and this script was written by Arcel, Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, and Anders Thomas Jensen. The presence of Akiva Goldsman is a particularly ominous portent.*** He’s been responsible for a number of poor storytelling decisions in the past. Why did he and his co-writers change the focus of the story from Roland to Jake? My gut tells me the studio a) didn’t understand the concept of The Dark Tower and b) figured there was money to be made by transforming King’s magnum opus into a standard YA story. We’ve now got a troubled kid with problems at home who must fulfill his destiny. All of the timeless elements, iconography, and blazing imagination has been removed, leaving a film that’s gutless and takes no risks. The studio was likely so worried about the film being too weird that they changed as much as possible to make it palatable to all four quadrants. While the script gets some small moments absolutely right, like Walter’s gleeful hatred and Roland pouring bullets into his revolver as he reloads, it whiffs moments that are big and necessary.
There’s talk of a sequel, a TV series, some kind of a continuation of this story. If getting that means these filmmakers will continue to be involved, then no thankee-sai. The Dark Tower books don’t entirely work, but it’s not due to a failure of effort or imagination. They had a vision, one that was tangible and genuine. If someone with corresponding vision wants to take another crack at adapting this tale, I’m all for it. If not, let’s consider this line from The Waste Lands. “Ka was like a wheel, its one purpose to turn, and in the end it always came back to the place where it had started.”
*Though an argument could be made that Zack Snyder fundamentally doesn’t understand what the themes of Watchmen actually are. If I get into that, though, we’re gonna be here all day.
**I’m looking at you, Suicide Squad.
***I’m sure he’s a genuinely decent guy, but go look at Goldsman’s IMDB page. He’s been working steadily for over twenty years, and while he won an Oscar for the perfectly adequate A Beautiful Mind, he’s also responsible for junk like The DaVinci Code, Lost in Space, and the previously lamented Batman and Robin. Does he care about anything beyond getting paid?