Movie Review: The Dark Tower (Spoiler Free.)
The adaptation of Stephen King’s magnum opus is every bit as controversial as the books.
Ho boy. The Dark Tower. This property is quickly becoming something polite people don’t talk about in mixed company, like politics or religion. Fans of King are divided over the merits of the series, and that debate has extended into other media such as comic books, video games, and now a major motion picture. We’ll get around to hashing it all out on our spoilers podcast, but for now I’ll keep everything above the belt and just give you my quick impression: it’s a decent and entertaining movie aimed at a general audience that is going to leave fans cold.
The Dark Tower (2017)
Jake Chambers is a young teen from Earth whose life is being pulled apart by frightening visions. He sees a giant tower at the center of all worlds and a ruthless man in black who is trying to destroy it. Against the Man in Black, he sees a gunslinger from Midworld named Roland, the last of a proud line of warrior/knights sworn to protect the tower. When the creatures in his nightmares show up on his doorstep, Jake seeks out the gunslinger from his visions. The pair undertake a journey in order to confront the Man in Black and save both their worlds.
The elephant in the room for this film is the sky-high expectations about whether or not it faithfully adapts the source material. For those whom this is a deal breaker: it doesn’t. It changes several key characters and elides much of the series. This is not the exact same Roland as the book (though his changes are literally skin deep) and Jake has been pretty extensively changed. The plot takes elements from several books in the series, mostly combining The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, and Wizard and Glass while removing several events and characters. It’s pretty fair to say this isn’t really an adaptation so much as a re-imagining. The important question, to my mind, is if it works as a movie.
My opinion is that The Dark Tower works as a movie in the general sense. At a scant 95 minutes, the film feels brief but sufficient. There is just enough world-building and characterization so that I wasn’t confused, and they’re worked into the plot without much problem. The action sequences are interesting to watch, occasionally impressive, and only marred by sub-par CG in one instance. I didn’t have any problems with the dialogue (though folks unfamiliar with the books may find some of it archaic or overblown…that’s Stephen King for you.) It kept me entertained for 95 minutes and had characters I enjoyed watching.
The Casting of the Three.
I found the main cast to be solid. Idris Elba has the presence to pull off a somber and enigmatic hero, though his character could have benefited from more backstory. Matthew McConaughey chews up the scenery as Walter/The Man in Black in a satisfying way. His interactions with others are delivered with such casual misanthropy that I looked forward to every time he appeared, something I rarely experience from latter-day McConaughey. Tom Taylor, who plays Jake, is solid as the story’s emotional center. I believed him as a tormented misfit and I bought him as an awestruck kid who sees Roland as a hero and father figure.
The Little Sisters of Plot Devices.
The series stumbles over the supporting cast, though not because they’re poorly acted. They misfire because they’re given nothing to do. Katheryn Winnick does a fine job as Jake’s mom, but is used so briefly and quickly discarded by the plot that I felt a bit cheated. Claudia Kim has a small role as a seer who helps Jake and Roland, and I appreciated her performance until she too was tossed aside. Finally, Abby Lee Kershaw plays Walter’s chief henchwoman, and is quite literally given nothing to do. This film doesn’t seem too keen on letting women have any lasting impact. Maybe with more time they could have had a real role…
The Wasted Lands.
My main gripe with this film is that it is way too short. I sat through two and half hours of Valerian, which I loathed, and wondered when the world-building was actually going to become a plot. The Dark Tower is the reverse: I like the plot and the characters, but you’re just getting a taste of them instead of a full meal. Fans hoping for an epic dive into the myth-heavy world of The Dark Tower are getting a dip in the shallow end instead.
I liked Elba’s Roland and wanted to see more of the tragedies that hardened him. I liked Jake, and wanted to see the tragic arc from the book where he and Roland fall out before reconciling. I wanted to see more Midworld and more of the people who inhabit it. The only person given enough time (and frankly much more time than he got in the books) was Walter. While I think the movie functions decently, it is shaved so close to the skin for time that it bleeds in a few places.
There are Other Worlds than These…
I enjoyed The Dark Tower. I though the leading cast was well-chosen and gave good performances. I think the plot was skimpy but not thread-bare, and the film moved through its scenes with a sense of purpose that kept me from quibbling with some of the missteps. The visuals were really excellent in places, especially in the establishing shots that made both New York and the Wastelands of Midworld feel real in the story. The action sequences are handled deftly, with one exception where a CG brawl towards the end looked fake. Roland’s guns had weight and heft thanks to the sound work, and I generally enjoyed the gun play.
I’ve read the entire Dark Tower cycle from King, and my opinion is that they are excellent in places but mostly self-indulgent. Like the Dune series, I recommend reading the first book…and then stopping. King has great vision as a story teller but is a lousy editor of his own work. I didn’t come into the movie hoping for a shot-for-shot adaptation, because that would have been as tedious as the books. I like that the were able to pick and choose to make a shorter, more coherent story. That being said, it could have used another hour to properly flesh it all out.
To Be Continued.
We’re going to hash this sucker out in detail since the staff is pretty divided on this film. Speaking for myself, I think it lived up to the limited expectations I put on it. As an action fantasy movie it just worked for me. It’s certainly not worthy of the 19% rotten score critics are giving it, especially when stupendously awful flicks like Valerian are getting away with murder. But that, gentle reader, is a story for another day.