Movie Review - The Dark Tower
“The man in black fled into the desert and the gunslinger followed.”
It’s from this single sentence that Stephen King’s massive Dark Tower series of books sprang forth, spanning 8 volumes and 4,250 pages. Influenced by Tolkien, Arthurian legend and ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’, it also serves to provide a loose framework containing hints or elements of Stephen King’s other works, in some ways shaping a multiverse comprised of all his stories. With elements of fantasy, science fiction, horror and western, everything about this series of books screams EPIC…even though, yeah, I haven’t cracked a single one.
So then whose bright idea was it to try and tell this story in an hour and a half???
Now, to be fair, filmmakers, with King’s blessing, opted for an ‘in medias res’ approach…starting the film with elements that wouldn’t be revealed until the middle of the saga…and then filling out the film with the story elements from the series as needed to complete their tale.
But how successful were they?
I’m probably the wrong guy to answer that, given that not only have I not read this series, but the only two King books I have read were Pet Sematary and his memoir On Writing. No, my knowledge of King boils down to two areas: how much my best friend loved his work when we were growing up and the movie adaptations ranging from the good (Misery) to the bad (Dreamcatcher).
Where does The Dark Tower fall?
Well, it does commit one of my movie cardinal sins and is certainly worthy of some of the criticism it has gotten, but I didn’t think it was nearly as bad as critics made it out to be. In fact, I might go so far as to say that this might be the current cinema-generation’s equivalent to David Lynch’s Dune (which, come to think of it, critics were neither fond of then nor now). Read into that what you will, but we’ll discuss why it’s a good thing and why it’s a bad thing.
First, a quick rehash of the movie’s plot. After the death of his father and remarriage of his mother, a boy is having dreams of another world: a wasteland where an evil man in black is pursued by a gunslinger. This man in black is grabbing children with psychic powers from various realities and using them on an assault on the Dark Tower, a structure that holds all of existence together and protects it from the dark figures from beyond. As this boy’s powers bring him to the attention of the man in black and his minions, can young Jake find the gunslinger in time not only for his own protection, but for the protection of the Tower as well? Or will Roland the gunslinger be consumed by his own need for revenge, seeking to kill the man in black and letting nothing stand in his way?
Let’s get the negative out of the way first. First of all, my cardinal sin: there’s a kid…and he’s essentially the focus of the story. Now, to the film’s credit, young Jake isn’t annoying like so many kids in movies before him. He, at no point, lays any claim of knowing better than the adults in this situation. Well, okay, maybe his stepfather, not so much his mom…but he definitely doesn’t give the gunslinger any guff! Still, the fact that he’s taking the spotlight away from a potentially awesome on-screen rivalry between Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba? Aw, man, fuck you kid. I get that he’s the gateway into this new cinematic world and serves as the audience’s POV character and yes, this mechanic does take us away from what could’ve been another hero’s journey focusing on Roland the gunslinger in his quest of exacting revenge on the man in black (I don’t want to keep retyping that…but at the same time I’m hesitant to call him by the character name of Walter either. I mean, really, your apocalyptic bad guy is named Walter???) so I appreciate it for trying to be different. Doing this however skews the film to a different demographic…a younger demographic…and thus, we end up with a disappointment: a PG-13 Stephen King film.
That…kinda seems blasphemous.
Sure, it’s not the straight horror that he’s known for, so it could certainly be worthy of that PG-13 and I don’t have the knowledge of the source material to make a convincing argument one way or the other…but come on…it…it just kinda tastes bad in your mouth, doesn’t it?
The critics bashed this movie for feeling like a bit of a slog through unoriginal territory…and in some ways, I get that. While I was interested throughout the movie, and thus am hesitant to call it a ‘slog’ per se, it did seem to go through the paces of what one expects for a world-building first movie based off a series of books: you meet the principles, take in the new scenery, are given a brief overview of the rules, take in some new creatures, learn the big conflict for the series and the smaller conflict for this chapter, resolution, boom, done…next chapter. The Dark Tower does all this well enough. The only thing that really makes it stand out is the meta references to Stephen King’s other works, in essence giving viewers a Stephen King Cinematic Multiverse. Your mileage on this is gonna differ, but for me, I thought that was pretty damn cool. Others might think of it as a cash-grab on the popular concept of cinematic universes these days thanks to Marvel.
Another criticism I’ve already touched on with the kid is that the film ends up relegating Idris Elba into more of a supporting character…and…man…between this and the Thor films and STILL not getting the nod for Bond, dude just can’t catch a break…which is a damn shame because the little bit you get to know him, his Roland the Gunslinger is a pretty interesting character and one that’s as worthy of exploration as the world he inhabits.
But there are hints of epic things here…whether it is in the rumors of a much longer cut existing to just the mythology of this world seeping in to the finished film. Critics kind of viewed that as a negative, whereas it’s a positive to me and why I compare this film to Lynch’s Dune, as it too had the unenviable task of condensing a world-building story into a time frame more marketable to Hollywood execs. And, like Dune, though it was a flop, both films allow the material that was cut away to seep into what remains. I guess you can liken it to an amputee: sure, they’re not complete, but the story behind how they lost a part of themselves might be just as, if not more, interesting than what remains. However, the most important thing here is that there is enough material within the film to get the viewer asking questions about the world it presents and…like Dune…those questions were enough to make me want to dive deeper into the world and, as such…I’m now scouring Amazon for the set of the novels.
Any film that can make you do that, no matter what the critics say, is a success in my book.
So no, the film may not have been a success and yes, the criticisms levied against it certainly have their merits…and I certainly have my own to toss on the heap too. But any film whose atmosphere and world-building can draw you into the source material, as I feel The Dark Tower does, no matter how voluminous that source material may be…well, sure, it may be due to the strength of that source material or it might be that the filmmakers captured just enough of it to get you there. I call that a win and for that alone, The Dark Tower is worth checking out.
Besides, Amazon’s going to be doing a TV series, probably the best format to tackle this series of books, so, you know, there’s that.