On one level, “The Dark Tower,” the big-screen Stephen King adaptation released Friday, should have been a gimme. It’s based on a seven-book series by one of the world’s most popular writers. A fantasy-sci-fi-western-action-adventure, it’s full of enough genre elements to please most moviegoers. The story’s detailed mythology is seemingly tailor-made for these franchise-obsessed times.
The film debuted atop the weekend box office, but it was savaged by critics and was the weakest No. 1 premiere of the season. And while its producers are developing a TV series that will depict the main character in his youth, it’s hard to imagine future installments in the series. It’s easy, however, to do a post-mortem and assess the elements of the film that did and did not work. (Spoilers follow.)
Bad: The Structure
The film is derailed by two foundational issues. The first is that the movie is essentially a sequel to the books. (Without ruining the novels too much, they end after thousands of pages in a manner that suggests the story can and will continue.) This is a problem. “The Dark Tower” is full of images, tossed-off phrases and concepts that make sense only to book readers and are never explained to viewers new to the series. Want to know what a “house demon” is? Curious about what a “beam-quake” refers to? Confused by all the graffiti referring to the “Crimson King”? Sorry, go read Wikipedia. (Or, you know, the books.)
The second problem is the decision to essentially make the movie into a familiar-feeling young adult film, focused on a teenager, Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), who discovers that he has special powers. The story becomes more about him than the gunslinger Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) or his eternal enemy the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey). It’s a commonly stated maxim in Hollywood that audiences need a surrogate to serve as their guide through confusing genre worlds. But Jake, with his predictable teen outsider angst, feels more like an audience barrier.
Great: Idris Elba
Based in part on Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in the Sergio Leone trilogy, Roland Deschain is the last surviving member of what is essentially an order of medieval knights. He is taciturn, focused and preternaturally good at shooting guns. Mr. Elba is simply fantastic in the role — he sells the burden of being the last gunslinger, plays his moments of humorous dislocation well and looks smashing in a neckerchief, vest and leather duster.
Bad: Matthew McConaughey
As a wizard who can kill people by saying “stop breathing,” or make little girls angry by whispering “hate” to them, Mr. McConaughey somehow manages to go big and small at the same time, both all powerful and incredibly boring. It doesn’t help that he’s saddled with dialogue like “Have a great apocalypse” and “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Good: Fun References to Other Movies
Sharp-eyed fans might have spotted the following nods to other King stories — Jake’s “shine” and a picture of the Overlook Hotel from “The Shining” come up several times; a quickly glanced rusted carnival sign references Pennywise, the clown from “It”; there’s a toy version of the 1958 red Plymouth Fury from “Christine”; the same Rita Hayworth poster from “The Shawshank Redemption” appears here; the coordinates of one portal are “14-08,” which is the title of a short story and film about a haunted hotel room. (Look, you have to get your pleasures where you can.)
Bad: World Building
It’s telling that the film’s title structure appears only briefly, maybe four times. If you name your movie “The Dark Tower” and assert that it stands at the center of the universe, maybe make it more of a presence? It’s of a piece with the film’s minimal approach to setting. The first time we really see Mid-World, which runs parallel to our own, it’s a desert with magical, mystical, wondrous … tornadoes. Further along, we see a forest, what looks like a Depression-era shantytown and the Man in Black’s C.G.I. mountain fortress. There are references to Earth-like amusement parks and radiation poisoning, hints of a full world with history and conflict — but the offhanded way in which everything is handled undercuts any attempt to inspire audience curiosity.
Huh? The Ending
At the end of the film, Roland invites Jake back to Mid-World, arguing that since the boy’s entire family is dead, he should join the gunslinger back in his hellscape of a wasteland and go on adventures. Given that they’ve just defeated the one person who is ever established as a villain and saved the Dark Tower from destruction, it’s a mystery as to what those adventures could be. And at this rate, at least on the big screen, it’s doubtful we’ll ever know.
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