Oh what could have been…After countless attempts to get Stephen King’s The Dark Tower novel series, which consists of eight books and a prequel Marvel comic book series, the time has finally come from audiences to enter King’s world. Unfortunately, this will probably be the only shot at an adaptation of The Dark Tower series for quite some time, which makes this adaptation that much more frustrating. What should have been the beginning of an epic series of films chronicling Roland’s journey to The Dark Tower has been become a haphazardly thrown together adaptation that tries to fit eight films into one ninety minute run time. What you’re left with feels like a pilot episode and a series finale rolled into one, which makes for a frustrating and stilted film. However, it’s not all bad, thankfully, and there is some fun to be had in director Nikolaj Arcel’s take on Stephen King’s book series.
The biggest problem with The Dark Tower is no one is on the same page on exactly what kind of film they’re making. As the film opens, we’re introduced to Jake (Tom Taylor), a young boy who has visions of The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), Roland (Idris Elba), and of course, The Dark Tower. It’s clear from that moment on, the film is trying to be an Amblin Film, where our journey comes through the eyes of our young and gifted protagonist. The problem is, this is the story of The Dark Tower, and Jake isn’t the character we should be following. It takes the movie a good fifteen minutes to actually introduce the audience to Roland, who the story should really be about, which really is a hindrance to the film. The idea of the audience surrogate isn’t a problem when it’s done well, but here, we’re following Jake mostly because the script deems it necessary, so we feel connected to him because he’s from our world. Taylor is mostly likable in the role though, so he at least makes it somewhat easy to swallow that we’re not following the actual hero of the film in the opening act.
But the biggest problem with this film is in the script, which as you can tell from above, really doesn’t know what it wants to be. There’s some much thrown at the audience in the film, while not enough at the same time, that it’s hard to tell who exactly this movie is for. There’s some world building here and there, but the film never actually dives into exactly what Mid-World is, how it came to be the way it is, and how Roland became the last of the The Gunslingers. We’re told there was a great war, but we’re never shown this, or given reason to care that it happened. It’s hard to imagine exactly who this movie is written for, because it frankly doesn’t seem to know either. Fans of the books we’ll probably be able to keep up, but it’s hard time imagine anyone who hasn’t read the books will find much enjoyment in this take on The Dark Tower. In fact, one of the film’s biggest set backs is it never tells us exactly what we’re seeing. There was a lot of talk about this being a sequel of sorts to the books, but it’s never said one way or another exactly what we’re seeing happen. A casual throwaway line by McConaughey’s The Man in Black has him reference that he and Roland will “go around the wheel one more time”, but to the audience, that doesn’t mean much. Although, it could just be a case of a film being edited down like crazy, and being noted to death by the studio, because this film clearly has studio interference fingerprints all over it, but the fact that this movie fails to paint a clear picture of the film’s story or world is just massively disappointing.
The film also has a strange pace, as it clocks at just 95 minutes, with credits. It’s oddly disjointed throughout, where the film feels both way too fast, while also being far too slow all at once. Few films have been this oddly disjointed in recent memory, but here it just seems that with no one on the same page, the movie just kinda rushes around to do too much, while not really doing enough at the same tie. It’s just an odd conundrum overall for a movie to face, but it really doesn’t give an audience a reason to care about this world, or the characters, while trying to force you to care. This film truly feels like it’s trying to pave its way as the beginning of the franchise, while also being the end of the series all at once, which is also a glaring mistake. Why should we care about any of this if you’re not given a reason to? If the audience doesn’t know the world, or the characters, there’s just nothing to latch onto. Part of that really is that this film’s runtime truly gives it no room to really bother to explain anything. Those behind the scenes didn’t trust the audience could get behind Roland, Jake, and their fight with The Man in Black, and it’s incredibly frustrating that they took a lazy route of breezing over things, instead of really trying to let the world breathe.
Thankfully, even with that aside, at least the film has a fantastic lead in Idris Elba, who truly embodies Roland, the last Gunslinger. He brings a certain gravitas and power to the role that makes you trust in Roland, even if we don’t know much about him. It’s too bad that this is the adaptation that he got put in, because it would be a waste to never see him as Roland again. He’s just so good in the role that it’s hard not to want more of him alone. McConaughey is at times great as The Man in Black, while at other times playing it just a bit hammy. The truth is, much of how The Man in Black is written in the novels is very much McConaughey incarnate, so he tries to add an extra level of scenery chewing that, at times is fine, while at other times it does’t work at all. One moment in particular, where he’s broken into a character’s apartment and is cooking himself dinner, comes off as so heavily hammy that it almost undermines the character. It’s an odd choice, but it’s easy to see why McConaughey was drawn to this role. For many actors, they dream of getting to play a scene stealing villain, and here he gets that chance. Much of the time he owns it, and thought it’s too much at times, it would be a lie to say it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to see him come back as The Man in Black somehow.
It’s just too back that Nikolaj Arcel seems so out of his depth as a director. While he brings the action chops, the problem is, much of the action almost feels forced, and too over the top for this world. Roland is a Gunslinger, so you’d almost expect a more spaghetti western vibe to the action throughout, but instead it’s a bit more Underworld mixed with Resident Evil. It just doesn’t quite fit, even though it does make Roland out to be a badass. But it also makes The Man in Black look a little bit goofy overall, which is frustrating. This also comes into play with the fact that Roland is mostly Thor 2.0 when he’s brought to New York City later in the film. A lot of the same fish out of water type jokes are recycled here at the expense of The Gunslinger, that at times it’s odd, and other times, it’s oddly charming. Elba plays it well, but it’s just such a weird direction for Arcel and his team to take the character. The film is just tonally at odds with itself in how it’s presented, and that comes to Arcel not knowing how to fully handle the world that The Dark Tower exists in. One thing that is fun though, is that Arcel is clearly a King super fan, and leaves lots of small nods to other King works throughout the film, wisely so, since they all inhabit this interconnected world. Fans of many King’s other works will get a kick out of seeing characters like Cujo, or nods to things like The Shining, throughout the film that adds an extra level of fun to the proceedings.
After so many years of waiting, it’s too bad that this is The Dark Tower adaptation we were given. While it’s well cast, and has some fun action throughout, the film just never really comes together in any real way. It’s tonally flat, oddly paced, and always at war with itself. This is just not The Dark Tower film fans have been waiting for, and it’s hard to imagine it’s a film that the general audience will get behind either. What should have been a truly sweeping epic is a stilted, claustrophobic, and frustrating film that never finds its voice. Is it an Amblin film? Is it the start of something new, or the end of something familiar? Honestly, we may never know, and worse off, many more may not care. This is truly one of the most disappointing films of the summer, if only because it’s not truly great, or full train wreck. There’s fun to be had, it’s just too bad it couldn’t be The Dark Tower film that so many had waited so long to see.