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 Turn Out the Lights, Stephen King's Party Is Over 

Matthew McConaughey
Matthew McConaughey
Columbia Pictures
 95 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Nikolaj Arcel
Starring: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey 
The Dark Tower

Imagine taking all seven of the Harry Potter books and making a single, 95-minute movie out of them. Or, how about the thought of turning the entire seven seasons and counting of Game of Thrones into that same 95 minutes of film. The very idea seems ludicrous, but either of those prospects actually makes more sense than what Columbia Pictures has done with Stephen King’s epic, The Dark Tower. The studio, with the assistance of four screenwriters (none of them named Stephen King) and a Danish director with no experience in big budget action, fantasy, or science fiction filmmaking, has turned King’s 30-years-in-the-making, 4,000-plus page opus into the equivalent of a mediocre two-hour episode of the original Star Trek.


I haven’t read King’s series of novels, but I know enough about them to understand that he has created a mythic fantasy universe, filled with magic, menace, and Wild West Gunslingers. Hints of King’s tapestry abound in the film version of The Dark Tower, primarily in its two central antagonists. Walter, the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), is an evil wizard who wants to destroy the Dark Tower, an imposing edifice that protects the lands of Mid-World from utter desolation at his hands. Opposing Walter is Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last of a line of Gunslingers whose weapons on the side or righteousness are a pair of six-shooters and an extremely accurate aim.  


Walter apparently doesn’t have enough psychic juice to destroy the Tower on his own, so he has gone about recruiting (or, in plain terms, kidnapping) children from other worlds with psychic abilities and channeling their psychic energies into a giant cannon that he periodically shoots at the Tower (I have to believe that this scenario, if it does indeed exist in the novels, was handled much more creatively by King). People from Mid-World can travel to Earth, and vice versa, through various portals that are well camouflaged in ordinary buildings. Walter’s ultimate target, the kid whose psychic powers go to 11, is Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a pre-teen New Yorker who has been having visions in which he catches glimpses of Walter, Roland, the Tower, and other sorts of otherworldly phenomena.


Jake travels to Mid-World where he finds a very burned out Roland, who is about at the end of his rope as far as his continued battles against Walter are concerned. By the rules that govern Mid-World, neither Walter nor Roland can kill one another, but Walter can and does wreak havoc on everyone else Roland holds dear. Roland takes Jake under his wing and starts training Jake in the way of the Gunslinger, while Walter goes looking for Jake to use the boy’s powers as the last piece of the puzzle needed to destroy the Tower.


I may have missed a few nuances of the plot of The Dark Tower, but this description pretty much sums up the movie in a nutshell It’s pretty bare bones, and, in fact, there’s not much here that hasn’t been done elsewhere many times before, such as the bonding and mentoring that go on between Roland and Jake (the name Luke Skywalker immediately comes to mind in a galaxy far, far, away and a far, far better movie). The Gunslingers are supposedly the Mid-Worldly equivalent of knights in shining armor, a concept I grasped fairly easily, but one that didn’t explain what made them all that special. And, while Walter is definitely not a very nice person, he comes across as about as bland a personification of evil as I can recall (McConaughey displays more personality in his Lincoln commercials). Whatever it was that made King’s novels so special has been completely stripped away here.


Reducing a complex plot to a sub-minimal story wouldn’t have been all that bad if the barebones story itself was in any way exciting. Instead, we are treated to several shots of a group of nerd technicians who work for Walter preparing to fire his giant psychic laser cannon, over and over again, each time blasting seemingly the same exact piece of tower wall masonry to bits. The Dark Tower was made on a budget of about $60 million, cheap by Hollywood spectacle standards, and it shows in the film’s mediocre, unimaginative CGI work. The action scenes are flat out dull, lacking any sense of wonder or terror or, indeed, any sort of excitement. The movie has one interesting construct, the idea of demonic creatures working for Walter who have fake skin, but one clever idea in 95 minutes of screen time is not a very good ratio.


Of course, a large part of the blame for this mess of a movie stems from the original decision to condense the story line so much (indeed, when I first saw trailers for Dark Tower, my initial thought was that this was only the first installment in a series). Beyond that, however, director Nikolaj Arcel must shoulder much of the blame (again with a big “assist” to the studio that put him in charge of the project after J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard bailed). Arcel simply has no touch for action and no vision of epic fantasy. Instead, most of the action takes place on about a half dozen cheesy sets. Don’t look for Dark Tower to come close to garnering an Oscar nomination in a technical category, something one might have thought a slam dunk proposition a few months ago.


Other than a stray bit of business here and there, such as Walter off handedly ordering two of his underlings to fight each other to the death, the only thing that keeps The Dark Tower from being a complete debacle is Idris Elba. His performance reinforces the notion that he is long past overdue for a prime leading role in a major film. He treats the script and the entire concept of the movie with a gravitas more worthy of a true epic, and he makes his scenes compelling. As portrayed by Elba, Roland is a true mythic hero, one whose inner torment and total determination resonate.


The reasons for Dark Tower’s creative and probable box office failure will be bandied around for years, joining the ranks of other botched projects like Heaven’s Gate and Ishtar. The movie suffered through creative overhauls, reshoots, studio buck passing and meddling, and disastrous test screenings, the net result of which was something that would have made for an uneventful SyFy channel movie were it not for the presence of its two stars. Indeed, the movie’s hero, Roland, and his portrayer, Idris Elba, give fans of the King epic hope for better things to come in a likely television series. As for the movie version, it joins an already far too lengthy list of mediocre to terrible King adaptations and is perhaps the saddest of all, due to the nature of the underlying source material. It’s truly a dark moment for fans of The Dark Tower.

The studio has not yet made any clips of The Dark Tower available. In this featurette, Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey discuss the making of the film.

Read other reviews of The Dark Tower:


The Dark Tower (2017) on IMDb