“Go then. There are other worlds than these,” intones young Jake Chambers at a critical moment in Stephen King’s 1982 novel The Gunslinger, the first installment in the author’s epic eight-book The Dark Tower series.
It’s a recommendation followed by the saga’s protagonist, weary alterna-universe gunslinger Roland Deschain. And it’s advice that moviegoers would also be wise to heed with regards to The Dark Tower, director Nikolaj Arcel’s big-budget version of that sprawling tale.
After what’s seemed like an endless odyssey to translate the property for the screen—including (apparently still-active) plans to tackle some future chapters on TV, alongside subsequent big-screen features—what’s arrived is the worst of all possible worlds: a slender 95-minute introduction that’s rickety on its own and an abomination when judged vis-à-vis its source material. It’s a fiasco of the highest order, apt to befuddle and bore the uninitiated, and offend and infuriate King’s legion of Constant Readers.
For newbies, the first thing to understand is that Arcel’s The Dark Tower is not a straightforward adaptation of King’s maiden book, which is a lean spaghetti Western-flavored affair in which Roland traverses a dying world’s vast desert in pursuit of an evil sorcerer known as the Man in Black.
Instead, because King’s opus concludes with its hero re-embarking on the quest he’s just completed—in short, he’s doomed to repeat his mission ad infinitum until he recognizes the error of his ways—the movie has been cast, in effect, as a do-over sequel to the novels. In theory, it’s a clever device that allows the director (working from a script co-written with Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner and Anders Thomas Jensen) to reimagine and rearrange elements from various series tomes. And reimagine they do, beginning with one of many major changes sure to beget heated debate—and dismay—among the die-hard crowd.
That would be the decision to make Jake, and not Roland, the primary focus of The Dark Tower. As embodied by Tom Taylor, Jake is a ho-hum NYC kid grieving over his firefighter father’s death, and consumed by dreams of the Tower, the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), and Roland (Idris Elba). Those visions make him a standard-issue “troubled kid” who, of course, isn’t troubled at all. And after a few conversations with his concerned mom (Katheryn Winnick, way too young for the part) and her jerky boyfriend (Nicholas Pauling), a trip to the shrink, and a run-in with psychiatric clinicians who are really the Man in Black’s minions—they wear human skin suits to hide the fact that they’re Orcs—he confirms his sanity by finding a Stargate-like portal to Roland’s Mid-World. There, he teams up with the aged gunslinger, who’s the last in a long line of cowboy-ish knights tasked with safeguarding the Tower, which protects all universes from the demonic darkness that lurks on its periphery, and which the Man in Black wants to destroy so he can usher in the apocalypse.
To fell the mystical edifice, the Man in Black has his cronies kidnap special children and bring them back to his industrial lair, where they’re strapped into chairs that drain them of their “shine” (i.e., the same psychic ability that Danny Torrance possessed in The Shining). That supernatural stuff, in turn, powers a giant The Force Awakens-style energy weapon that can blast the Tower to smithereens. And wouldn’t you know it, Jake “shines” more than anyone the Man in Black has ever encountered. That makes him a valuable commodity coveted by the villain, who figures he can kill two birds with one stone by snatching Jake while also eliminating Roland, a long-time nemesis whose family he slaughtered years earlier, and who’s conveniently immune to his enchantments.
All of this setup is established in a harried fashion that renders it simultaneously clichéd, wobbly and ridiculous—and that’s without even taking into account that, in every respect, it’s a nonsensical top-to-bottom reconfiguration of the novels’ mythos. The Dark Tower is here fashioned as a Harry Potter-ish tale of a boy who discovers the existence of another magical reality, where his peerless gift makes him the crucial person around which everything revolves.
If that weren’t enough bastardization for this adaptation to shoulder, Arcel then transforms Roland into a weary fatalist who’s given up on being a heroic gunslinger, as well as protecting the Tower—thereby stripping him of the selfish obsessiveness that defined the character and, by extension, the entire original story. Even more than McConaughey’s Man in Black, who struts around in an open-shirted black suit like some devious Armani runway model, and who performs wizarding feats with silly waves of his arms, the film’s conception of Roland—as a quitter inspired to believe again by his teenage charge—is fundamentally wrong (and wrong-headed). Toss in Elba looking bored even when reciting his “creed” (here repeated in the hope that it might become a cultural catchphrase), and the proceedings prove excruciatingly lame and misguided.
Of course, the fact that such alterations have been made won’t matter to those who’ve never cracked open The Gunslinger, nor will the myriad ways in which Arcel and company gracelessly amalgamate the books (The Gunslinger, The Wolves of Calla, and Song of Susannah in particular). They’ll instead just roll their eyes at the cutesy odd-couple quips traded by Jake and Roland; squint mightily in order to make out the generic-beyond-belief CGI monsters; and snooze through the fish-out-water scenarios once the duo travel to Times Square and the gunslinger has to interact with doctors and eat hot dogs. The Dark Tower feels as if it’s playing by a tired fantasy-movie playbook, right down to its chaotic skirmishes full of anonymous villains and slow-motion acts of badassery. But worse still, it never for a second convinces one that these events are taking place in a larger, grander universe(s). At every narrative way station, it merely sketches its environment and has bland characters spout exposition that lay out the rules and regulations governing the action.
There’s no scale to The Dark Tower, and no mystery either, with everything so neatly arranged and spelled out—Jake hates fire because of his dad’s death, and the Man in Black incinerates his victims; Jake and Roland are both grieving dead fathers, and thus destined to become a surrogate father/son team—that one desperately misses King’s deft touch with nuanced character and relationships. Rather than trying to channel its creator’s finest attributes, Arcel’s work stiches together some of his ideas into a clunky Frankensteinian hodgepodge, all while including Where’s Waldo?-grade references for the geeky faithful. There’s a picture of the Overlook Hotel! And across the street, isn’t that a big ol’ St. Bernard? That toy car looks suspiciously like a red-and-white 1958 Plymouth Fury! And whoa, that amusement park ride is named Pennywise!
Such gestures simply reward eagle-eyed viewers for their fanboyishness, as well as underscore the endeavor’s lack of imagination. Admittedly, King’s series was, like the Tower itself, the nexus of his own fictional universe, tethering together many of his best-selling horror-shows, to the point that it even made room for his own appearance (as a character) in Roland’s tale. No doubt the author won’t be cameoing in future sequels to The Dark Tower, though—not only because its revised lore seems to have little room for him, but also because no follow-ups are likely to be spawned by this dull bit of blockbuster blasphemy.