It’s tough to spot Stephen King’s soaring ambitions in this Cliff Notes-worthy adaptation of his beloved eight-volume epic. After all, even the man who created The Stand, It and The Shining calls this one his “magnum opus.” In those Dark Tower books—part spaghetti Western, part brilliant time-tripping sci-fi smorgasbord, part King Arthur retelling, part Ray Bradbury fantasy—good and evil battle for supremacy over entire worlds, and only the titular edifice stands as a bulwark against the monsters of many universes eager to devour us all. Making trans-dimensional leaps between arid flatlands and present-day New York is an ornery, often unfathomable gunslinger who braves thrilling odds to get to that tower while looking after an earth-kid who’s being hunted by a guy who’s allegedly worse than the devil. Or something like that.
Over the years, King’s majestic material has defeated many a director and screenwriter, including J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard. But on the evidence of this choppy, enervated, inconsequential and badly-rushed 95-minute flick, it has pretty much completely eluded the talents of director Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair) and credited screenwriters including Arcel, Anders Thomas Jensen, Akiva Goldsman and Jeff Pinkner. The movie is as visually murky as its characters are paper-thin. It’s like a highlight reel without highlights.
Those who haven’t read King’s Dark Tower books will wonder: Who exactly is the roving, vengeful gunman Roland Deschain (played with grace and power by Idris Elba) and why is he locked in eternal combat with the evil sorcerer known as the Man in Black or, variously, Walter (played by Matthew McConaughey at his oiliest and most swaggering)? Yes, Walter killed Roland’s father (Dennis Haysbert, in a blink-and-he’s-gone role that smacks of ruthless editing) and, we’re told fleetingly, the other people Roland most cared for. But who were those people? The film doesn’t do the work of establishing the relationships whose violent ends have made the Gunslinger the tight-lipped, stormy man he is today.
Why do we spend so much time with a young psychic boy named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor, doing nice work), cursed/blessed with Danny Torrance clairvoyance and the ominous visions it gives him when, in the grand scheme of things, we know no more about him at the end of the movie than we did in the first 20 minutes? And whose idea was it to spin the relationship between Roland and Jake into fish-out-of-water Last Action Hero territory, with Roland asking Jake, after biting into his first New York street-vendor hot dog, “What breed?” and wanting to know the name of this new drink he’s tried, to which the kid replies “Sugar”? How can a movie so packed with bald exposition have zero time to spend on motivation and character development? We find ourselves confused and detached as the movie ricochets from episode to episode, ignoring any semblance of connective tissue.
Those who haven’t read the Dark Tower books may wonder what all the fuss was about in the first place. And as this Dark Tower comes crashing earthward, those who have read the books are left to ponder how such a resonant literary work turned up on screen so undernourished and easily dismissed.
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