The last Gunslinger, Roland Deschain, has been locked in an eternal battle with Walter O'Dim, also known as the Man in Black, determined to prevent him from toppling the Dark Tower, which holds the universe together. With the fate of the worlds at stake, good and evil will collide in the ultimate battle as only Roland can defend the Tower from the Man in Black.
Based on Stephen King’s sprawling sci-fi western epic book series of the same name, The Dark Tower has had a bumpy ride to make it to the big screen. Big names such as J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard have been attached at some point in its ten year history, with Viggo Mortensen rumoured to headline the cast. But here we are, 10 years later with a view of what could have been with this project and the disappointing reality of what is: a breezy, throwaway, shallow piece of entertainment.
In other words, everything The Dark Tower should not be.
Admittedly, I’ve not read the series. I made a start on the first book about five years ago, but never got into it. In a way, it’s an advantage as I can only base my opinion of the franchise from the unusually short 95 minute run time, but there’s an undeniable sense that a far more intricate and complex story bubbles below this top layer skimming by Nikolaj Arcel.
It begins with young Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) waking from a vivid recurring dream involving the titular tower, a desolate wasteland and a sinister ‘Man in Black’. His mother, understandably thinking he’s losing his mind, arranges for Jake to be taken to a psychiatric facility to be rehabilitated. But the supposed workers who turn up to take him away are also a part of his dream – they are monsters, wearing human skin. Escaping from their clutches, Jake finds refuge in a familiar looking house which, would you believe it, he’s seen in his dreams too.
Using a portal which is hidden inside, Jake is transported to a post-apocalyptic world known as the Mid-World. Before long, he meets Roland, a ‘Gunslinger’, who explains that Jake has been one of hundreds of psychic children abducted by the powerful sorcerer known as The Man In Black (who also goes by the much less threatening name of ‘Walter’) in an attempt to destroy the Dark Tower, a structure located at the centre of the universe and in place to stop monsters flooding through to both their world and ours. By channeling the children’s abilities and essentially weaponizing them, the Tower would fall, letting the beasts in and now it’s up to Roland and Jake to use their powers to stop Walter from taking control of both worlds.
It’s clear there’s a lot going on in The Dark Tower; It’s almost a miracle that Arcel and his four screenwriters managed to squeeze those details into an measly hour and a half. The truth of the matter is far less miraculous however – it’s made possible simply due to most of the film consisting of Roland and Jake walking to various locations, sitting down and explaining the plot to each other and, in turn, us. There are very few action sequences throughout, and it’s only in its climactic scenes where we really get a feel for how legendary Roland’s Gunslingin’ skills really are. Before we fully start to believe though, the credits are rolling after a strangely definitive conclusion and contemplation of a thoroughly wasted opportunity begins to sink in.
Stars Idris Elba as Roland and Matthew McConaughey as Walter can’t be faulted at all though – the latter especially seems to be having an immense amount of fun with a role that desperately cries out to be so much more than what we get. As a villain, the all-too-brief flashes of The Man In Black give us glimpses at what could have been of the more memorable bad guys of the last few years – this guy is mean, and I could watch McConaughey for hours wave his hand over unsuspecting victims while commanding them to do his bidding. Elba does the best he can with the script he’s given, but this character needed fleshing out more for me to have really felt sorry for his plight.
When you’re working with two juggernauts like McConaughey and Elba, you’d better bring your A-game. Unfortunately, newcomer Tom Taylor as Jake is way out of his depth here, and gets lost in the star power. As for the Tower itself, the reason for this film to exist, it barely seems important for the most part, with the story focusing mainly on the grudge between the two leads.
There’s a TV series planned for The Dark Tower, but I’m concerned the damage has been done. The film doesn’t feel anywhere near as gritty or dark as it should have been (or so I’m told from the readers of the novels), and to me it felt more tonally in line with films such as Percy Jackson and The Maze Runner. I’d have been happy for this film to have been an introduction the rich, multi-layered characters and Dark Tower universe, just to whet my appetite for the TV series.
Unfortunately, as it stands, The Dark Tower is much like the monsters which it features: a much bigger beast, struggling to fit into the skin it has been given and bursting at the seams, ready to be set free.
McConaughey excels in his all-too-brief role as The Man In Black
Elba does the best he can with the limits he's been given
The underpinnings of a better world still to come
Explanation-heavy dialogue, which means sacrifice of action scenes
A rich, complex story is diluted to the point of being unrecognisable
95 minutes for a series that runs for eight books is laughable