‘The Dark Tower’, loosely based on Stephen King’s eight book magnum opus of the same name, has had a long and arduous path to the big screen. Early adaptations ten years ago had big names like J. J. Abrams and Ron Howard attached, but the years passed until Danish filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel came on board and Sony Pictures pressed ahead in earnest. Unlike many of my peers in film criticism circles, I had a decent time watching the film, which – despite its flaws – manages to gently establish a fantasy world brimming with curious ideas while serving up a smattering of decent action and solid performances. It doesn’t feel like the culmination of ten years of development, nor the product of decades of King’s hard work hunched over a keyboard, but it’s pacy and hits enough marks to recommend (though it might be one to wait for on home entertainment).
The film starts with the ominous proclamation: ‘A tower stands at the centre of the universe, protecting it from darkness’. If this titular Tower were to fall, the forces of evil surrounding our world and the infinite separate universes to which it is connected would be unleashed. In a parallel world known as Mid-World, the battle for the Tower is coming to a head. Walter, also known as The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), is a powerful sorcerer hellbent on destroying the Tower. Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) is the last Gunslinger left to oppose him, now consumed by a quest for revenge after Walter killed his father and all the other Gunslingers.
On Earth (known as Keystone Earth in the film’s parlance), a young teen living in New York City, Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), is plagued by dreams of The Man in Black. In his visions, The Man in Black and his cronies carry out experiments with kidnapped young people, tapping into their psychic powers to create energy pulses directed at the Tower. These dreams coincide with mysterious earthquakes that have been recorded around Keystone Earth. Jake’s mother (Katheryn Winnick) wants to believe her son, but her new husband Lon (Nicholas Pauling) insists that he get professional help. When said help arrives and Jake detects that they are pawns of The Man in Black, he escapes and manages to find a portal into Mid-World, where he finds Roland, just as he pictured him in his visions.
Using Jake’s collection of detailed drawings of his visions, the pair set out across the wasteland to have Jake’s visions interpreted by a seer. Meanwhile Walter, alerted that someone has made an unscheduled crossing from Earth via his portals, heads to NYC to find the source of the breach. Following the clues, Walter realises that Jake’s visions imply that his powers are strong enough to singlehandedly destroy the Tower. As the universe’s armament grows more vulnerable, Roland must protect Jake from Walter, and all the players converge on NYC for a final showdown that will decide the fate of the multiverse.
I’m not much of a Stephen King reader, and I’ve read elsewhere that dedicated King fans may feel insulted by the film’s cursory and simplistic treatment of King’s career-spanning epic. As far as I can tell, the screenplay (attributed to Arcel and three other writers) draws from several of the books but also acts as a quasi-sequel. Anyone expecting a straightforward or totally faithful adaptation will be let down. Even for non-fans, there’s an element of fairness to this criticism. At just 95 minutes, there isn’t enough time spent establishing the worlds in which this is all taking place. There’s dense vernacular (psychic powers are called ‘shine’, for instance) and hints to loads of backstory and a much wider world that is never expanded upon, so it undoubtedly could have done with another 20 or so minutes to flesh everything out. With lesser performers cast as Roland and Jake, this lack of understanding could have sunk the whole enterprise – why care for a fictional world when it’s so thinly sketched and occasionally confusing? – but it skates by on the work of Elba and Taylor.
Idris Elba, who has spent decades working his way up through various British television programs to reach the upper echelons of Hollywood, carries the film as Roland. His grit and integrity are on full display here, his growl etched with the pain of the losses he has endured over the years. His bullish physicality (once amusingly highlighted by his casting as the voice of a buffalo in ‘Zootopia’) sells the action well, making the glut of slow motion and impossibly precise gunshots feel epic and, for want of a better word, totally cool. Opposite him, British youngster Tom Taylor makes a memorable film debut. He’s saddled with some dialogue that never convincingly sounds like the words of a teenager, but he gives it his all, particularly selling his frayed mental state while struggling to convince everyone that he’s not crazy. Pivotal moments between our heroes, such as Roland teaching Jake the Gunslinger’s creed (which we have seen Roland recite with his late father), pack an emotional punch despite the general lack of clarity that hangs about the film. The same cannot be said for McConaughey, who is burdened with a more confusing character and murky motivations. Walter is driven to destroy the Tower, but we never really know why, nor do we understand the origins or limits of his impressive grab bag of powers. McConaughey, making a rare misstep since beginning his renaissance of sorts in 2011, doesn’t leave much of a mark, a problematic note for a character that is variously described as the devil and pure evil.
Below the line, there is excellence on display across the board, particularly in costuming and set design. Mid-World walks a funny line between steampunk tech and Civil War re-enactments, and the skill of the craftspeople involved makes this odd mix work. Cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk, teaming with Arcel again after their success with ‘A Royal Affair’, delivers rich and engrossing images, blending the iconography of Westerns and urban crime films into an intriguing hybrid look.
Years ago, there was talk that ‘The Dark Tower’ series would be adapted into several movies with interconnecting television shows. This is a tantalising hint at what the property could have been, or perhaps should have been. ‘The Dark Tower’ as it stands today is an oddity, a studio movie based on popular IP that kind of disregards the work that it’s built upon. This will be a problem for some. It was not in my case. I liked its straightforward (if underexplained) plot, flashes of action and decent acting. Arcel was an interesting choice to tackle the film (his big international break came with Danish hit ‘A Royal Affair’), but he doesn’t bring much character to it. Maybe that’s what it’s missing most, something that helps it linger in the memory. Elba and Taylor come close, but their efforts would be just as watchable on your television at home. Worth seeing, but probably one to wait for.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting