After spending many years in development Hell, and facing countless obstacles, The Dark Tower is finally hitting the big screen this week. It’s a weird jumble of a movie that works better than it should, but needed much more work to feel right. Come inside to check out my full review.
This is going to be an interesting one to talk about, and it’s no easy task. I love The Dark Tower novels, and fervently read through the first four a handful of times before the final three were released. I consumed anything related to the series and have been very much looking forward to checking out this film.
I'm going to start off by telling you that I actually enjoyed the film. It has plenty of issues, however, and it's difficult to separate the books from the story actually being told in this movie. The task of pleasing fans and newcomers is nearly impossible and ultimately I feel The Dark Tower will be super divisive. I’ll go into more detail here in a bit, but I felt it important to let you know right off the bat that I liked it. Now...let’s dive into this weird movie adaptation.
The Dark Tower has been presented as something of a sequel to the long book series, though it’s not going to confuse people who haven’t read them. I don’t want to ruin the novels (as they’re well worth reading), but the way the story is laid out makes it easy for a “sequel” to happen without needing all the preceding material to enjoy.
For the most part, the sequel elements only come into play in the form of Easter eggs and a better understanding of the overall lore. An intricate knowledge of the source material, however, isn’t necessary to understanding the story being told in this movie.
The movie really puts the focus on Jake Chambers, whose haunting visions (which his family passes off as trauma induced dreams) portend the end of the world at the hands of the Man in black. This ultimately sends him on a journey to prove he’s not crazy, which takes him to another world entirely and right in the path of Roland Deschain, Gunslinger.
The overall story of the film boils down to what is, essentially, a chase movie. Roland is out to kill the Man in Black and with Jake’s help things are finally coming together. There’s the bigger issue of the Dark Tower itself, a magical spire that sits at the center of all worlds, and it’s powerful energies are keeping a horde of demons at bay. The Man in Black seeks to destroy the tower, and Jake wants to help stop him.
So there’s really two storylines at play, the bigger end of the world threat, and the more personal journey for revenge/redemption. One of these stories is really good and comprises the best parts of this adaptation, while the other is where it stumbles. The problem is it’s nearly impossible to separate the two and the result feels like a disjointed jumble of things all rolled into one.
There are a number of things I really enjoyed about The Dark Tower. For one, the actors are pretty damn amazing. Idris Elba commands the screen as the Gunslinger and brings the character to life in a very real way. Much like the book, Roland is stoic and fairly quiet, but when he says, or does, something it feels important. Elba brings gravitas to the performance and sells you on so many of the fantastical elements that shouldn’t work.
Similarly, Matthew McConaughey does an excellent job as Walter, the Man in Black. He plays the villain with an eerie calmness that’s evocative of the iconic nemesis we know from the books (including his other appearances throughout King’s other novels). Every time he’s on screen, he commands your attention and the horrible things he does throughout the story had me shaking my head or exclaiming out loud.
Tom Taylor has a bigger load to carry in terms of story for the role of Jake Chambers, but I thought he did a solid job. Jake’s been portrayed a couple different ways throughout the books, so Taylor didn’t have the same baggage as Elba and McConaughey had to fight through on their roles. In all, I think the cast was easily the biggest bright spot in the film.
The Dark Tower also leans way heavier into the fantasy elements (Demons, magic, weird humanoid monsters, etc.) than the trailers lead you to believe. Stephen King’s novels sit firmly in the fantasy genre, and I was worried the film would veer away from it in an effort to appeal to a bigger audience. Fortunately this isn’t the case and we get to see some gnarly looking demons and fantastical sequences that feel in line with the book series.
The action is also impressive and there’s quite a bit of it to go around. Obviously there’s plenty of gun-fighting, and while some of it is your standard shoot ‘em up sequences, I felt the director did a solid job of showing how different Roland is than your typical guns blazing hero. In every action scene there’s at least one (sometimes two or three) moments that had me saying, “Holy crap!”
Lastly, there’s a surprising amount of humor packed into the film, which I wasn’t expecting. Most of it comes from Roland interacting with our world and having absolutely no understanding of it. This stranger in a strange land aspect makes it all the more hilarious without ever feeling forced into the movie.
There are plenty of legitimate criticisms to be made for The Dark Tower, and frankly, it's kind of a bummer. The film's biggest problem, by far, is its attempts to loop in the bigger Dark Tower story within the smaller one being told. The film is more "A Dark Tower story" rather than "THE" Dark Tower, and the title is going to continually bring up that question.
While it's not a direct adaptation of any one book in the series, it's closest to The Gunslinger (the first book) in the kind of story it tells and the way it goes about doing it. As I mentioned earlier, the story is ultimately a simple chase adventure, with the good guys and bad guys going around for each other. When the film sticks to this narrative, it works and makes for a lot of fun. Seeing Jake and Roland interact with their clashing of worlds/culture is both humorous and poignant. When they travel to a village in Mid-World there are great hints at a deeper mythos without explicitly going into it.
It's bizarre, because in those moments of the film (focusing on the smaller story) it does a great job of showing audiences the world versus telling us about them. Yet, when it comes to the bigger story about the Tower and the Man in Black's ultimate motivations...it's almost ALL about telling the audiences what's going on. It's an odd mixture of storytelling which plays a huge role in how messy the overall film feels.
Moreso, the bigger story of saving the world(s) isn't given nearly enough time to feel as epic as it should. Coming in at just 94 minutes long it has plenty of time to make a fun chase/action movie, but not nearly enough for a sprawling epic. The filmmakers know there's not enough time, which is why so many of those story elements are regulated to talking points. This makes it tough to feel any sort of emotional connection beyond the three main characters in the film. I WANTED to care about the background characters (like Roland's dad and Jake's Mom)...but I just couldn't because they weren't given enough time.
It's an odd thing to say, but if The Dark Tower movie had cut out most of the actual Dark Tower plot points, it would have been a better movie. If they weren't going to do that, then they definitely needed to add another hour to expound on the bigger ideas. As it is, so many of the story ideas feel superfluous to the primary plot thread in the film and holds it back from being more than it is.
Somewhat connected to this problem, is the issue of too many Easter eggs/callbacks to the novels and other King books. Don't get me wrong, many of these Easter eggs are harmless enough and a great deal of fun to see. I legitimately squealed upon seeing the inclusion of Maerlyn's Rainbow (magical orbs that are important within the novels), and a few other notable references. The problem, however, is that the film reached a point where too many of the references felt shoe-horned into the film, serving as little more than fan service.
For instance, there's a point early on where the first sentence from the novel is recited within one of Jake's dreams. It's...neat(?) but ultimately serves little purpose for the story. Thus it seemed totally out of place rather than being the cool moment it was obviously meant to be.
Lastly, the film does little to establish a visual style of its own. The original novels had some stunning accompanying art, painting out scenes from Mid-World that stand out in my mind today. The movie, despite featuring so many science fiction and fantasy elements, keeps things fairly plain and drab. It’s competently shot, but there’s nothing that stands out or feels unique to this story.