By Elias Savada.
The phrase “lump of coal” comes to mind after watching The Dark Tower, a lavish and most definitely lackluster CliffsNotes abridgment of a CliffsNotes adaptation of the Stephen King science fiction-fantasy-western magnum opus. The film prides itself by drop-kicking the prerequisite landscapes, people, myths, and phrases that abound in the bestselling author’s eight novels, but which barely fit into this 95-minute condensation. For a rundown of these unusual things (from the book series – not all are in the film), check out the nice article by Zach Dionne on at Vulture.com. Despite or because of too many cooks in the stew for this kickoff entry in however many films Sony/Media Rights Capital (which picked it up a few years ago from Universal, after it has been lobbed about since 2007) has planned, the inaugural crowds will probably be thinner than those announced for Trump’s induction.
Only joking (as the President is wont to say), the crowds will definitely be bigger than those on the National Mall last January. But King’s legions will probably not be pleased.
Like so many other fantasy world sagas, with Star Wars and Harry Potter up there on top of the pedestal, Danish director Nikolaj Arcel (Oscar-nominated foreign feature A Royal Affair) seemed like a good choice to push along what should have been an epic summer feast. If the studio publicity is to be believed, he learned English at 13 just to read the books, which were not available in his native tongue. The now 44-year-old filmmaker, who also penned the screenplay to the original The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, has miffed his big Hollywood start. Two pairs of credited screenwriters (Akiva Goldsman & Jeff Pinkner and Anders Thomas Jensen & Nikolaj Arcel) struggled and failed to offer enough energy for what’s on the screen to wow many in the audience. There were more than just a few snickers. Last-minute rewrites and reshoots couldn’t salvage this doomed ship. Let us pray that it will soon be forgotten.
I don’t blame the cast, particularly Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, and newcomer Tom Taylor, who offer some gravitas to the bland scenario, and the production has a decent yet still unremarkable sheen, whether set in the Big Apple or in the wild west-style universe of Mid-World that sports the eponymous structure. As long as the Dark Tower stands erect, the shaky balance of good vs. evil is maintained (which seems like a totally silly premise, if you ask me). That battle is reduced to single swipes between the subtly malevolent, eternally clean shaven, and dapperly dressed Walter O’Dim (McConaughey), a.k.a. The Man in Black (who has numerous non-human minions at his beck and call), and the grizzled Roland Deschain (Elba), shaped from a blend of Clint Eastwood and The Magnificent Seven. As the last surviving member of the Eld clan of peacekeepers and Tower protectors, Roland has a determined stature and keeps trying to put the devil down, but Walter is a hard nut to break. He can kill normal people just by uttering “Stop Breathing” at them. I wonder what happens if he sneezes.
The nightmarish visions that open the film belong to 11-year-old Jake Chambers (Taylor), a beleaguered soul whose charcoal drawings reflect his apparitions. He is having a miserable time trying to convince his mom and stepdad that what he has been witnessing in his mind is real and related to the escalating series of earthquakes pummeling the planet. The boy, a resourceful lad, ends up taking an inter-universal portal to Mid-World, where he masquerades as a young Tonto to Roland’s Lone Ranger. Walter wants to capture him because Jake’s superbly clairvoyant personality can power a destructo-beam to bring down the tower. Like the young adult with which the filmmakers approached the source material, I reply, “O…M…G!”
What develops is a long chase coupled with some beastly encounters, dimly lit battles, a kidnapping, some cool gunplay (the best one compressed at the end of the official trailer), some semi-serious dialogue about the end of all good, and a few corny one-liners about guns and sugar between Roland and Jake when they find themselves back in Manhattan.
I was hoping there would be some marvelous magic in The Dark Tower. That it sucked so badly made me reflect on the wonderful Stephen King films I have greatly admired and are so worthy of revisiting: The Shining, Carrie (1976), The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Stand by Me.
Yeah, a totally simplified piece of joyless, workmanlike crud. I also made a note on how ug(h)ly the score by Tom Holkenborg sounded. Most viewers won’t care if The Dark Tower falls or not. The boredom will kill you.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).