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The Dark Tower

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve already been asked what I think of The Dark Tower. The film wasn’t even out yet, and there was already so much talk about it. Mostly because of the pathetic critical reception.

But truthfully, I never had any idea what to think about this one. I don’t know a thing about the property, except 1) it spent at least a decade in development hell, 2) it’s a Stephen King adaptation, and 3) it’s a hugely intricate property with a dedicated fanbase. We’ve seen any number of similar movies with any one of those criteria that have gone either way. Put all three together and anything could happen.

But then I saw the trailer and a number of other things caught my eye. First, Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey. Both fine actors and always a pleasure to see onscreen. Second, this was clearly a very straightforward fantasy, without much more than a paper-thin good vs. evil story centered around a young boy. Seriously, that “I don’t kill with my gun, I kill with my heart” speech is the kind of corny and simplistic that could only be sold by the guy who famously crowed that the apocalypse was getting canceled.

Which brings me to the third thing I noticed.

Today, the trailer for Death Wish (2017) hit, and my Facebook feed was flooded with how insensitive it was to make a film about mass shooting in this day and age. And here we are with a hero presented as good beyond question who’s magically great with bullets and makes eloquent speeches about shooting people. The trailer alone did so much to glamorize guns, which seems like a pretty iffy choice given current events. It’s especially prominent given my own circumstances: I saw this movie at the Clackamas Town Center. If I was sitting in that exact spot about five years ago, I’d be close enough to hear the shooting and the screaming with my own ears.

But maybe I’m reading too deeply into this. After all, this is hardly the first movie to overtly — if irresponsibly — fetishize gunplay. What’s more, there’s the buffer zone that comes with being a fantasy movie: We’re not supposed to take it seriously, because it’s just a fanciful tale of good versus evil, right?

Yes. It’s exactly that. And not much else.

To summarize what passes for a plot, the titular Dark Tower is basically the focal point of the universe. More specifically, it radiates a kind of energy that keeps all kinds of monsters at the edge of existence from barging in and destroying everything. In the source material (according to Wikipedia, anyway), this was used as a device to bind all the different universes of Stephen King’s collected works. True to that spirit, the movie is positively loaded with all manner of Easter eggs and references to Stephen King’s other works. The movie leans particularly hard on “The Shining” (both the book and the Stanley Kubrick adaptation), which brings us to our protagonist.

Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is a boy with great artistic talents, a boatload of trauma following the death of his father, and vivid nightmares of the Dark Tower’s destruction. It turns out that this kid has powerful psychic abilities (yes, his “shine”) that potentially could either be used to save the Dark Tower or destroy it. His development arc is straight as a laser and his attempts at affecting the plot (with maybe one or two exceptions) don’t really amount to anything. He’s basically just a MacGuffin/sounding board that gets passed around between the characters.

He’s caught in the middle between this fight of good versus evil. On one side is Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last living gunslinger. He’s the stoic hero who acts the lone wolf and doesn’t claim to have any motivation other than vengeance, but he’ll always do what’s right and stand up for the defenseless, blah blah blah. On the other side is Walter (Matthew McConaughey), the man in black. He’s basically evil incarnate, so he kidnaps children to break down the tower and rule over a universe of demons, yadda yadda yadda.

This is sadly one of those times when the setting is far more interesting than the story. What we’ve got here is a dizzying melange of fantasy, sci-fi, western, post-apocalyptic, modern, and a whole bunch of other stuff besides. It would be so easy for all of this to dissolve into an incoherent mess if everything got too complicated. Alas, it’s just as easy to make everything too simple.

The filmmakers erred on the side of “simple”, which is how we ended up with a rote story played out with stock characters, offering no surprises of any kind at all. Even the action scenes are lackluster. Aside from the big climactic shootout, the action set pieces simply weren’t all that fun to watch.

It didn’t help that the production design was woefully uninspired. Everything in this movie looks so bland and mundane, which is a spectacular waste of a planet-hopping premise like this one. I mean, I get that most of the movie takes place in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, but there are still ways to make that look interesting (see: the franchises of Mad Max or The Terminator), especially when the post-apocalyptic hellscape in question is a freaking alien planet! Additionally, the CGI is unremarkable, the creature designs are bland, and the score by Junkie XL is uncharacteristically lifeless. It doesn’t even have the overt in-your-face kind of awful that he gave us with his Batman theme.

But what saves all of this? The cast. Specifically, the leading cast.

I don’t know where the filmmakers found Tom Taylor, but he perfectly conveys the vulnerability, intelligence, and heart that the character called for. He’s easy to watch and root for through the whole running time, and I look forward to seeing what’s next for the actor. As for Idris Elba, he’s playing squarely into his wheelhouse. He’s got the “stoic hero” thing down flat, with a ton of charisma to burn. I have no idea how he played this character without devolving into caricature, and I don’t think there’s another actor out there who could’ve done it so well, but he makes it look effortless.

Then we have Matthew McConaughey, who nails his role to the wall. He plays a villain who’s deliciously fun to hate, with every syllable falling from his mouth like sugary poison. We don’t even need to see for ourselves that he can’t be touched — we see it in the smooth and effortless way he does everything. He’s funny, he’s seductive, he’s charming, he’s dangerous… he’s everything a devil should be.

(Side note: Speaking of McConaughey and the devil, a couple friends of mine actually wrote a musical called “Matthew McConaughey vs. The Devil“, which recently made its premiere off-Broadway at the New York Musical Festival. That is seriously a thing. Give the website a look and watch a few of the videos, it’s hilarious.)

Alas, the supporting cast is sadly underwhelming. The only standout is Dennis Haysbert, and that’s solely because he’s Dennis Haysbert. Likewise, Jackie Earle Haley is utterly wasted playing a generic henchman who gets killed off far too quickly and easily, but he makes an impression because he’s Jackie Earle Haley.

I’m always glad to see Fran Kranz getting more work, but his character here is a pathetically lukewarm retread of his “Dollhouse” persona, complete with an ugly sweater vest. Abbey Lee appears as a henchwoman, literally nothing more than a pretty face. Katheryn Winnick fares better as Jake’s mother, but it’s a totally thankless role. There are other supporting characters who come and go, but those are seriously the only ones even worth mentioning.

Aside from its three superlative lead actors, everything about The Dark Tower feels like the lowest common denominator. It feels like everyone behind the scenes had spent so much time and money debating on which direction to take, they all finally decided to put the least amount of effort into the least possible runtime (a brisk 95 minutes) and push it to the finish line.

It’s not incompetent enough to be bad, and it’s not thrilling enough to be good. It’s just there. It’s quick and disposable popcorn cinema. While certainly not a bad thing in itself, the rich premise and source material makes it a letdown. Plus, Atomic Blonde (which has far superior action) and Spider-Man: Homecoming (a better coming-of-age story with more thrilling CGI spectacle) are both still in theaters. Put all of that together and I sadly can’t recommend this.

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