Movie Review: The Dark Tower (SPOILERS)

August 23, 2017
August 23, 2017 bryan

Movie Review: The Dark Tower (SPOILERS)

I have read Stephen King’s entire Dark Tower series twice – like The Lord of the Rings, it is one of those timeless series of books that never get old and I realize there was something I missed in each reading (or listening, in my case, as I love the audio versions of the series narrated by George Guidall, Frank Muller, and Stephen King himself). I have mentioned my love for this series here as well as my anticipation of the long-awaited first film.

The film comes after more than a decade in development hell, first with film rights sold to JJ Abrams, then to Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment (which still co-produced the film), and finally to Sony Pictures. Ron Howard was initially slated to direct the project, and planned to stay as faithful as possible to the source material of the books and Marvel comics. Howard shopped the project to almost every studio including Warner Bros, Universal, and HBO with an idea to release three epic films with two television mini-series in between, but the studios rejected the proposal due to the project’s massive budget.

Walter (Matthew McConaughey) and Roland (Idris Elba) in Columbia Pictures THE DARK TOWER.

So we waited again, and then, out of the blue, Sony greenlit one film and brought on Danish filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel to direct. The film cast Idris Elba as the Gunslinger and Matthew McConaughey as the villainous wizard Walter O’Dim, or The Man in Black. I loved Elba in BBC’s Luther and the Thor films and could instantly see him killing it as the world’s last gunslinger. McConaughey has shown amazing acting chops in films like Dallas Buyer’s Club (for which he earned a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar) and Interstellar (love it or hate it, the man was brilliant). The trailer even prompted me to give the series another listen/read and once I started it again, I couldn’t NOT see the two leads in the book roles. Yes, I was excited for this film. And given its long list of screenwriters, which included director Arcel and Oscar-Winner Akiva Goldsman who wrote Howard’s A Beautiful Mind but who also wrote Batman and Robin. So.. it’s a mixed bag.

AND NOW, THE REVIEW!

Even before the release, I had begun seeing early reviews of the film and most of them weren’t good. YouTube has more than its fair share of angry film critics, and they were particularly unkind to The Dark Tower. But…almost all of the reviews I read were from movie buffs who hadn’t read any of the books, and that gave me hope that maybe the world just wasn’t ready for all of the twists and turns that this incredible book series has to offer. It is Stephen King’s self-described Magnum Opus and has its own distinct following that deviates from King’s usual audience. All this to say, maybe this was going to be a cult-following after all that ages over time. After all, Stephen King liked the film, and if The Dark Tower is his beloved baby, that has to mean something, right?

But then I saw the film.

And… it turns out the naysayers of YouTube weren’t entirely unfair to the film. And remember, I wanted to love this film. I wanted to really love it! I was psyching myself up to love it.

Did I love it? Not really. I liked it okay.

The first thing I must mention is that the film is SHORT. It runs at just 95 minutes. This might not be so bad. After all, the first book in the series is the shortest of all eight of them. The story even starts out slow, with just the titular Gunslinger, The Man and Black, and the boy Jake Chambers playing major roles in the story. The film decided to honor that trio of characters by not introducing major characters from the 2nd book and beyond. And the series does cover a lot of ground.

But rather than stay close to the source material, The Dark Tower almost attempts to wrap the main theme of the eight books in ONE film. It’s almost as though Sony Pictures greenlit the film under the strict rules that they had to tell their complete story in ninety-five minutes in case it flopped and nobody wanted sequels. Apparently, Sony also struck a deal to allow a TV series that would act as a spin-off. But as far as we know, that’s it. And so what happens is that the film rushes to cover a TON of ground in a VERY short period of time. So we see The Gunslinger’s World, our world – known as “Keystone Earth” (a phrase that doesn’t turn up until much later in the series), and the ultimate battle between the Gunslinger and The Man in Black.

Also, the film deviates in its narrative of the story, shifting the main protagonist from Roland the Gunslinger to the teenage Jake Chambers. The film opens and closes on Jake, making this film more of an entry in the YA film world alongside The Hunger Games, the Harry Potter films, and Divergent. Roland is a secondary character in the story – a legendary hero the teenager Jake dreams about.

Here’s Where the Spoilers Are

The movie opens on a compound that looks eerily like the living compounds of YA films like The Giver and the aforementioned Hunger Games. Adult guards that seem almost robotic take children and strap them to Matrix-like chairs and force them to scream, causing blasts to a large Dark Tower, which seems to be in the clouds above them. Then, we cut to an earthquake. Jake Chambers (played by Tom Taylor) awakes to his room shaking. As he goes downstairs to eat breakfast, we learn that there has been a series of earthquakes lately and no one can understand why. His best friend arrives to his NYC apartment to check on him as he eats his cereal. We cut to Jake’s bedroom as he has been drawing pictures of a series of dream sequences featuring the unknown gunslinger hero, the evil Man in Black, and the Dark Tower itself. He also sees a mysterious old house that may contain a way into this other dream world. His mother and stepfather think Jake is delusional and have made arrangements for Jake to stay at an inpatient mental health facility. When the “foot soldiers” of the mental institution arrive, Jake somehow knows they are working for the evil Man in Black from his dreams, and he escapes to find the abandoned old house in Brooklyn. Once inside, Jake finds the portal and uses the password he remembers from his dreams – 19-19. The portal opens and Jake escapes to the dream world known as Mid-World.

Upon arriving in Mid-World, Jake meets the gunslinger Roland Deschain, who is on a quest to find the elusive Man in Black (who had killed Roland’s father years ago). Roland mentions he must stop The Man in Black from destroying the far-off Dark Tower, which holds the fates of all worlds and if it falls, all of those worlds will fall into chaos. We cut to scenes of Walter, the Man in Black, in a New York City headquarters where he is looking for Jake because of Jake’s abilities – referred to as “The Shine” (this is an obvious reference to The Shining). Apparently, kids who have this ability have the mental ability to release screams or some form of telepathy to shoot blasts to the Tower and bit-by-bit, bring it down.

Roland and Jake stumble upon a village that has been invaded by the Man in Black’s…minions? Imperial army? Storm Troopers? and Roland The Gunslinger is their last hope. They open a portal for Jake and Roland to travel to New York City to stop the Man in Black. Roland and Jake arrive to discover the Man in Black has killed Jake’s parents, and Roland trains Jake to use his shine and how to use the guns. The Man in Black shows up to kidnap Jake and Roland is able to stop him and kill him before the strapped-in-the-Matrix Jake can completely destroy the Dark Tower. The Man in Black falls and Roland and Jake leave together for Mid-World where the film ends.

Confused yet?

If that sounds like a rush of confusion, it is. I won’t go into all the ways in which the film differs from the books because there are so many that it’s almost like two completely different stories. The first book of the Dark Tower, titled The Gunslinger, Roland is on the search for The Man in Black, but it remains a mystery throughout the book as to why. There are glimpses into Walter (The Man In Black) as a shape-shifting sorcerer who has tormented Roland since the time of his childhood but again, we are given answers over the build-up of the entire series. In the book series, Roland finds Jake about half-way through the book. Jake has awakened from being struck by a car in 1970’s New York City and into this strange desert world. Roland takes the boy and begins to train him as a gunslinger over the course of the story before the kid falls in the mountains (only to find Roland and a new group of gunslingers-in-training in the third book), and Roland at last confronts the Man in Black, but it is with the purpose to learn what the Dark Tower IS and WHY the Man in Black wants it destroyed.

We learn absolutely NONE of this in the brief movie. The film plays out like a rushed-version of one of the Young Adult films mentioned above, and the ending closes with Walter dead (he remains very much alive throughout the eight book series) and the opening tower-destroying compound destroyed (in the books, this compound is a large city/compound known as Algo Siento and we don’t discover it until the final book). The destruction of the arch villain and the tower-destroying city doesn’t really make sense for possible sequels. It really is almost as if Sony had decided to greenlight the film as long as the entire story was told for less time (and ultimately less money to produce).

What I Liked

I actually thought the casting choices were good. Idris Elba plays the role of Roland almost exactly like the books but is a little softer and more heroic (in the books, Roland makes some very questionable moral decisions throughout). Elba’s Gunslinger would have a lot more room to do more in this story had the filmmaker chosen to let his character lead the film. Matthew McConaughey is good as Walter O’Dim, but far more obvious as a villain you’re supposed to hate from the moment he appears. The book’s Man in Black is indeed capable of murder and we learn that he exists under different names in other Stephen King books like The Stand and others, but Walter/MIB has very serious reasons for wanting the Dark Tower to fall, claiming that all life is doomed from the start, which is fleshed out over much more of the story. Tom Taylor is likable as Jake, but again, there is not nearly enough of a story for Jake’s character to be developed. In the book, Jake is a much more reluctant traveler and gunslinger-in-training who only sticks close to Roland because he is afraid of this strange new world. The film’s Jake has longed to live in Mid-World from the beginning and seems to be up for the adventure from Day One. The film even tries to hint at a young love interest for Jake when they arrive at the village that transports them to New York on “Keystone Earth.”

Throughout the book, there are nods to elements and conversations from all of the books. It’s no secret that The Dark Tower books are connected to almost all of the stories in Stephen King’s universe, and the film makes nods to films like The Shining (mentioned above), IT, and more.

It’s been rumored as the film inched closer to release that Sony had the goal of creating a Dark Tower shared universe, most notably with a greenlit TV series helmed by Nikolaj Arcel that will focus more on the events of Roland’s childhood – the stories told in Book IV (Wizard and Glass) and in the Marvel graphic novel (The Gunslinger Born). This could be promising, but I still don’t know how this short film will introduce the rest of this series with the main tension of the books all but solved in the first 95 minute film. But I have been surprised before.

Ultimately

I don’t know if it’s really possible to tell an epic story like The Dark Tower without condensing a good deal of it to fit even a series of 3 hour films. As audiobooks, the series runs several hundred hours long. Even The Lord of the Rings left a good deal out and changed a number of scenes to make it fit within its 9-hour running time. And there are always book loyalists who will say “There is no way a movie can come close to doing what the book did.” And maybe I am one of those.

I give this film three stars out of five but ONLY because of their casting choices and the interesting special effects. I do hope they will either do more with future sequels – and bring in more beloved characters from the stories like Eddie Dean, Susannah Dean, and Father Callahan. But we will have to wait and see.

Until then,…Impress me, Sony TV series.

My final opinion (and that’s why people pay me, for my opinions on things)

I think a much better use of the rich source material would be to make it a series and let the story unfold in 10 episode seasons on a platform like Netflix or Hulu. Hulu already has one of the books connected to the DT book universe, 11/22/63, so it would make sense to expand into a Dark Tower universe.

OR…let Kevin Feige and the geniuses behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe take the source material and release it on Netflix – not directly connecting it to Marvel’s other Netflix properties (most notably The Defenders which just released), but still maintaining production on it with their own writers and filmmakers – the comics are published by Marvel after all. But given the MCU’s smart marketing strategy and formulas for creating blockbuster hits, they might have done this story a lot more justice.

And… that’s a wrap.

Did you see the film? What were your thoughts?

Leave a comment below!

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