The Dark Tower (2017)

AUGUST 3, 2017


If there's one benefit to my depressing lack of free time, it's that it leaves next to zero opportunities to revisit even a movie that I love, let alone a book. And so while I consider Stephen King's series of Dark Tower novels to be among my favorites of the form, I've only read them once, over a span from roughly 2001-2005 (and I still haven't gotten around to the 8th entry, The Wind Through The Keyhole). And - as memorably/ridiculously depicted in King's own Dreamcatcher - the more stuff I take in, the more I have to unwittingly purge from my memory, which means keeping recollections of the stuff I watched last month resulted in my memories of those books (especially the first ones) being reduced to almost nothing. Long story short, if the movie version of The Dark Tower left me cold or angry, it wouldn't be because they changed the name of a supporting character or skipped over a subplot, because I can't remember those things anyway - it'd just be because it wasn't a good movie.

...The Dark Tower isn't a good movie.

Let's get the positives out of the way. Idris Elba has been a magnetic screen presence for quite some time now (I never watched The Wire; my introduction was as Hillary Swank's partner in the OK but largely forgettable The Reaping, and even that thankless role was enough to know he was someone to watch) and he was a fantastic choice to play Roland. I mean he's a fantastic choice to play pretty much anyone (a compliment I rarely bestow on an actor; incidentally one of the few others is Ed Harris, who was my dream choice for the character when I first read the book, but obviously that was nearly 20 years ago and now he's probably "too old" for a studio), but his particular skill at commanding your attention is invaluable here, in a movie that races past things like "character development" or even "introductions". Even someone who had never read the books or even heard of Elba before would likely know he was going to save the world the second he appeared on screen, so his casting paid off in multiple ways.

And... well I guess that's it. I mean I guess I can talk more about Elba, like how gets to show off his rarely utilized comedic chops in a few scenes when his character enters "Keystone" (read: our) Earth, being confused that animals "still" talked (off a commercial featuring talking raccoons) and offering a coin to the ER nurse who rattles off his list of ailments. But honestly, no one beyond racist assholes thought Elba would be to blame if the movie didn't work, and it's a waste of typing breath to point out that he's the main reason the movie has any value at all. I wish I could say the same about Dennis Haysbert, who plays Roland's father Steven, but if you've seen the trailer you've already seen a good chunk of his appearance (he's only in that one scene) and the movie doesn't firmly establish that it's his father until Jake says so later, rendering their scene a total misfire unless you know who the character (never introduced by name; someone said he does indeed say "son" at some point but I didn't catch it) is and what significance he has to the storyline. Given that the actors are only 18 years apart in age (and Haysbert has aged well, so they don't even look that far apart), and the character in the books died when Roland was fairly young, I myself wasn't even sure if it was supposed to be his dad or just some friend of his - can't imagine what a newcomer would think.

In fact, that's largely the entire problem with the movie: it bends over backwards to not be impenetrable to newcomers, and yet it still pretty much is, because nothing is clarified or given any weight. It's only my spotty memories of the books that allowed me to keep up at times; for example at one point Matthew McConaughey (as the Man in Black) picks up one of the fabled colored spheres from the books (collectively known as Maerlyn's Rainbow) and uses it, but at no point are their function explained (let alone his quest to obtain them). He just picks one up and does magic-y shit and Joe Moviegoer is, I guess, expected to just assume he has different colored ones because he likes to mix it up a bit. Now, if they have a different concept for the spheres in this version of the story, that's fine - but tell us what that is! I shouldn't have to be filling in blanks myself, especially when they've established how much different this version is from the novels.

Before I go further I should stress that changing things from the novel is not something that angers me, as long as it's done right. As Quint from AintitCool pointed out, if Spielberg made Jaws exactly like the book it would not be the masterpiece film that it is, and I find a number of adaptations flounder the more they try to cram in every single line/character just to appease fans, rather than do what works for a movie. Even if I knew the book inside and out I wouldn't care that they were "remixing" it; if anything I'd be happy about it because it would allow me to be surprised at its developments. The Walking Dead takes the right approach, I think - they use the comics as a very loose road map ("OK, time for Negan to show up") but the specifics all change, allowing comics readers to be surprised when, say, Andrea dies on the show when she was still alive in the comic that was further ahead.

So, again, my issues with the film are not because they changed things - but that I was never sure if the blanks I was filling in still applied. If this version of Man in Black killed Jake's mom and stepdad (his real father is dead and not a business tycoon, another book change), was he still involved in Roland's mother's demise? Could that be something that Roland and Jake bond about? Well who knows, as Roland's mother isn't mentioned - but that's the kind of thing I kept wrestling with throughout the movie, while also wondering if a non-reader could even understand the Man in Black's importance beyond "Well it's Matthew McConaughey and he dresses in black so he must be the villain." The film offers him no real introduction; we first see him in a quick, wordless shot watching some other unexplained events in an opening scene, and his quest to kidnap gifted children to help destroy the titular tower is hastily explained at best. Jake plays zero role in the final battle since he's tied to a chair, so there's no arc or revenge to the whole "dead parents" subplot, beyond (spoiler) making it OK for Jake to stick with Roland at the end instead of going home to his mother. It's not the worst idea to make Jake the central character and let us see the story from his eyes, but doing so robs both Roland and The Man in Black of the time that should be spent explaining who they are, why they are enemies, etc. When they show up, it's really only our attachment to the actors that gives them the weight they deserve.

Another huge problem is that they fail to establish Mid-World as the strange and vast wonder we've come to know from the books, and to a non-reader audience it will just look like some generic post-apocalyptic desert world. The movie is only 95 minutes with credits (so, really probably under 90) and a big chunk is set in New York, so there's not a lot of time spent in Mid-World anyway, but what we see isn't exactly impressive. A decaying amusement park, a little outpost with huts/tents, and one isolated city that reminded me of New Otherton from Lost is pretty much all we see of it, and no one seems to be taken aback when they travel from their native world to the other. Roland has some brief fish out of water moments when he goes to New York, but the Man in Black seems pretty much right at home when he goes there, and Jake has literally no reaction when he goes from Earth to Mid-World. For an epic fantasy, the movie is totally lacking in anything that inspires awe; Roland looking around New York has more gravitas than anything else, and we've seen Times Square a million times.

Frustratingly, the filmmakers skip over all of this stuff, but go out of their way to shoehorn in references to other Stephen King books. For the uninitiated, most of King's books share a universe not unlike the Marvel films, and the Dark Tower series is the backbone of that continuity. So it makes sense that they'd throw in a few nods, but most of them are just completely extraneous and downright insulting when you consider everything from THIS story that got excised. Cujo walking by is a fine little gag, and Jake's sensory powers referred to as "the shine" is acceptable, but why the hell would a 15 year old kid have a toy car (i.e. Christine) in his room? Why would a New York gun shop have a Rita Hayworth poster? I wish I was there when a prop guy was told to make a sign saying "Barlow & Straker's" in a movie that can't bother to include the rose in any meaningful way. Due to studio rights these things aren't going to pop up in sequels (if it gets any, which is doubtful), so I am baffled that they went out of their way to sneak in all of these references instead of focusing on the story they were actually telling.

I realized later that the movie felt like it was on 1.5x speed. It's got all of the elements and beats for a successful story, but it races through them so quickly that nothing really registers. Roland doesn't want Jake around at first, doing the whole "Leave me alone kid, I have a mission and you'll slow me down" kinda thing that we've seen in 80,000 other movies. Watching them bond over the course of the film might not be original, but it would at least be enjoyable... if he wasn't being a father figure like, seven minutes later. He flat out HUGS the kid roughly thirty minutes of screentime after they meet, which might work if those thirty minutes focused only on them and no one else, but in that period we cut to McConaughey a few times (he's in the movie way more than he should be; he actually gets top billing for the crawl), some folks in the town they visit, etc. Ditto for the villainous plan - it's all explained, but in bursts of exposition that fly by so fast you're not sure if they're important or if it's just filler dialogue before the real meat of the conversation begins. At one point I checked my watch not because I was bored, but because I had to verify that the movie really was almost over as it seemed to be based on where the story was headed, because it actually seems to go by faster than the brief runtime already had me prepping for. When it ended my initial feeling was "That's it?", which in some ways is worse than "Jesus what a disaster!" or even "Worst movie ever made!", because at least that would be memorable.

The saddest thing is that I knew it was doomed right from the second it began. Even the most casual fan of the series would probably remember "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed..." as the opening line and sort of rallying cry, and would expect it to be the first line in the movie. Even if they changed everything else, you'd think they'd get that much right. But no, it kicks off with gibberish exposition via text crawl (never a good sign), and the "man in black fled..." line appears later, tossed in at random just to appease fans I guess (I'm not sure if we ever see the Man in Black in the desert at all, let alone fleeing). So I knew right away to drop my fanboy appreciation for the novels and just let the movie take me where it wanted to go for this particular incarnation. Alas, it didn't take me anywhere; it just raced through a bunch of half-assed moments from the books, staged with almost zero energy (you've seen every cool action moment, trust me), and stopped to throw in a King-related Easter Egg every five minutes, most of which are from novels that got turned into far better movies than this. A crushing disappointment no matter how you slice it.

What say you?

P.S. No, it's not horror, but my other site has covered the movie plenty and I hadn't updated for a while, so you get a bonus "non-horror" review. Ironically one of its only decent scenes involves a monster, though.


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