Despite an intriguing premise, two terrific leads, rich source material, and a decade of development, the film adaptation of The Dark Tower is an utter slog. It’s a shame too – with a TV series and sequel in the works, this could have been a captivating introduction to Stephen King’s most intricate world. Perhaps a better incarnation remains to be seen, but certainly not in 2017.
It’s undeniable that no one author has had a stronger impact on film than Stephen King. With over 60 books to his name, King has inspired an immense range of content to hit the screen. From hacks to master-class directors, King’s works have influenced everything from 1990’s Graveyard Shift to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. While he’s known for horror, several stellar dramas including Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption are based on his writings as well.
Out of every story he has crafted, The Dark Tower remains King’s most ambitious undertaking. Incorporating elements of fantasy, western, science fiction and horror, the eight-book series draws from Tolkien and medieval literature to construct a colossal multiverse that connects with King’s earlier works including Carrie, It, and The Mist. With such an expansive mythos boasting the ability to link with iconic films, a film adaptation of The Dark Tower has no shortage of potential.
Hollywood has been well-aware of the property’s value, too, having struggled to bring The Dark Tower to cineplexes since 2007. LOST’s J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof were the first to begin development on the film, though they eventually walked away out of respect and intimidation from the material. This led to Ron Howard shepherding the work, eventually backing away from the director role as the project found difficulty courting a major studio due to budgetary concerns.
Sony finally invested in the project, tasking Akiva Goldsman and Fringe’s Jeff Pinkner with reworking the script, and fielding directorial duties to the Danish Nikolaj Arcel. Now that The Dark Tower has finally arrived to theaters after years of botched efforts, the shoddy final product wreaks of prolonged development rushed into completion. By endeavoring to trim a mammoth premise to a 95-minute feature, this Stephen King adaptation simplifies the content to the point of hollow desolation.
In this rendition of The Dark Tower, child actor Tom Taylor portrays Jake Chambers, a boy experiencing psychic powers after his father’s death in a car crash. He sees visions of a tower, a gunslinger, and a man in black. Jake discovers a portal that transports him to another dimension, where he meets the gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba). Jake then learns that the man in black (Matthew McConaughey) is kidnapping psychic children like himself to destroy the Dark Tower, a fortress holding the universes together, and he has the power to stop him.
With a complex world so fatally constrained, newcomers to the franchise will be alienated, while fans of the series will feel cheated. This adaptation still evokes the handiwork of Abrams and Lindelof, hinting at a complicated package of mysteries, but failing to reel the viewer in. With involvement from Jeff Pinkner, who has experience with alternate dimensions in Fringe, you would expect better, yet somehow the result of all this potential is bafflingly stale.
A case such as this demonstrates how mystery storytelling is an art all its own, as the lack of intrigue harshly cripples the appeal of the film. Nearly all of The Dark Tower’s supernatural and sci-fi elements are exposed in its opening scenes, leaving very little to explore, and the intentions of the major players are laid bare in the early stages. With only minor details left for the viewer to understand, their lack of importance lessens your motivation to do so, culminating in a bizarrely clear, yet confusing experience.
While Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey are typically exceptional, a lackluster script inhibits their ability to shine. The gloomy depiction of Roland renders Elba perpetually brooding and dull, and a simplistic imagining of the Man in Black smothers McConaughey’s usual nuance. With characters that fail to pop in a dense, yet uninteresting world, it doesn’t help that the tone is excessively grim. When Roland visits New York, there are some attempts at fish-out-of-water laughs, but these fall embarrassingly flat.
Even with dreadful reviews, The Dark Tower managed to lead the box office this weekend, although the numbers are the lowest they’ve been for the first weekend in August for years. The Dark Tower put me to sleep, but time will tell if audience response will be enough for the franchise’s planned TV series to materialize. If it is, let’s pray the concept sees a creative overhaul, because Nikolaj Arcel’s take on the Stephen King novels is hopelessly vapid and forgettable.
THE DARK TOWER
Columbia Pictures, MRC, Imagine Entertainment, Weed Road.
Directed by Nikolaj Arcel.
Written by Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen and Nikolaj Arcel.
Starring Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Claudia Kim, Fran Kranz, Abbey Lee and Jackie Earle Haley.
Released August 4, 2017.