The Dark Tower isn’t really a movie for people who’ve never read Stephen King’s Dark Tower books. It hardly bothers to serve up any exposition, so newbies are thrown right into the deep end of its convoluted mythology.
But it’s probably not for people who have read the books, either. The movie version is disappointingly lacking in the magic of King’s novels. (The metaphorical, literary kind of magic, I mean there’s still plenty of magic in the plot, which the characters talk about constantly.)
It’s a shame, because The Dark Tower sounds so intriguingly wild on paper. The source material is King’s sprawling magnum opus, and while the movie necessarily narrows its focus to a few key characters and conflicts, we’re still left with demons and monsters and portals that transport our characters into other worlds.
At the very least, it could’ve been a Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets or a Jupiter Ascending or a Winter’s Tale one of those fantasies that may not work for everyone, but swings so big that even its misses are kind of admirable.
Why, then, is The Dark Tower so dreadfully dull?
1. There are no stakes.
Or rather, there are very big stakes universe-destroying stakes, with the requisite CG sky portal and everything but no reason to care about them.
The Dark Tower hits the ground running, opening on an eerie sequence of children being tormented in some kind of dystopia. From there, we’re off to the story of Jake (Tom Taylor), a young boy plagued by strange visions, and then from there, to other worlds entirely.
We don’t really get to explore any of these worlds; even the one that’s supposed to be our own is just a generic movie version of “New York City.” Likewise, the characters spend so much time doing stuff that we barely get a chance to get to know them or care about them. So what if this world ends and all these people die? What do we care? Especially when we know that there’s no way in hell this movie ends that way anyway?
2. The mythology makes no damn sense.
It’s clear there’s supposed to be something rich and complicated here. There are allusions to King Arthur and golden days of yore and alternate-timeline dystopian futures. Or something like that, anyway. It’s hard to be sure because this movie keeps tossing off intriguing tidbits and then just … letting them hang there.
Which … fine. Maybe those are just Easter eggs intended to set up future films. (Of which there probably won’t be any, because it’s hard to imagine this Dark Tower making very much money. But I digress.)
But The Dark Tower doesn’t really do a good job of explaining any of the mythology we’re looking at here, either. Why is this character so special, or that character so driven to do something so difficult? Does that character have superpowers, and if so, why do they only seem to remember they have those powers when it’s convenient for the narrative? What actually happens if the Dark Tower falls?
The effect is akin to listening to someone describe a dream they had last night it’s full of sloppy and-then-this-happeneds and oh-right-did-I-forget-to-mentions. It’s just as difficult to follow, and almost as boring.
3. It looks made-for-TV-movie cheap.
And I don’t mean “TV” in like the premium-cable sense. The Dark Tower looks like it was written with a certain budget in mind, and forced to whittle itself down to a fraction of the cost. The CG is laughable, and the sets ugly. For all the world-hopping, the scope feels terribly small, as if zooming out by even a few feet would reveal we were just looking at a painted backdrop on a stage.
Granted, you don’t need a blockbuster budget to create thrilling action. But director Nikolaj Arcel and his team aren’t artful enough to make the most of what they have. There’s a lot of shooting and jumping and running around, but it’s all choreographed and shot indifferently. Even the sets and costumes offer nothing distinctive. If you told me they’d been borrowed from other productions, I’d believe you.
The CG is laughable
Compounding the problem are a handful of awkward scenes that were clearly added in reshoots. Actor Tom Taylor looks and sounds noticeably older in some scenes than he does in others. Still other scenes use bizarre blocking to try and work around the painfully obvious fact that the dialogue was changed in post-production.
4. The characters are total wasted opportunities.
That stinginess unfortunately extends to the characters, despite the fact that two of the three leads are played by world-famous movie stars. Matthew McConaughey tries like hell to inject some of his oily charisma into his devilish character, and it almost works from time to time. Idris Elba’s not given much to do but frown intensely, but fortunately he’s very good at frowning intensely.
Poor Tom Taylor, though, looks absolutely adrift as young Jake Chambers. At least McConaughey and Elba are seasoned actors used to making the best of bad parts, and at least their characters draw upon familiar stock types. Taylor strains to make anything about Jake come to life, but the script gives him little to work with.
The thin characterizations might have been mitigated by livelier dialogue think of how the Avengers trade Whedonesque witticisms even in the heat of battle, and how much warmer those scenes feel as a result. But there’s no poetry or personality in any of these words. After watching the entire movie, I still can’t come up with a single word to describe Jake.
5. That said, it’s not all terrible.
Now that I’ve told you everything that didn’t work about The Dark Tower, let’s talk about a few things that did.
For starters, it runs a slim 95 minutes. That’s 95 minutes that feel like 150 minutes, thanks to all the problems I mentioned above. But if you’re determined to check it out and wind up hating it, well, at least it won’t take up that much of your time.
Second, there are occasional flashes of the much better movie this might have been. That King Arthur reference opens up a whole bunch of questions that I wished the movie had had time to explore, and one of the best sets is an ancient, ruined amusement park that made me eager to explore whatever had happened there.
Finally, there is one scene in this movie that is actually, totally, no-qualifications-necessary wonderful, involving Roland’s visit to a world he doesn’t understand “Keystone Earth,” aka our reality. It’s so sweet and enjoyable that it makes me wish The Dark Tower had scrapped all that end-of-the-world stuff entirely and instead just been a fish-out-of-water buddy comedy about a troubled young kid and his gruff friend from another world.