MOVIE REVIEW: The Dark Tower

(Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment via


A sample of professional words that have been used to review and describe Stephen King’s eight-novel The Dark Tower series include “visionary,” “epic,” “magnum opus,” “pure storytelling,” “ambitious,” “expansive mythology,” and, my favorite, “sheer absurdity.”  When it comes to the high-profile film adaptation from Columbia Pictures starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, the only one of those descriptions that rings true is the last one.  The Dark Tower becomes the antonyms of all of the other terms: short, rote, vague, lethargic, and limited. Let's give each one of those a paragraph.

The Dark Tower fashions itself as a spiritual sequel to King’s series more than a condensed retelling of eight volumes of 4,250 pages. That's good because, checking the watch, this is a short 95-minute film with credits. A scant hour-and-a-half could not do eight novels justice, but, even being its own thing, the short time spent cannot ever hope to create a suitable epic either.  McConaughey’s sorcerer Walter o’Dim, better known as “The Man in Black,” longs to destroy a symbolically legendary skyscraping tower that stands between pure evil invading the known worlds of the universe.  Yes, I heard your collective “huh.”  Just wait until you hear how he needs to do it.

The narrative from the four-man screenwriting team, led by box office bomb squad professional Akiva Goldsman, feels like an expensive batch of weak young adult genre tropes we've seen in lesser genre fare.  Prophecies foretell that the energy Walter seeks to power his real estate demolition must come from pure children imbued with the “Shine,” this fictional world’s fancy term for telepathic powers.  The demon’s chief target becomes Jake Chambers (newcomer Tom Taylor), a bullied New York City teen plagued by nightmarish glimpses of the battle occurring beyond Earth.  This is supposed to be a rich dish of Stephen King delicacies, not a rote fruit roll-up fit for a teenybopper’s lunch box.  An R-rating could have perked things up as well from feeling like a cornucopia of bad YA film offerings from the past decade.

Mixed in those tropes is a hodgepodge of cues and clues to a greater pre-existing mythology that one would suspect to be powerful and important.  The valiant champion of this best-selling folklore is Elba’s Roland Deschain, identified by most as “The Gunslinger.”  Brandishing a pair of 1858 .45 Long Colt Remington revolvers forged from a melted-down Excalibur, Roland is the last of an ancient line of defense against The Man in Black.  Unexplained symbolism is all over the place. Vague talk and imagery spanning Inigo Montoya-like codas, interworld portals, a Crimson King to be wary of, Green Lantern-level spoken creeds, and even the titular universe-protecting monolith itself all lack sufficient formulation and exposition.  

The performance delivery of The Dark Tower is incredibly lethargic. Idris Elba is an effective man-of-few-words straight out of the western motif of his character’s inspiration, but it would be straining to call effective engaging to the next level. Matthew McConaughey, inspired casting on paper to play a slithering villain, never seems higher than the timbre and tone of his Lincoln television commercials. Both main stars feel muzzled by the weak material. Both count as missed opportunities to really uncork something majestically evil or stoically heroic. No one behind them in the ensemble can fill in the missing pathos and mythos. I'm not saying you need a Michael Caine or Morgan Freeman type spewing anecdotes and exposition, but a boosting layer is sorely missing.

Even with a sizable $60 million checkbook, the production leans on a menu of unoriginal derivatives the same way the narrative does with the YA tropes. Painting fancy special effects on inexplicable details doesn't make them cooler. It just makes them more incoherent. Clever revolver reloading tricks of The Gunslinger are a minor hoot but are met with Wanted-level slow-motion bullet path play that becomes ho-hum.  The creative ambition comes across so limited in overall effort.  One has to wonder how much talent was wasted from Oscar-nominated director Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair) making his American debut.  

Add all of The Dark Tower up, the ineffective length, the nonsensical plot, threadbare mythology, leashed acting, and limited thrills, and you get the lowest sum of calculations. You get the sheer absurdity we started with.  I'm sure it's all meant to be substantial and worthy of audience investment, but how is any of it supposed to give us gravity to grasp if it's all presented in such a cursory degree?  This same critical flaw brought down Warcraft last summer.  What is very important to some is gobbledygook to everyone else unless excellent storytelling fleshes the lore out to welcome new audiences and honor the source material.

LESSON #1: DON’T FORGET THE FACE OF YOUR FATHER-- According to Stephen King and the repetitious mantra of The Gunslinger, you best remember the mug of your papa, daddy, padre, or progenitor or else be deemed a completely unworthy person.  Head over to the Pinterest boards for your “any man can be a father, but it takes a real man to be a dad” plaques and posters.  Somewhere, Michael Rooker’s Yondu from Guardians of the Galaxy is smiling from ear to ear.

LESSON #2: MIND OVER BODY-- Though the “Shine” reeks of being ripped from the pages of X-Men comics, the courageous strength of the protagonists and the imposing power of the antagonists of The Dark Tower both thrive from mental fortitude commanding over physical dominance.  Trust those dreams and exercise your brain.  Well, that is unless you have two big-ass loud guns that can kill people.  Hey, wait a second...  

LESSON #3: GUNS DON’T KILL PEOPLE, HEARTS KILL PEOPLE-- The third verse of that mantra reads “I do not kill with my gun; he who kills with his gun has forgotten the face of his father. I kill with my heart.”  Gasp and WTF?!  I’m sure that defense will hold up in court.  Can you tell yet how tacky and silly this all is (the review and the film)?  Please do.