Starring: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Running Time: 94 mins
Synopsis: Young Jake (Taylor) finds himself having repeated nightmares about a mysterious world, in which a lone Gunslinger (Elba) and the evil Man in Black (McConaughey) are locked in a endless fight over the titular Tower. When the battle crosses over to our world Jake realises that he is the key to the Man in Black’s world-destroying endgame.
Hollywood has always had a bit of a hard-on for Stephen King. It’s not hard to see why, his adept melding of distinct genres, his keen grasp of character and evocative use of setting are catnip for directors, not to mention the built in recognition of his name is a boon to hungry studio executives. In having so many adaptations it is inevitable that quality has ranged from Shawshank Redemption brilliant to Dreamcatcher awful. The Dark Tower, however, could be no mere adaptation. King’s magnum 8 novel opus had to be something grander, deeper, epic. A genre spanning tale of mystical sorcerers, ancient battles, multiple worlds and a mythology one film could not contain. Franchise loving Hollywood could not control itself in attempting to bring it to the screen. Decades passed, writers and directors came and went, productions started and stopped at such pace that the creation of this could’ve inspired an 8-novel saga of its own.
It took Akiva Goldsman (a writer not known for his subtlety), alongside 3(!) other writers and Danish director Nikolaj Arcel to finally crack the nut, with the results being frustratingly serviceable. You can see the kernel of a great idea at work, in trying to find a way in to this immense saga they elect to tackle it through the eyes of young Jake. Living on Earth but plagued with visions of towers, sorcerers and the mystical Mid-World, he believes them to be real, the rest see him as a bit of a nut. It makes sense that to introduce a new universe to a largely unfamiliar audience that we would need a surrogate of sorts. Jake fits that bill, allowing us to get answers to questions he conveniently asks. However I must confess to being a tad against the use of visions in films. Yes they play a key role in this plot but ultimately they are a lazy storytelling shortcut. A means to deliver a ton of expositional material and get characters from point A to point B far more efficiently than them discovering things naturally through the plot.
In a move of staggering stupidity, the creative team deemed it necessary to cram all this material and introduce such an epic saga within 95 mins! I’m not entirely sure what drove this decision, maybe an impatient need to kick off a franchise (a spin-off TV show is apparently also in the works) or a fear of the sheer density of the material. All I know is that this choice dramatically stifles the film. No sooner have we been introduced to Jake, then we are thrust into Mid-World via a ridiculously brief battle with a house demon. Before we meet Idris Elba’s Gunslinger. The last of his kind, sworn to protect the titular tower which protects the universe from outside monstrous forces, or something to that effect. It is all glossed over so quick that the gravity of their situation is never truly felt. At least Elba delivers a performance of stern coolness. He manages to bring some desperately needed heart into proceedings, having witnessed the death of his father at the hands of The Man in Black, and subsequently driven to seek vengeance. Elba’s chemistry with Tom Taylor’s Jake is also solid, sketching out a fatherly bond in efficient strokes. Taylor is no revelation but handles some of the harder emotions with a moving core.
Elba is equally matched with a formidably evil performance by McConaughey. Cutting loose portraying a being with rather hazy powers, and delivering scenes of palpable menace even if his plan manages to be both simplistic and wishy washy at the same time. He wants to destroy the tower to unleash the demonic horde it helps to hold back, but have little idea as to why he wants to do this or where he comes from. Once again these are all details that could have been fleshed out if the filmmakers were willing to dedicate more time to them. It’s inevitable such mysteries will be drawn in in further instalments but that does not make for good storytelling, or a satisfying movie.
This is all a shame as there are so many decent aspects at work here. As mentioned the performances are committed with the visuals offering up the occasional vibrant imagery. Although the predominate palate is one of dull greyness. Parts of the world really stick in the mind too, from the rat creatures that creepily cover themselves in ill-fitting human skin to the Gunslingers particularly cool technique of reloading, there is so much of the world you’d gladly want to see more of. Action sequences are nothing special with the final battle shootout the only one close to halfway memorable, despite the fact that it feels a tad undercooked to be a big finale moment. For all these positives though I’d challenge anyone to truly remember this come the next day, as it stands I’ve found this review tough to write primarily due to the projects’ inherent blandness. In the spectrum of King adaptations this sits in the lower third, by no means a Dreamcatcher style turd but as a live action telling years in the making with the pressure of being King’s defining achievement The Dark Tower is disappointingly workmanlike.
Verdict: Despite spirited performances from Elba and McConaughey The Dark Tower is painfully neutered by a scant running time, glossing over the cooler more intriguing aspects of its unique universe.