Drama, Fantasy, Gunslinger, Idris Elba, Literary adaptation, Matthew McConaughey, Nikolaj Arcel, Review, Roland Deschain, Stephen King, The Man in Black, Tom Taylor
D: Nikolaj Arcel / 95m
Cast: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Dennis Haysbert, Jackie Earle Haley, Claudia Kim, Fran Kranz, Abbey Lee, Katheryn Winnick
Problems, problems, problems…
It’s taken eleven years for an adaptation of Stephen King’s magnum opus, The Dark Tower, to reach our screens, and now that it’s here, it’s not even an adaptation of King’s work. Instead it’s an approximation of King’s tale, a clumsy reshaping of a story that had the potential to be one of the most impressive fantasy series ever made. You could argue that King has been spectacularly hard done by over the years when it comes to adaptations of his novels, what with the likes of Dreamcatcher (2003), Cell (2016), and über-awful The Mangler (1995) proving that King’s fertile imagination doesn’t always translate well to the screen. What’s also noticeable is that over the years the quality of adaptations has dwindled to the point where a movie or TV version of a King novel or short story evokes dispassion and/or protracted bouts of ennui rather than enthusiasm. Take for example 11.22.63 (2016), a TV mini-series based on one of King’s more well received recent novels. Who remembers it now?
The Dark Tower, though, should have been another matter altogether. It should have raised the bar for big screen fantasy movies. But instead of a movie to herald in a series replete with narrative complexity, flawed yet fascinating characters, high stakes adventure, a carefully constructed yet organic mythology, and pursuing elements of fate and predestination, we have a hodgepodge of ideas and a crude collage of scenes from the books as a whole, all stitched together with little or no concern as to how it all looks as a final product. Stories of post-production problems have been rife, with an early cut of the movie being greeted with the kind of dismay that leads to producers considering replacing their director. And that’s without reshoots designed to provide more backstory about the rivalry between Idris Elba’s vengeful gunslinger, Roland Deschain, and Matthew McConaughey’s evil predator in black, Walter Padick. It doesn’t take much to wonder why such a backstory wasn’t thought out and shot originally, but it does point to the terrible ineptitude that appears to have been prevalent throughout.
Problems, problems, problems…
Watching the movie itself, there is one immediate flaw that shows that director Arcel, his co-writers Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and the producers weren’t paying attention to the structure or the set up of King’s novels at all. That flaw is the decision to make Roland a supporting character. When the main character who drives an eight-volume saga is reduced to playing second fiddle to a pre-teen, then you know that something is terribly, dreadfully wrong. Whether or not this was an attempt to broaden the movie’s chances at the box office is hard to decipher, but when a movie gets something this fundamentally wrong, then there’s little hope for the rest of it. The quest for the Dark Tower is Roland’s quest, and to play down this really quite important aspect of King’s novels is to show no understanding of the story at all. And then there’s the ending…
Perhaps it was too much to ask that The Dark Tower would turn out to be all that it could be. After all, if movie makers of the calibre of JJ Abrams and Ron Howard couldn’t make it work, whether as a series of movies, or a mix of movies and TV series, then what confidence could anyone have in this particular incarnation? With its budget of $60 million, and a running time of ninety-five minutes, how do you build another world that exists alongside our own? The answer, as anyone who’s seen the movie knows, is easy: you don’t. Aside from some impressive desert vistas, and a couple of sequences set in Mid-World, the movie remains firmly rooted in New York, keeping its characters there for long periods and managing the expectations of fans by ignoring them altogether.
Problems, problems, problems…
With the makers unsure of just what exactly they want to do with the material at their disposal, the movie itself struggles to make any sense or provide any depth. This is a dreadfully flat, unnecessarily dry “adaptation” that skips over any attempts at character development, keeps exposition to a minimum, and favours action scenes that seem content to showcase the various ways that Roland can reload his guns instead of making them exciting to watch. As Roland, Elba has no choice but to ramp up the sincerity and make the gunslinger as taciturn as possible. That he gives a good performance is more of a tribute to his skill as an actor than any skill possessed by the writers, and even though he’s burdened by the kind of trite, clichéd dialogue that most actors would fail to overcome, Elba makes the best of moments such as when he’s called upon to recite the most long-winded, and excruciating, mantra in movie history (it begins with, “I do not shoot with my hand”). Opposite him is McConaughey, an actor who has surpassed everybody’s expectations (except possibly his own) in recent years, but here all he does is remind us that when he’s not working with a strong-minded director who’ll keep him in line, his performance will suffer. Here he gives us a caricature of a villain, and a pantomime one at that.
Taylor as Jake lacks presence, and the likes of Haley, Kim and Haysbert are given too little to do to make an impact. There’s too much jumping through portals, too many moments where the script trips itself up (bullets are supposed to be scarce in Mid-World but Roland never runs out), and too many references to characters and places in other King novels (prizes though for spotting a shop called Barlow and Straker’s). As it’s unlikely that The Dark Tower will be successful enough to warrant any further adventures that aren’t based on King’s original novels, all these references feel like gratuitous easter eggs rather than attempts to (subtly) build on the notion that there are worlds next to worlds, and there are more connections than even Roland or Jake are aware of. It’s another example of Arcel and co. lacking the insight into the material to make it work more effectively, making the movie a shoddy, ill-lit, tension-free exercise in damage limitation.
Rating: 4/10 – professionally made at least, but lacking energy and conviction, The Dark Tower is a dramatically sprawling yet visually restrained fantasy action movie that won’t interest fans of the novels, or win over viewers who have no connection to them at all; Arcel exerts very little control over the material, and what few glimpses there are of what could have been, only add to the disappointment and the horror of what’s been done with the source material – literally nothing.
So sad how this one ended up mate, could’ve been something really special!
Oh mate, you’re not wrong! And what makes it worse, is that King was heavily involved in the production and had veto approval over almost every aspect of it. Seems to me King has forgotten the face of his father!
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Wow thats very sad to hear. I hope we get another better version of this series and heres hoping IT is a better King film.
Dan O. said:
Just a mess of a movie. Nice review.
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