Review: 'The Dark Tower' Lacks Commitment To Stephen King's Epic

I don't consider myself a huge Stephen King fan, but I do follow his work and respect it. I respect it because of one thing: commitment. King's commitment to genre, to the incredible worlds he imagines, to his characters. He shows such commitment that the wild concepts he dreams up have become an integral part of our pop culture language, whether he's working with Westerns, sci-fi, fantasy, or horror. And The Dark Tower is an especially vital example of his commitment, spanning eight massive books over roughly thirty years.

I'm not sure there's the same level of commitment to The Dark Tower as a feature film, and that will be disappointing news to a legion of fans who have been waiting for this for a long time. In the works for years, and once projected to be an expansive multimedia franchise on the big and small screen, director Nikolaj Arcel's version of King's magnum opus is slight, a skin 'n bones adaptation that teases a greater mythology but depicts little of it. It will feel frustratingly thin to the series' hardcore readers who recognize everything that is missing. To those new to The Dark Tower it will simply be a passable fantasy adventure with potential for so much more.

Presented as a "sequel" to events seen in King's novels, The Dark Tower begins by telling us that the universe is connected; held together by....the dark tower. Uh, okay. If it falls, so does all of reality. The evil Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) hopes to see it fall, and uses the psionic powers of children, their "shine", to attack it. These attacks cause earthquakes on our planet, but only young Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) knows the truth. He's been having visions of Walter, aka The Man in Black, as well as his enemy, the Gunslinger Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), but of course nobody believes him.

So what's the deal with the Gunslingers? Why is Walter hellbent on destroying the Tower? What's up with the "shine" and where does it come from? Why does Walter surround himself with an army of tech nerds with fake, sewn-on skins? The answers to some of these questions will be answered, but most won't be. And those that are will be breezed through so quickly it'll make your head spin. For instance, the Gunslingers are an order protectors, similar to the Knights of the Roundtable, who are sworn to protect the Tower. Almost in passing, practically a throwaway line, we learn that their weapons are forged out of the sword Excalibur. Well, that would be neat to learn more about, wouldn't it? Don't hold your breath.

So much of The Dark Tower passes by this way. It jumps from scene to scene and moment to moment at such a rate that you can't take in what's going on. The universe never gets a chance to settle into your mind and ignite the imagination. Jake eventually stumbles into a portal leading to Mid-World, where he encounters Roland for the first time. After proving they were meant to find one another, Jake joins Roland on his quest to defeat Walter. Their journey tantalizes us with the prospect of a shared King universe. References to his other works are littered about, whether it's a portal marked "1408", a toy car resembling Christine, and even Pennywise the Clown, but none of it seems to have a tangible impact on the story. How and why are these worlds connected, and what do they have to do with The Man in Black's mission to end everything? Pfft, y'got me.

Production-wise, you can tell that Arcel, making his first blockbuster film after his Oscar-nominated A Royal Affair, was constrained by the $70M budget. Granted, that's a lot of money for just about any other movie, but not for The Dark Tower which combines multiple genres, includes monsters, magic, future timelines, and more. The result is a fairly bland landscape with forgettable creatures and costumes, with the exception of the Gunslinger's cowboy-inspired gear which looks incredibly cool. At least it does on Elba; I'm not convinced it would work on anybody else.

Speaking of which, Elba is one aspect The Dark Tower gets very right. He's perfect as the stoic, paranoid, and battle-weary Roland. Tom Taylor does a good job in the scenes he shares with Elba. The bond they forge is believable and genuine, a credit to both actors considering how little time they get to share in the film's condensed 90-minute runtime. McConaughey is also the right fit for The Man in Black, when allowed to chew scenery and provide the proper amount of menace. The problem is Walter is left too undefined. He's an all-powerful sorcerer and the personification of evil, and while he leaves his share of bodies in his wake, ultimately he doesn't seem so tough. And we are never meant to understand why he's doing the things he's doing, which makes Roland's mission one giant question mark.

Stories have broken recently about the many problems The Dark Tower faced in production, including the studios' near-dismissal of Arcel as the director. While he's in part to blame for how mediocre the film is, I believe the biggest problem was in the chosen approach. They tried to be cute and get around the enormity of King's story, all while cutting corners to do it. That's simply never going to work, not with The Dark Tower where the details, and commitment to those details, means everything.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5