Stephen King is one of the most-adapted writers to the big (and small) screen in history. Although there are some exceptions – The Shawshank Redemption, for one – there is a general feeling among King fans that their favorite writer simply doesn’t adapt well to the movies. The funny thing there is that good, bad or indifferent, most King adaptations have tended to stay fairly close to King’s plots.
Oddly, The Dark Tower starts out by more or less tossing the first book in King’s series right out the window. The credits list four writers, which includes director Nikolaj Arcel himself, and more writers do not generally make for merrier results in Hollywood. They certainly don’t here.
Reportedly, King’s inspiration for the Dark Tower series was largely Tolkien and the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone. The Dark Tower unspools with unwelcome familiarity like outtakes from the X-Men movies, climaxing in a spectacularly generic shoot ’em up. The movie adaptation shows little sign that the filmmakers have actually seen The Lord of the Rings movies or Leone’s classic Man With No Name trilogy, other than the fact that star Idris Elba appears to be trying to channel Clint Eastwood. Eastwood’s understated delivery in the Man With No Name movies made him look like a better actor than he actually was and turned him into an international star. Elba is a fine actor with electric star presence and the approach simply makes him look like he’s sleep-acting.
Elba plays the gunslinger Roland, whose name is supposed to evoke mythic overtones, although he’s mainly an overqualified babysitter for Jake (Tom Taylor), a 14-year-old with psychic powers (he shines, as in The Shining, one of many allusions to King’s works). Has anyone ever questioned why it always has to be a kid in this position? This tired cliché goes back to Masters of the Universe ( a movie The Dark Tower resembles way too much) at least. Besides, why can’t the person at the center of a struggle to save the universe be a retired legal secretary in a nursing home, or a middle-aged accountant in Delaware? Roland, a member of a fraternal order of gunslinging knights, hails from an incoherent alternate universe of misty woods and Mad Maxian deserts, CGI boogeymen and allusions to movies past. But let’s be clear: director Nikolaj Arcel perhaps best-known as the screenwriter of the Swedish (and superior) film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, thinks he’s making more references to spaghetti westerns than he really is. Nothing in this visually undistinguished movie is going to remind you of Leone’s groundbreaking series.
The title refers to a sky-piercingly tall spire that exists at the center of the universe and protects it from darkness. There’s even an opening title card that sort of says that. What the hell that actually means isn’t clear, but then nothing in this movie ever is. The tower itself looks alarmingly like rejected production art from The Lord of the Rings movies. Roland is determined to protect it, while the villain wants to destroy it, though what he’s going to get out of that is as thoroughly explained as everything else. Jake’s powers will ramp up the tower-busting machinery the bad guy is using – in yet another of the movie’s annoying X-Men parallels.
Academy Award® winner Matthew McConaughey plays The Dark Man, aka Walter, the story’s bad guy. Walter is also known Randall Flagg in King’s epic novel The Stand. (In the TV miniseries adaptation of The Stand, Flagg was marvelously played by the wonderful Jamey Sheridan.) In this version Walter’s magic powers (his insistence on calling them “magics” gets irritating after awhile) extend to telling people to stop breathing and they actually do. Did anyone say “I find your lack of faith disturbing?” McConaughey does everything but twirl a non-existent moustache in a smarmy performance that’s way too over-the-top to take seriously. Whether that’s due to the direction or the godawful dialogue he’s forced to deliver, the performance comes across not as ironically self-aware, witty or wry, but an odd combination of humorless and cartoonish. What’s the point of having dark magical powers if you’re not going to enjoy yourself?
Arcel directs The Dark Tower with technical competence but a singular lack of vision. He isn’t helped by the unimaginative production design but he doesn’t seem to guide it either. The end result, ironically, is a movie that looks like it cost less than it probably did. New York City has seldom looked duller onscreen. He also has the subtlety of a Louisville Slugger in the teeth. Walter’s minions, who arrive at Jake’s apartment to spirit him away under the guise of being from a mental hospital, do everything but say “We’re Walter’s minions who are going to spirit you away under the guise of being from the mental hospital.”
Neither King, his readers nor movie audiences are well-served by this master’s class in mediocrity. Obscure, confused and unimaginative, The Dark Tower is only an hour and thirty-five minutes long, but it’s an hour and thirty-five minutes of your life you’re not getting back. Think twice.