By Thomas Simpson
Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series has flirted with a screen adaptation for years. Ten years ago, J.J. Abrams was in talks to adapt it as a series but it’s the big screen where it has found its home with Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower. Although intended to launch a franchise, the film isn’t adapted from King’s first novel in the series; instead, it borrows from the entire story while also serving as a somewhat sequel to the books. The notion doesn’t translate well to cinema.
The Dark Tower is a mythical structure that keeps the demons at the edge of the universe, preventing them from crossing over into our realities. The Gunslingers are tasked with protecting the tower but they are all but wiped out by sorcerer Walter o’Dim (Matthew McConaughey), also known as the Man in Black. He uses psychic children from our world to attack the Tower but encounters trouble when trying to apprehend Jack Chambers (Tom Taylor) who has visions of the other world and o’Dim’s plan. Chambers enters Mid-World where he meets the last Gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), who is consumed by vengeance and hate. Both team up to stop o’Dim once and for all.
The film sets itself up to be an epic fantasy but falls short of the mark incredibly quickly. The backstory is crammed into the first ten minutes as we’re introduced to all the key players in quick-fire succession. From a positive view, this means the action kicks off quickly but unfortunately it leads to an undeveloped plot and characters. It’s hard to care for anyone just because we’re told to and for the most part, The Dark Tower feels like a movie that we’ve missed the start of.
Elba and McConaughey are great in the roles and although the actors have good chemistry, it’s difficult to view them as mortal enemies with the film having established this from the get go. Yes, we get to see Walter kill Roland’s Dad at the beginning which fuels their animosity, but there’s something severely lacking. Both characters and their intertwined pasts aren’t explored with audiences only getting the cliff notes. There was a war, the Gunslingers lost. True, not everything needs explained—but here it’d be nice to have some clarification as to what has happened off screen.
What’s surprising about the film is its short runtime. Whereas films are criticised for their bloated length, The Dark Tower clocks in at around 90 minutes. It feels rushed, and in many ways, it is. The pacing suggests a story that can’t wait until it’s done and the film suffers for it. There are a couple of great set pieces but the movie lacks a grand cinematic quality.
When you can see the climax on the horizon it becomes painfully aware that there is no third act surprise that’s going to save it. Instead, it limps over the finish line, leaving us to wonder how an idea that’s been in development for so long can result in the dull mess that got produced. Fans of the series deserve better, as do those going in cold. As it stands, The Dark Tower does neither group any justice. R.
Thomas is a writer and filmmaker based in Glasgow, U.K. Find him on Twitter: @Simmy41.