Not since such ill-conceived adaptations as Spawn, Super Mario Brother: The Movie, and The Dark is Rising has there been a movie quite as wrong headed as The Dark Tower. The blame for why it fails at nearly every conceivable point can be pointed firmly in one direction: Akiva Goldsman wrote the script. Granted, 3 other knuckleheads also are on the credits (including director Nikolaj Arcel) but I think it’s fair to say the screenwriter behind Batman & Robin: Now With Ice Skates!, Lost in Space: The One with Joey From Friends, Dracula, and Roller Girl, and the cinematic masterpieces based on the work of Dan Brown may not be up to the task of adapting Stephen King’s sprawling and messy 5000+ page Dark Tower saga. But dammit he gave it his best shot. Or at least he gave it a shot. Actually he just shot it. Zing.
Let’s get the good out of the way first because there is precious little of it here. Idris Elba as Roland Deschain acquits himself well in a thankless, poorly written role. Despite being too big for the character (always described as rangy, King based the character on Clint Eastwood) Elba does a good job projecting the gravitas of the character. Also he looks great blasting away with his six shooters and reloading CGI bullets with ease. The rest of the cast is serviceable, despite being almost nothing like their literary basis. No one noticeably blows their lines and there are a lot of interesting character actors in the movie for some reason despite being given a half dozen lines. Dennis Haysbert as Steven Deschain and Jackie Earl Haley as someone named Sayre (according to the credits) immediately raise the question “Why did they bother?”. But hey, props for effort I guess.
The main problem with the movie is it takes elements from all seven Dark Tower novels and jams together in to a 95 minute stew of chaos. For fans of the series the story choices made are baffling and infuriating. For the uninitiated I would guess the end result is incomprehensible. In the novels that Dark Tower is a structure in which all universes are housed on individual levels of the Tower. An evil entity called The Crimson King is using psychics, called Breakers, to break the support structures of the Tower, called Beams. These Beams are sort of like ley lines and have tremendous energy of their own. The novels are remarkably, and delightfully meandering but for all its weird tangents it’s primary storyline is rather straightforward. Roland of Mid-world, last survivor of the city of Gilead, is charged with defending the Dark Tower from the Crimson King. He does this by recruiting a group of people and trains them to be Gunslingers so that they may assist in the fight. If the Tower falls, so do all universes with it. It’s not that complicated in theory but the path it takes to get there beggars the imagination.
For the movie the Dark Tower is no longer the nexus of all worlds, it’s a force that PROTECTS all worlds. This distinction is a crucial one because while they make mention of Mid-world and Keystone Earth there is no explanation for what those terms mean. And those are the only universes spoken of in this vast metaverse. Another big change that doesn’t work at all is making Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) a powerful Breaker. Here the screenwriters have done that tried and true hack method of combining characters in order to streamline the story, in this case Jake and a psychic named Patrick Danvile from the novels. What this does is considerably weaken Jake’s heroism by forcing him to be the Mary Sue of the story. In the novels Jake learns to be a Gunslinger same as the others. In the adaptation there is a “chosen one” aspect that the books tried hard to avoid.
On the same line is Matthew McConaughey as Walter o’Dim/The Man in Black/Marten/Randal Flagg/etc., although the movie just simplifies this down to “Walter”. Like Jake he is also very overpowered and makes Darth Vader look as psychically formidable as a mentalist at the local VFW warming up the blue hairs before bingo starts. He makes vague allusions to Roland and “going around the wheel one more time” so that its obvious he knows more about Roland than Roland knows about him. Perhaps this was set up for a later movie but there is no effort made in building a mystery. Instead we have the seemingly unstoppable Walter chewing up scenery and killing every single character whose name isn’t Roland or Jake.
All the characterization missteps would be forgivable if the world building was there but it’s not. The movie’s look doesn’t really make any sense and many elements seem to exist because they were in the book. Instead of crafting a fantastic world rooted in reality the filmmakers instead jam in settings from the books and seem to call it a day. Give the special features a look on the making of the movie. There is a segment with a production designer and the guy just sounds bored. The credits list a few characters as “vampires” even though I’m 99% sure no one ever uses that word in the movie nor does anyone do anything vampiric. It’s all enormously sloppy. On the same token, the blooper reel is mostly just the actors blowing their lines and struggling through the bad dialogue, noticeably trying to do so while keeping a straight face.
Reference abound in the movie that readers of the series will recognize but their inclusion is head scratching fan service more than anything. The Shining, Pennywise the Dancing Clown, and Christine are given strange little shout outs as are Misery and 1408. The ending of the movie sees our heroes infiltrating the Dixie Pig before heading to Devar Toi. A quick stop off in an unnamed village early on looks a lot like Calla Bryn Sturgis. The number 19 is referenced and then immediately shrugged off when its revealed that 19-19 is the gateway coordinates to the desert of Mid-world. Even the Crimson King is a tossed off reference because no one seems to pay him any mind with all focus on Walter.
For a movie that spent this much time in development hell it’s not surprising the end result was terrible, but it is still disappointing. Supposedly plans are still moving ahead with a TV series (based on book 4, Wizard & Glass) but I don’t know why they are bothering. The Dark Tower is simply a bad movie, all the more infuriating for the fleeting moments where you can see what could have been peeking out from under the dross. To put it in Dark Tower speak, these filmmakers have most definitely forgotten the face of their fathers.