Based on Stephen King’s sprawling Gunslinger series, The Dark Tower takes thousands of pages of mythology that spans centuries and dimensions and pares it down to a spare ninety-five minute movie that encompasses a thimble’s worth of all that original King storytelling. Fans of the books will have plenty of Easter eggs to pick out and keep them moderately engaged with the movie, but everyone else will be completely alienated by this conventional and surprisingly boring would-be franchise that looks like it was shot on a dollar store budget in a high school gymnasium. It’s not an outright mess, but that’s really too bad, as its sheer conventionality keeps The Dark Tower from being an entertaining and ambitious miss like Jupiter Ascending or Winter’s Tale.
The movie opens by establishing that there is a Dark Tower keeping the universe together, and then we cut to kids in a suburban dystopian who get their brains sucked out by a machine in Matthew McConaughey’s evil lair to try and destroy said tower. Are their brains really being sucked out? Unclear. As will be the case throughout the movie, there is very little explanation of what is really happening, but the kids scream and light comes out of their heads so I assume there’s some kind of thought-and-or-brain sucking going on. Anyway, Matthew McConaughey is the bad guy, the Man In Black, who is kind of the devil and also called Walter. “His name is Walter?” a character asks, incredulous. A human wrote this, I marvel, equally incredulous. (Four people wrote it, including Akiva Goldsman, who also adapted the gloriously bad Winter’s Tale.)
Unlike Valerian, which suffers for bad casting, the casting here is pretty great. McConaughey is smarmy and oily and enjoying himself as WALTER, and Idris Elba is exactly the guy you want playing a taciturn and emotionally broken soldier, the last of his kind, mythical legend and maybe-magical warrior in a fantasy film. As Roland, a retro-future “Gunslinger” who is kind of a knight in his post-apocalyptic dimension, Elba is perfect. It’s just too bad he doesn’t have anything to f*cking do.
The Dark Tower sets up an epic, unending struggle between WALTER and Roland, then changes its mind and decides to be about a dumb wiener kid. This particular DWK is named Jake (Tom Taylor), and he’s meant to be a Spielbergian Special Boy but the movie forgets to make him in any way special. Oh, he’s got a “shine”, aka psychic powers—and a reference to The Shining, GET IT?—and WALTER latches onto him as the super-kid whose brain juice will finally destroy the Dark Tower, but like every other DWK, Jake is only special because the script tells us so. But he’s psychic! So is that character over there—Claudia Kim as Arra—and she’s not the star of the movie. What about Jake as a person is interesting and special enough that would compel an audience to care about him? Nothing.
Roland only hitches his wagon to Jake because he sees the kid as a means to get at WALTER, but the two inevitably bond because the scripts makes them. Despite the plot being extremely easy to track, it feels like there are huge chunks of story missing, particularly character development. It’s a minor miracle this movie isn’t an utter mess, but plot-wise, it really isn’t. It’s just that nothing makes sense. Part of me appreciates a fantasy film not choking its audience with exposition, but at the same time, it isn’t clear how anything in this world works, why anything is happening, or why we should care. The stakes are universe-ending—yes, there’s a sky portal—but the investment is nil. It’s just a rote superhero knock-off.
And boy is it UGLY. Shot for approximately seven dollars, The Dark Tower is a muddy, unattractive picture with terribly choreographed and filmed action. Half the action scenes are at night so you can’t see sh*t, and the other half are edited in a blender and completely unintelligible. The obvious visual language of Westerns isn’t utilized at all, which renders Roland completely forgettable.. He could easily have been an iconic figure, but instead he looks like a Westworld cosplayer. And the score from Tom Holkenborg—aka Junkie XL—is EXTREMELY bad, so misjudged it actively ruins several scenes.
I can’t imagine how The Dark Tower could be any more disappointing. King fans might derive some satisfaction from all the references, but this won’t work as a magnet for new fans, let alone a franchise starter. It wastes Idris Elba’s hero potential, disregards an enjoyably bad McConaughey performance, and the style director Nikolaj Arcel displayed with A Royal Affair is nowhere to be seen. (It’s also a CRIMINAL WASTE of Katheryn Winnick.) Forcing the movie into a cookie cutter franchise shape doesn’t make The Dark Tower appealing, it just makes it boring and conventionally bad.
Here's Idris on Despierta America yesterday.