I will start this review with an admission: I have never read an installment of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. Despite my love of King, his mammoth multi-book, multiverse spaghetti Western-fantasy epic franchise has been a daunting, taunting megalith in his canon, daring me to wade into it. Which may be why I didn’t hate the long gestating film version of King’s story: at a fleet 95 minutes it turns a daunting, maximalist work into a zippy popcorn thriller.
But is that a good thing? I can’t tell how King fans are going to react to this iteration of The Dark Tower, but I can only assume it’s going to be negative. Why? Because even as someone who’s never read one of the novels that make up the grand tapestry of the legendary author’s vision, I can see that the film version we’ve finally gotten — efficient, pared down, hollow — has jettisoned King’s flair for empty calorie Saturday matinée entertainment.
Taken as that — as in, forget the books ever existed — The Dark Tower is…fine. It’s resoundingly okay late summer fluff, watchable in its weaving together of genre cliché. It’s at once a Western and a Lord of the Rings trek fantasy, a horror movie and a YA friendly slice of Chosen One wish-fulfillment. It doesn’t do any of these particularly well, nor does it do them particularly badly either, content to entertain for an hour and a half and then dissipating from memory by the time you leave the theater.
It’s fitting that much of the action takes place in a place called Mid-World, for this is a film that lives in the middle of the road. It starts in New York. Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor, a find) is plagued by dreams involving a stoic gunslinger, an evil, sneering Man In Black and the destruction of all. His family, friends and teachers think Jake is merely having a hard time processing the death of his father and his mother’s subsequent remarriage; Jake thinks his dreams are telling him something. This being a genre film, and one of limited imagination, they are, of course. Jake is led to a dilapidated town house deep in the heart of Brooklyn,where he discovers a portal — a whirling, shiny, silver-blue sci-fi thingy — and is transported to the rocky wastelands of Mid-World, settled down years after some sort of war that the ostensible good guys — expert marksmen called Gunslingers — lost.
It’s here that Jake meets Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last of the Gunslingers. Roland has become cynical and hardened by loss, driven to seek revenge on the powerful sorcerer Walter Paddick (Matthew McConaughey) — the gaunt, malicious Man In Black of Jake’s dreams, who has been kidnapping psychic children from various dimensions to power a weapon that will destroy the Dark Tower, the jagged, monolithic spire that holds the universe aloft and prevents slobbering, rampaging hellbeasts from being loosed on all the worlds.
Jake has the most powerful “shine”– aka psychic powers — which makes him a prize target for Walter. It’s the most obvious of many callbacks and Easter eggs to King material (Cujo and Christine make appearances) and the only thing to remind you that this a Stephen King movie and not another generic fantasy stumbling out of the gate living on the exhausted fumes of Tolkien, Harry Potter and Narnia adaptations.
Director Nikolaj Arcel does a perfunctory, competent job wrangling all the action and mythology into place. The brisk runtime doesn’t really give any of the mythos time to breathe, nor does it allow the story to develop beyond the necessary beats, and there is a sense of loss as one watches it, that only are missing the development of a compelling fantastical back story but what we do see takes the least interesting routes possible — all gunfights and CG beasties and globs of color and more lightstreams blasting to the sky. It’s all been done before — the heroic kid character, the troubled knight hero, the sneering baddie, the henchmen who look like Orcs and interdimensional portals and and and. This is Lord of the Rings, Marvel, DC, and even crap like Last Witch Hunter and Seventh Son and Season of the Witch repurposed yet again, shellacked, presented as new and given the bow of coming from King’s most epic work of art as some sort of false legitimacy to justify its existence.
That said, it’s not as bad as some of the murky fantasy swill that’s plagued fantasy fans in he nearly twenty years since Peter Jackson first visited Middle Earth. The climax is infested with distractingly dodgy CGI, but it’s a fun enough watch getting there. Elba brings more gravitas than the movie deserves to Roland, and Taylor avoids the annoying cloyingness that can plague child actors. McConaughey chews the scenery and gives Walter a swaggering, serpentine menace that makes him a more effective villain than a half-dozen failed Marvel antagonists, and while none of the action scenes will be classics — especially in year that’s already given us John Wick 2, Baby Driver, Wonder Woman and Atomic Blonde — they are least coherent and able to be followed.
The Dark Tower is not necessarily a good movie, and for King fans, unlikely to be a satisfying one. But it does it’s job as a piece of summertime fluff. Whether you want a Big Mac or fuller dinner is for you to decide.