I have a confession to make, I’m not terribly familiar with The Dark Tower book series. Sure I’ve looked up a fair amount of info about the movie to learn the gist of the series, but I’ve never read them. They’ve always been a book series I’ve been perpetually meaning to read, yet for one reason or another never got around to. Now it seems I’ve put it off long enough for the famously troubled production of this film to actually come out and finally be released, after a decades-long gestation period.
The real question we must ask is, who is this movie for, and does it work for its audience?
It’s difficult to explain without having read the source material, but knowing Stephen King’s style and propensity for self-seriousness, I found this film a surprisingly lighthearted, yet immensely satisfying fantasy-adventure movie. Clocking in at a brisk 90 minutes, every scene in this thing is meticulously paced to keep the plot moving forward. What could have been a very densely packed, nigh impenetrable mess of incomprehension, in fact, turns out to be a fairly simple “Lone Wolf & Cub” style of adventure, and manages sufficient coherence all the way through. I’m not at all familiar with any of the specifics of the Dark Tower’s mythology, but there’s enough King inspired cinematic language to help every viewer along who isn’t in the know. Most viewers know what “The Shine” is in regards to a King adaptation, and it’s an excellent example of pop cultural and cinematic language used to facilitate the intertextual stakes of the movie. It’s a clever shorthand for “psychic powers” that builds into a cinematic mythology most would already understand, and that’s one of the strengths of The Dark Tower. It’s chock full of references and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments that will have King fanatics dying for a pause button when watching.
On top of that, you’ve got some excellent performances from Idris Elba as Roland The Gunslinger, and Matthew McConaughey as Walter O’Dim, the antagonistic Man In Black. Elba really brings a lot to a character that could have easily turned into a generic fantasy tough guy and injects pathos and sentiment into his words. He turns the poetic stanzas of his Gunslinger’s credo into something more than just a thematic callback for the movie to fall on, but an expression of the will and passion of the character itself. Watching him close his eyes and ruminate on the holy profundity of his shooting is captivating in a way I can’t adequately explain. The man oozes charisma, and in the third act of the film has some of the best fish-out-of-water lines when he’s plopped into Time’s Square in New York. Accordingly, no tale is complete without its villain, and McConaughey is having fun chewing up the scenery as his ultimate evil sorcerer self. His candor and expressions are measured, villainous and yet never too over the top. It would have been easy to get these characters wrong with poor casting here, and to be honest if it wasn’t them in the roles I’d be skeptical if the movie would work as well as it does.
It’s not without its faults, however, and it’s vibrantly apparent that without the Stephen King pastiche, the excellent performances by Elba and McConaughey, and the captivating special FX, that the script would be a bit lacking here. It’s essentially a very simple, relatively lighthearted YA romp about sons, their fathers, and an adherence to a personal code to stop evil. Almost pulpy in its simplicity, yet with a refreshing ability to remain light and breezy while still telling a story about the multiversal apocalypse.
Perhaps this will anger fans of the novels, who no doubt will find LOTS of things missing from this adaptation. It’s evident that there’s more to expand upon when watching, yet to a new viewer nothing really feels left out. It’s a complete story from beginning to finish, and one that interests me deeply in its world and characters, and for someone who hasn’t read the books, it’s a huge reward to know I have the source material waiting for me to sink my teeth into duly. For fans of the novels who are looking for a more thematically resonant adaptation, this may be a letdown? I’m unsure because I can see how it might be tremendously disappointing if nearly 5-6 books worth of content was amalgamated into 90 minutes. However I still have to insist that it at least accomplishes what a good adaptation should do, and that’s getting more people interested in the source material and franchise itself. With luck, this will be appreciated by fans who may have to adjust their expectations accordingly or find itself an audience in the coming years as an excellent fantasy adventure movie, one that will surely inspire many young viewers in myriad ways.
If you’re a fan of the books and are disheartened by the tone you see in the trailers, know that it is an accurate representation of the film’s entire aesthetic, and this may not be for you. I liked it a lot, but I can admit that without the great performances and production value, this might have been a huge stinker. Overall, if you like well-made stories about fantastical worlds, magic powers and lots of gunplay, I recommend The Dark Tower highly. This was clearly made for people who are new to the Dark Tower series, and it shows, for better or for worse.
P.S Idris Elba’s little asides about Earth are knee-snappingly hilarious and I hope there’s a 3 hour cut of this movie released on Blu-ray someday.
GEEK GRADE: B+
Images: Columbia Pictures