In an abandoned mansion in Brooklyn, Jake finds a portal to the Spaghetti Western world of Roland Deschain, the Gunslinger, played by Idris Elba with a dignity and seriousness that feels a little sad given the circumstances. The Gunslinger is a weary defender of the Dark Tower, a magical structure that stands at the center of all worlds, serving as the linchpin of the universe, now under assault by the Man in Black. A war is underway here, with all of its psychologically undefined participants operating as if aware of their roles as mythological symbols within a dualistic cosmology.
Movie Review: ‘The Dark Tower’
by Brett Yates
The Dark Tower, the newly released cinematic continuation of Stephen King’s epic series of fantasy novels, seems almost designed to piss off fans of the books. This would be kind of cool (for its sheer perversity) if it were true, but given the desperate number of cutesy, audience-appeasing easter-egg references to the author’s works—Misery, Cujo, The Shawshank Redemption, The Shining—that are embedded within this otherwise fully generic enterprise, the nearly aggressive uselessness of Danish director Nikolaj Arcel’s film adaptation, for the initiated and uninitiated alike, comes across primarily as product of the conflicting commercial visions of various studio execs who were alternately attracted to and intimidated by King’s famous (and famously protracted) property.
The story begins in New York, where a string of unexplained and unusually intense earthquakes are afflicting the city, but pubescent Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is too engrossed in his increasingly vivid nightmares of a monstrous, apocalyptic world to notice. Jake feverishly chronicles his visions in detailed black-and-white sketches that his therapist regards as expressions of emotional disturbance in the aftermath of Jake’s father’s death. But Jake is convinced that everything he sees is real, and when alien goons in human masks show up at his mom’s apartment to kidnap him on behalf of the dark sorcerer Walter o’Dim (Matthew McConaughey, wearing a leather Matthew McConaughey mask), also known as the Man in Black, he flees, determined to uncover the true nature of the fantastical realm that seems ever more determined to mingle with his own.
It’s pretty weird that we’ve reached a point where a $60 million budget can seem stingy, but here we are: Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, released in May, cost $175 million, and now Arcel is expected to erect his own castle in the air with one-third the resources. Ultimately, The Dark Tower doesn’t spend that much time in the land of the Dark Tower; the Gunslinger ends up in New York for a semi-comic, Enchanted-esque third act, tour-guided by Jake, where he tastes Coca-Cola for the first time and slut-shames the sex workers on public transit.
Based on the movie’s negative reviews, what King’s most devoted fans really wanted was a three-and-a-half-hour saga of the Gunslinger, immersed wholly within the author’s bloated and arguably nonsensical mythos, not a 95-minute YA triviality; producers who feared that it would be impossible to shape King’s broad, discursive cosmos into a working cinematic storyline might have done better to abandon this pragmatic goal in favor of simply transmitting as much of the information from the books as possible, without dramatic form, in order to satisfy the subsection of the fanbase that looks to Hollywood not to create functional stand-alone entertainment but to legitimize, through live-action recreation, the frustratingly immaterial imaginative worlds that they love from novels and comics. Marvel, for instance, understands that forming a full, absorbing universe for its faithful viewers is more important than creating a good movie; Peter Jackson does, too.
With The Dark Tower, Arcel and his screenwriters retreated from this endeavor and instead created possibly the most perfunctory iteration yet of the common Hollywood story in which an ordinary kid is whisked away from his earthbound problems into a world of realized make-believe. This type of story, it’s true, can rely on a fast pace and a sense of adventure in place of extensive world-building. But this is not The Wizard of Oz; it’s not The NeverEnding Story. It isn’t even Warriors of Virtue or Tomorrowland. The fantasyland of Arcel’s Dark Tower is not only conceptually half-baked; it’s also simply grim, a place of barren deserts, ruins, and refugee camps, undercutting the central escapist function of places like Hogwarts and Narnia—no kid would want to have an adventure here, but it doesn’t exactly make for a horror film, either. The movie is supposed to set up a TV series that’ll further explore King’s sci-fi galaxy, but after dipping their toes in here, viewers will wonder why they’d bother: it doesn’t feel like an authentic mythology—it feels more like a hodgepodge of cheapened pop influences, from Sergio Leone and Johnny Cash to Tolkien and King Arthur.
Meanwhile, the life of the orphaned boy, Jake, who takes center stage in this ill-conceived entrée, is incredibly bleak in a way that Arcel doesn’t seem to recognize fully. He has no true character trajectory, only a deeper descent into gloom, and the movie probably would’ve been a lot more interesting if it took seriously the notion that perhaps the equally bleak landscape of the Dark Tower actually is an unreal product of the agitated imagination of a boy thrust by familial trauma into mental illness: half action-adventure fantasia, half portrait of early-onset schizophrenia. The fans probably wouldn’t like that, either.
Brett Yates is a writer in San Francisco, CA.