‘I’ ON CULTURE
Stephen King has written books that have turned into great movies: Carrie, Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption, not to mention The Shining. Others have not worked well. And so it is with The Dark Tower.
The Dark Tower is supposed to be the centerpiece of a series of dramas to be presented both in the movies and on TV. But, although it moves quickly enough to not be boring, the movie as a centerpiece is stillborn.
The film begins by focusing on the Man in Black/Walter Padick (Matthew McConaughey), a bad guy who runs a fortress in Earth’s parallel dimension, Mid-World. He uses mental powers to abduct kids with strong telepathic abilities to help him destroy the tower, which not only links different dimensions, but keeps them from colliding and thus destroying each other, preventing the ultimate evil from devouring us. His nemesis is Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the Last Gunslinger of Mid-World, who we know is a good guy because he wears a duster coat (like Clint Eastwood did) and fires really cool pistols.
The movie (unlike the books) focuses on Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a 12-year-old in Manhattan. He dreams about Mid-World and possible disaster and is shipped off to a horrible clinic. But he escapes and finds his way to a dimensional portal in Brooklyn (where else?) and winds up in Mid-World.
Things are pretty bad in Mid-World until Jake joins up with Roland for a rather underwhelming struggle against some not-really-scary monsters. Padick works with these beasts to destroy the two, who do manage to bond nicely. There are some confrontations that are fairly decent, and eventually Jake and Roland go to Manhattan to get ready for the inevitable sequel.
Surprisingly, the special effects are not very special, the monsters not very scary and the philosophical underpinnings essentially nonexistent. Actually, the movie is sort of a sequel to the books, which means that many elements will not be understood unless you are a major King fan and have read them.
Articles about the movie hint that it would be impossible to have a complex story winding through several worlds and generations with all sorts of strange beings. I wonder if any of the producers have seen Game of Thrones, Star Wars or Outlander. Roland, the Gunslinger, is supposed to be the hero of the whole saga, but we see things through the focus of Jake Chambers.
The problem is that although the original books are seminal, there have been so many different shows that dimension-hop and present arch-evil vs. really good battles, that it is impossible to make this effort stand out. We’ve had TV shows with the devil as a key character, with vampires who are more interested in sex than killing, with good guys and bad guys battling their way through things to such a large degree that this movie seems to fall short.
Keeping the movie short was a smart move. Too often, films like this tend to wander, but there’s no time for it here. Even better, the actors are very, very good. Elba is great as weary warrior Roland. When he first recites his code, nerds like me get chills. Of course, most of the audience will not quite understand everything underlying it.
There were questions about Elba taking the role because in the books, the illustrations present the character as white. This is clearly a case in which race has no real effect, and getting as effective and strong an actor as he is, makes for the perfect leading man. McConaughey, also charismatic, carries off his villainous role exceptionally well. Taylor is good as young Jake, and he helps make the relationship between the gunslinger and the kid work, which is vital since it is the emotional center of the film.
The movie is enjoyable, and I realize that this is not a very effusive review. You will have a good time there, but it is just not all it could be. The action, particularly the gunslinging, is pretty good. Elba is an excellent action hero, and we have an effective villain.
But this is supposed to be an epic film, and there, it fails. If it gets you to read the books, then it has done its job. But it is not one of the top summer films.