The Dark Tower follows Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor, in his feature film debut), a young teenager who has spent his life haunted by dark visions of another world. Chief amongst the images are glimpses of Matthew McConaughey’s all-powerful Walter (think Voldemort mixed with a Calvin Klein commercial) and Idris Elba’s gunslinging Roland (think a generic reluctant hero mixed with a generic reluctant hero). After sensing his psychic potential, Walter’s minions cross into our dimension in an attempt to abduct Jake, only for him to escape and find a way to cross into their world. Once there, Jake finds himself face to face with Roland, who (reluctantly, obviously) takes Jake under his wing and sets off on a mission to stop Walter.
Full disclosure before I go on: I’ve never read a page of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, but that’s not to say I’m oblivious to the standing his eight-book magnum opus holds. Still, knowing director Nikolaj Arcel’s (A Royal Affair) adaption is both a retelling of the series and a totally-canon continuation is a little intimidating to someone coming in from the outside. To the film’s credit, The Dark Tower does feel very self-contained, giving you a concise adventure that could be looked at as the start of a franchise… or you could take its lack of loose ends and call it a day. I suspect fans that have endured 4,000+ pages of King’s prose will find this movie a bit thin, but obviously it’s a direction designed to favour newcomers.
Sadly, without the context of its much grander story, The Dark Tower finds itself to be a very disposable and familiar fantasy-adventure. The result is a film that caters to the lowest common denominator, offering little to general audiences that they haven’t seen 100 times before. Nor, I would wager, enough complexity for fans to make this feel like a necessary chapter in the story they’ve already received closure on. You can see hints of interesting ideas sprinkled throughout the movie, but none of them are ever really explored, and whatever mythology The Dark Tower does present disappointingly gets distilled down to some generic fluff about light and darkness.
That’s not to say that it’s all bad news. McConaughey’s smooth-talking wizard overlord, in particular, turns out to be a bit of a treat. It’s not necessarily that he’s the most original antagonist we’ve ever seen, and the less said about his motivation the better, but it’s extremely refreshing to see a villain this effectual and proactive. Given just how powerful Walter is, many films would be content with him hiding in the shadows while everyone spills hushed exposition on how dangerous he is (Mr Potter’s aforementioned nemesis comes to mind). But The Dark Tower takes great pride in actually showing you how dangerous its villain is as he casually wreaks havoc all around him with a cheeky smile and skip in his step.
It’s also nice seeing a villain who’s happy to get his hands dirty and actually go out into the field. With both the good guys and bad actually capable, The Dark Tower is able to become a reasonably fun game of cat mouse once it gets going; only the cat can set people on fire with his mind and Kilgrave mofos into beating each other to death. Even with a slightly slow start, the film moves along with a decent pace and there are some pretty cool confrontations. It’s just a shame that the action is so sparse and uninspired considering the toys the movie had to play with. Roland’s gunslinging in particular is boring exaggerated CG fare, recalling the ridiculous slow motion gunplay of Wanted.
The bigger problem is just how dreary and po-faced Jake and Roland are throughout the whole movie. There are some moments of fish-out-of-water levity here and there, but for the most part it’s a just a drag hanging out with them. Taylor is fine enough for a young actor, but he’s given a role with very little personality so it’s hard to care regardless. Elba, unfortunately, turns out to be a disappointment, totally phoning in his performance and showing very little of his usual brooding charisma.
There was the potential for a more inventive adventure with The Dark Tower, but ultimately it plays it too safe to be anything special. Given the prestige around the property you may be tempted to dip your toe in with this movie, but if it’s only a curiosity about the series that’s caught your interest, this is probably not the way you want to start your Dark Tower journey.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★☆☆