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The Dark Tower - Gunslinger and Man in Black

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The Dark Tower review

An example of how not to approach an adaptation

Sony Pictures

The Dark Tower series is Stephen King’s magnum opus, spanning eight novels and millions of words. It’s a complex story, tangled in an intricate web of important details. The characters demand to be studied, their personalities etched into the weapons they hold closest to their heart. The Dark Tower series is one that shouldn’t be rushed through in order to appreciate and enjoy the multi-universe King has crafted.

Nikolaj Arcel’s cinematic adaptation of The Dark Tower ignores the way King’s story is meant to be processed, and the result is a disappointing, meandering mess that fails to capture any magic from the novels.

The Dark Tower’s biggest problem is trying to fit a nonlinear story into a tightly packed, 90-minute movie. This isn’t a simple rearrangement of scenes to make the book fit the screen; it’s a complete reworking of what King imagined. Actors Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey play their respective roles to the best of their abilities, but the writing behind the characters isn’t there. Their Gunslinger and Man in Black feel like two-dimensional caricatures instead of fleshed-out figures.

The Dark Tower follows a young boy named Jake Chambers, played adequately enough by Tom Taylor, and his journey to track down the Gunslinger, played by Elba. Chambers is suffering from troubling visions of a different world that’s causing distress on his own planet. On another version of Earth, the Gunslinger is on his own mission to track down the Man in Black, played by McConaughey, and stop him from destroying the Dark Tower. If the Man in Black accomplishes his goal, it opens the door to a number of dark creatures and monsters to invade the various worlds people inhabit.

The premise behind The Dark Tower is intriguing and, although King has already proven it’s an engrossing story, the movie never catches up. A movie is designed to entertain and invoke an emotional reaction. It is written to distract the audience, to transport them to a new world. It could create a sense of wanderlust and adventure, a desire to physically be where the characters on screen are. A movie should be memorable. Not only is The Dark Tower forgettable, but it’s hard to feign interest even when it’s playing.

Considering how much original material Arcel had to work with for The Dark Tower, it’s almost sinful that none of the unique story and world-building King accomplished comes through — but it’s not surprising. The Dark Tower would have worked better as a television series, where it could have spent time exploring the books’ different worlds, factions, creatures and characters. Trying to fit everything into 90 minutes means there wasn’t a sole aspect that could be focused on for longer than 10 minutes. The film fails to ever really get off the ground as a result.

The Dark Tower - Gunslinger aiming pistol Sony Pictures

The Dark Tower is a victim of its ambitions. There are a few moments of genuine humor woven into the messy story to makes it feel less glum, but those are few and far between. Arcel doesn’t let the film breathe; instead, he shuts the supply of jokes off as soon as they start flowing.

When the movie allows itself moments of camp, when it takes a second to acknowledge its own self-realization about what it is, that’s when it briefly succeeds. The Dark Tower is a movie about sorcerers and ancient gunmen, portals and interdimensional travel — it’s allowed to have fun. But The Dark Tower never takes any chances. It relies on mediocre CGI effects and the ability of its actors. When they try to make it fun, attempting to lighten up their characters with certain phrases or facial expressions, the camera pans away. In doing so, it sacrifices the element that makes King’s series work: humanity.

The Dark Tower’s issues are plentiful, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad movie. It would almost be preferred if this were a train wreck. At least then there would have been some attempt made to make the movie stand out, a chance taken to risk everything on this incredible story. The Dark Tower feels apathetic, like it was created because it seemed like something that should be made eventually. The movie almost seems bored by its own existence, and it’s impossible to find any kind of excitement in it.

I wanted The Dark Tower to be more than a checkbox for a studio. I wanted this to be the movie that readers have been waiting decades for. But everything from the lackluster beginning to the anticlimactic ending makes it hard to get excited about the movie. Filmgoers who haven’t read the books will be bored to tears, while longtime fans will find it hard to mask their disappointment.

The Dark Tower is proof that not every book series should be adapted, that some should remain part of the imagination for generations of readers. Stephen King’s Dark Tower franchise will stand the test of time, but The Dark Tower unfortunately isn’t worth any of yours.