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Nice try.

This is a tough one. In order to be a good critic, I have to get my biases out of the way. The Dark Tower books are pretty personal for me, so this movie was always going to be personal for me. I first read The Gunslinger when I was thirteen, pulling it down off the shelf to be my first Stephen King book, because the back cover said “fantasy” and the book seemed thin enough to get through quickly if I didn’t like it. I was living in a small town in Saskatchewan, halfway through what would be a pretty terrible year there. A year where I needed frequent escapes from bullying, poverty, and the brewing frustrations and confusions of puberty. I needed something like The Gunslinger, much like Jake Chambers maybe, and the series delivered. I followed it since, waiting for King to hurry up and finish with ten times the anticipation and fear than I could ever feel about A Song of Ice and Fire. I always knew that a movie version of The Dark Tower was inevitable, and that it would be a difficult sell (especially now) as is. I followed the production of this movie with a lot of trepidation but always a little bit of hope. As it neared release, article after article came out to talk about how troubled its production was, how compromised and messy the movie would be, and I settled down to very low expectations. And yet, this movie surprised me by how truly awful it is. I haven’t seen a movie this bad since Assassin’s Creed and it’s bad in almost exactly the same ways.

I’m not a megafan of anything, seldom letting fandom get in the way of what I like to think is an honest and critical appraisal of the stories and media I engage with. That said, there are two basic approaches to a movie like The Dark Tower. There’s approaching it as an adaptation and approaching it as a movie like any other. People generally conflate their reactions, especially if they don’t have a vested interest in film criticism as a craft, and so you’re gonna see a lot of reactions that blur the lines between reacting to how The Dark Tower fails as an adaptation and how it fails as a movie. But it does fail at both. If it was just a bad adaptation, I would be far more forgiving. I’m cool with adaptations that beat out their own path or try to present another take on a thing. My critical history is full of remarks to this effect, so I don’t think anyone could say that I don’t like The Dark Tower just because it’s a “bad Dark Tower movie”. Most of this review will be about how it’s just generally bad, but I will also talk about it as an adaptation. ‘Cuz I have to at least a little bit. I owe it to that kid who walked through Mid-World and beyond with Roland’s ka-tet.

Brass tacks is that The Dark Tower is exactly the kind of gutless, cut to death, and misguided genre movie that is cynically trying to ride the coattails of other genre hits. Particularly, in this case, the recent wave of “YA” movies, some good and some bad, which are made from “YA” books, some good and some bad. The Dark Tower puts minimal effort into every single distinguishing element until the result is boilerplate and meaningless. It casually name-drops bits of lore from the books like its trying to win a #nocontext contest and its few characters are underserved, inconsistent, and rushed through a movie that is probably thirty minutes too short. The result is incredibly rushed, messy, incoherent, and probably mostly frustrating for people who didn’t read the books but actually like fantasy and lore and shit. Those people will have precious little to grab onto here, as almost nothing is explained or presented in the movie meaningfully.

To try and summarize it in a sentence: imagine looking forward to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and getting Eragon instead. That, on every level, is what The Dark Tower is like.

SPOILERS, SAY THANKYA

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Who cares?

The lore is cool, it always was, but it’s strip-mined and cheapened by this movie. The one thing that does pretty much work is the most fundamental idea of the Dark Tower universe. See, there’s a multiverse and every one is held in place by the Tower, which protects existence from demons of fire and darkness that threaten from without. This is classic King by way of Lovecraft, and it’s here in this movie more or less intact. We even get to see one of these demons at one point, though it’s a messy overdesigned CGI monster quickly dispatched and quickly forgotten. Disposable. A good word for this movie, a bad word and one you’d never want to hear to describe a movie called The Dark Tower and based on Stephen King’s novels.

The Tower is threatened directly by Walter, the Man in Black (Mathew McConaughey). It was once protected by “Gunslingers”, which the movie doesn’t really explain (stuff from the trailers was dropped) but now there’s only one and he doesn’t really care anymore. Jake (Tom Taylor) is a kid in a recognizable New York City and he has visions and dreams of the Tower, demons, the MiB, and Roland (Idris Elba), the last Gunslinger and the guy who can maybe help him save himself and the universe. Jake has psychic powers, which the movie refers to constantly and calls “shine” (on the nose much? you ain’t seen nothing yet). The MiB and his anonymous, weirdly cast (what the fuck is Fran Kranz doing in this movie!?) goons hang out in a big rundown Bond Villain dungeon and they catch psychic kids so they can put them to work tearing the Tower down. He wants Jake most of all because Jake is SPECIAL and has enough power to do the job alone. That’s basically the plot. It splits the boring, overused “hero’s journey” shit into Jake (chosen boy!) and Roland (reluctant hero) and even with four writers, this movie never rises above the most basic of this very basic bro storytelling framework.

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Figure it out.

We’re supposed to care about Jake because he’s a troubled young boy. But he’s so anonymized in this YA reconfiguring of the source novels that he is lost in Percy Maze Potter land. Taylor tries to give the kid an edge, but the character never has time to do much more than check boxes in the plot checklist, reacting in all the obligatory ways to predictable and obvious turns in the story. McConaughey chews scenery with a lisp, playing a character whose villainy mostly boils down to barking orders at anonymous, cardboard cutout underlings. He’s not exactly bad as Walter, though his dialogue doesn’t help, it’s just that any menace or otherwordly awe or mystery is robbed from the character as if the movie itself is confused about what he is, what his role is, etc. He’s also in the movie probably more than Roland, as the movie is constantly cutting to him to see what he’s up to (it’s not interesting) and relying on him to casually reference his “magicks” and elements of lore that are supposed to sound important but never have any payoff. His relationship to Roland is cut down to almost nothing. He killed Roland’s dad, Steven (Dennis Haysbert, inspired casting) in a preposterous scene from Roland’s past. He refers to Roland as “old friend” but we never know why. It’s just… there. A placeholder because it sounds like stuff we’ve heard in other movies. It’s supposed to do the heavy lifting backstory would normally do, implying things we never see enough of to even wonder about. There’s a way to do this that actually enriches a story, filling it with ambiguity and intrigue that could be explored in a sequel or wondered at long after you’ve seen the actual movie. That’s not how it is done here. It feels shallow, stupid, and manipulative and the movie is full of rushed, plastered-over shit like this.

For example, back to Walter’s henchmen. We get that some of them are “taheen”, animal-like mutants wearing human skins, but there are actual vampires in the mix too. Right out of the book (the sixth one) but never explained as such. I know they’re vampires, Richard P. Sayre (Jackie Earle Haley) and his Dixie Pig coven, but the movie never bothers to distinguish between them, the taheen, or the seemingly human technicians running their “destroy the Tower” operation. It’s all very dismissive and shallow, with no time spent on anything or with anyone so that things will feel anchored and important in the movie. Even Jake’s parents, who have more screen-time than I would have expected, are just kind of… there. Kathryn Winnick tries her best to exude inner conflict about Jake, and she actually sort of works, but ultimately the “ally” characters are pushed to the side and anonymous just as much as Walter’s goons. The “tribe” that Roland takes Jake to, the rustic living regular people of Roland’s shattered world, are reduced to providing exposition and a plot device. Nothing in this movie rises above mere utility. The tribespeople refer to Roland as “the last of the line of Eld”, a thing that means a lot but the movie never says what. It just wants you to feel like it could mean something. That’s good enough!

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Yeah, yeah.

Anyway. The plot culminates in a big shootout, one of the movie’s few action scenes (all of which are over-edited and boring) after Roland decides to be a Gunslinger again, which according to Hollywood movie logic also means he gets to accomplish his only stated goal of killing Walter (no sacrifices for the hero!). He rushes off to rescue Jake, then they teleport off into the sunset to have many merry adventures. Because that’s what The Dark Tower ultimately winds up being: an adventure. A romp. Nevermind Jake’s dead mom, it’s CHOSEN ONE time. The whole multiverse is on the verge of destruction, sure, but in this tiny cheap movie you’d have a hard time noticing. It’s like they took everything unique and interesting about the novels and their strange, horrific, and wonderful universe and boiled it all down to a grey slurry of safe bets and lazy tropes. The result is hollow, samey, and shitty. As a movie in general.

I know some adaptation remarks slipped in those last thousand words there, but mostly I was trying to focus on The Dark Tower‘s failures as a movie. I don’t think that approaching The Dark Tower as a YA movie automatically made it bad (but what a drastic misappropriation of these books). Nor did centering the story on Jake, a decision I understand. I don’t even think remixing elements from all the books made the movie bad. I think the movie is bad because, first and foremost, it doesn’t competently tell a story and it fails to earn its narrative goals and moments with actual substance. And it consistently fails to respect its audience. But it’s also a really, really bad adaptation. A textbook case if I ever saw one.

As an adaptation, The Dark Tower feels completely lost up its own ass. I don’t really know who the audience was supposed to be for this movie. I suppose they mostly wanted YA kids to see it. Maybe scoop up some young American men aged 13-35, the coveted demographic for all things simultaneously gaudy and nerdy. This is definitely not a movie made in any way for fans of the books, who should notice immediately that its failures and oversights as an adaptation go beyond simply remixing plot elements or characters and into the more egregious realm of stripping iconography like the skin of a beast, taking out everything special within it, and filling it back up with the same lame story and character beats we’ve seen four thousand times. It’s like you aunt’s dead dog she couldn’t help but have stuffed. It came back wrong. Yet they tried to tell us it was not only the familiar dog we love, but a NEW IMPROVED version. The “Last Time Around” marketing, showing that Roland has the Horn this time and so this is kind of a sequel to the books, was meant for the fans. But in the movie it’s in a bag, shown only when Roland’s bag is in a shot. It’s never mentioned. It’s nothing. It’s a flagship example. Another is the “Gunslinger’s Creed”, because I bet they didn’t think people would know what a “litany” is. Creeds are beliefs, litanies are litanies. The chant Roland repeats in the movie, which is robbed of coherent meaning in the movie, is a fucking litany.

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Okay there.

Maybe the biggest and most baffling choice in this adaptation is the way Roland is portrayed. Inarguably his biggest character trait, the thing that makes him who he is, is his obsession with the Tower. In the novels, it is everything to him, a shining symbol of a better world, a reminder of his obligations and long-repressed nobility, a source of coveting and temptation to rival Tolkien’s One Ring. Ultimately, it’s a sacrificial alter on which Roland places everything in his life, to such an extent that he ceases to be human and becomes a sort of archetypal elemental, a being beyond human but not, as presented here so shallowly, superhuman.

So what does this movie do? It ditches that. All of it. Fuck it, too complex. Instead, Roland is mad at Walter for killing his dad. He doesn’t care about the Tower. Now, this could have been interesting if they had focused their attention on this being a consequence of Roland’s many karmic cycles of failure. Instead, it’s just a reduction for convenience. A cynical push to make his motives “understandable” to an audience that the makers of this movie must have been convinced would be unable to grasp a more complex, more unique movie. I’m not really against changing a main character around if it is consistent with the actual narrative, with its themes and vision, and as long as those things reach a bit higher than this shit did. I like Hellboy and the 1980s Conan the Barbarian a great deal, and neither of those movie versions of the characters really resemble the characters they are based on very much. But all the same, they are great characters with rooted motivations, inner lives, and their struggles are consistent with the themes explored by those movies.  You could say that if “revenge” is a theme of The Dark Tower, then I should probably be easier on this version of Roland… but what an amazingly low bar to set. It doesn’t matter much, either, when you consider this version of Roland. Elba brings a look, a gravitas to the role that is very welcome. He’s also more than capable of presenting the relentlessness, the ruthlessness, but none of Roland’s romanticism and very little of his dry wit (with one exceptional scene, in the ER, where you finally see a glimpse of the Roland we know) and literal-mindedness.

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Elba isn’t the problem. The character as written is.

Still, Roland is the least of the movie’s many problems. He’s just a pretty good example of how the movie fails to adapt unless the definition of adapt is taxidermy. I would argue that it’s not, but I suppose there’s people who aren’t going to mind. They will be happy at the many cutesey references to King’s other work, in the no-context inclusions of elements of the books (like Maerlyn’s Rainbow). Cuz hey, at least we get to see this cool shit in real life right? At least they bothered to make this movie at all. Right?

Well. Wrong. Look, I know the books still exist so I can’t say that this movie “ruins” The Dark Tower. I think enough people have read them that even people who see this movie and feel turned off could be convinced to still give them a read. It’s a well worn trope that the movies are always worse than the books (not true, but a truism). That more than anything is going to be a boon for The Dark Tower as a multimedia property going forward. If there is ever going to be a reboot or that TV series they keep pretending is going to happen (I doubt it, guys), then it’s going to happen in spite of this movie rather than because of it.

I was pretty depressed about how bad, how soulless and empty this movie was. I thought that at best it would be a stitched-together mess of studio interference with nuggets of the stuff that makes the books special glittering through here and there. I believed the director and co-writer Nikolaj Arcel when he described what he wanted to do. I wasn’t prepared for there to be almost nothing good here, not even a massive authorial reimagining along the lines of Preacher (which is better than its source books). I feel like whatever this movie was before the execs lost confidence and started cutting, reshooting, and interfering it probably wasn’t good. It definitely wasn’t the Dark Tower that stands in the Red Fields of None.

 

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