Confession time. I’m basically the ideal audience for Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower. I’d been waiting a long time for any adaptation (or interpretation, or continuation) of Stephen King’s magnum opus to surface, and I have been holding out hope for this one since the first inspired casting announcements came out. I have all the basic knowledge in place to know why I should care about this story. I also have a high tolerance for less than stellar entertainment, as long as there is some hook (seriously, the crap I’ve sat through…), so the possibility that this particular film might not live up to expectations didn’t deter me much. Would there be fancy gunfights? Then that’s enough to put my butt in a seat.
It’s no secret that it’s been a long journey from books to screen, and its very existence may not be a case of anyone cracking the code for how to wrangle so much material into a film, so much as a general sense of “fuck it, let’s just do this thing.”
The film opening this weekend is the result of all that effort. It’s the thing that they did. And it’s fine! It’s not terrible! It’s fast and lean and doesn’t lag for a moment. Considering the source material leans heavily on pop culture pastiche and the film is basically a Stephen King pastiche, I have an urge to compare the forward momentum of the film to that of Blaine the Mono, the train that first appeared in the third Dark Tower book, The Waste Lands. No, he doesn’t make an appearance in the film (or at least not one that I noticed). But like so many parts of the books, he’s an image that sticks. He’s a train rolling toward oblivion, operating with a strange sort of logic all his own. He’s also suicidal.
I know, the image is a stretch. But the thing is, attempting to tackle this King story, out of all his many many stories, is self defeating. The fact that Arcel managed to keep this bad boy on the right track at all is impressive.
To spare you more poorly conceived comparisons, I’m going to break this review down into two parts. First, let’s pretend you have never read a Stephen King book in your life. Then, afterward, I’ll try and drag in some insights for all you readers out there. Cool?
The Dark Tower is the story of a boy named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), who has been having some crazy-ass fucked up dreams. Dreams of a Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), and creepy people with faces that seem to slide off. Dreams of a mysterious abandoned house, and a Gunslinger (Idris Elba). Dreams of a tall Tower, and a bunch of children being strapped to a device that somehow channels their energy into a beam aimed to bring the tower down. If that happens, he sees darkness and fire. The dreams seem to coincide with mysterious earthquakes that are shaking New York City. His mother, step-father, and therapist all think that he just hasn’t gotten over the death of his father, a firefighter (probably all that darkness and fire stuff). So they agree to pack him off for a weekend to an asylum recommended by the school. Because, you know, asylums can fix people over the course of a weekend. NBD.
Too bad the people who show up to collect him have that weird face thing going on. So Jake runs away and manages to find the house from his dreams, stops the house from trying to eat him (natch), and then jumps through a portal into a barren wasteland (“Mid-World) to look for the one man he’s seen stand up to the Man In Black: the Gunslinger from his dreams. A man named Roland.
If you hadn’t figured it out yet, Jake isn’t just your average boy from Brooklyn. He is A Very Special Boy. He’s probably The Specialest Boy In The World(s). He’s Harry Potter. Only instead of magic he’s got the Shine, as they say (in The Shining, for example). It’s basically telepathy, or psychic powers, or I dunno, mental woo woo shit. Those kids the Man in Black has been using to try to tear down the Tower aren’t doing the job fast enough because their shine isn’t strong enough. But Jake is the pure, uncut shit. He is just what the Man in Black needs to get the job done.
So Jake is searching for the Gunslinger, who is searching for the Man In Black (who killed Roland’s father, poor dear Dennis Haysbert), who is searching for Jake. Got it?
Jake finds his target first, and after a little light “WHO SENT YOU?!” (complete with some mild dangling off a cliff), Roland lets him tag along — because he realizes that Jake has seen the base where the Man in Black (who is named Walter, by the way) is stationed. And here we get some handy fireside exposition as Roland explains why the Tower matters in the first place. It connects all the worlds (his, Jake’s, and more), and when it takes damage it reverberates across the realities. Hence those earthquakes. Should it fall, it will unleash all the horrible bad icky demon things that are waiting just outside its beams, trying to get in. Which apparently is Walter’s evil end game. Not that Roland cares. He’s not trying to save the Tower, he just wants to kill the Man in Black.
And here is where their journey begins together, through the woods to a weird agrarian steampunk village and straight on to New York again (which is on “Keystone Earth” apparently) as they try and make their way to Walter’s base and his kiddie-powered laser.
The movie has to cover a lot of ground — introducing characters, motivations, multiple realities, and a whole world-shaking mythology. This is an entirely new fantasy journey told in 95 minutes. And to keep the steady pace, it relies heavily on expository dialogue. Like, a lot of it. But it’s mostly coming from Elba and McConaughey, who sell the shit out of it. The Gunslinger is dusty and weary, with sharp eyes and a gravelly voice. He’s a hero that has already fallen, and you can almost feel all the stories in his past just radiating off him like energy. It’s a given that Elba elevates anything he’s in, but that doesn’t mitigate the joy of seeing him take center stage in a Hollywood epic like this. He’s not just stealing a few scenes while being sidelined as an Asgardian gatekeeper or a pilot or yelling at people in giant robots. He’s working a leather duster and some fancy six-shooters like a BOSS. He’s flat-out captivating. And McConaughey has the toughest job of the lot, selling a lot of chunky verbiage while playing a gleefully malevolent wizard. Everything about him is a bit too much (oh god, the dyed black hair and exposed chest!), but he plays Walter as a breezy, unpredictable force that isn’t actually forced. He somehow makes it all look natural and fun, every time he casually tells someone to stop breathing or kill or hate (and they do it). It’s impressive, frankly, because it would be so easy to just Pacino the crap out of that role.
But it’s Jake’s movie more than it is theirs, and that’s the problem. Tom Taylor is great. And by that I mean he manages stand next to those titans on screen and not annoy you like a lot of child stars do. He is brave and scared and bewildered in turn, and I think he’s perfectly cast. It’s just that no matter how good he is, it’s Elba’s Gunslinger who feels like the gravitational center the whole story wants to revolve around. The movie comes alive when the two meet, and it isn’t until that moment that you realize just how by-the-numbers it felt until that point. And in the end, when you walk out of the theater, you’ll realize that the whole movie was an exercise in by-the-numbers storytelling — albeit one that takes a lot of detours to cram in set pieces.
(Like, did they REALLY need to go back to NYC together? Fuck no. But I’m not gonna argue with Idris as Roland as a fish out of water, scaring some nice doctors with his crazy talk and drinking Coca-Cola for the first time. It was enough fun that you almost don’t mind that it’s clearly a detour they intentionally wrote in JUST for those interactions.)
The heavy exposition and the economy of the script rely on the fact that we are all versed in fantasies and hero’s journeys at this point — but having a lot of story and making us care about that story are two different things. The cluttered simplicity doesn’t stop when Elba shows up. There’s just something so much better there to distract you.
If nothing else, there is novelty in seeing a movie attempt that amount of world-building in such a short amount of time, compared to the other bloated 2+ hour epics that are all the rage these days. Credit where it’s due, the fact that it accomplishes so much while still making sense and fitting in some surprises makes it all the more impressive — and frustrating. Just because it’s a pastiche doesn’t mean it needs to rely on the same old tired story beats to move along. King’s story was a pastiche of a lot of elements (Clint Eastwood meets The Lord of the Rings), but it used those elements in new and original ways. Perhaps that’s the thing the filmmakers could have focused on.
Ultimately, I think the movie may be more enjoyable to non-King readers, who will have an easier time taking it for what it is: a relatively competent little fantasy film, carried by a remarkable cast, that doesn’t take up a whole lot of your time. As always, it’s worth it for Idris Elba. For the more serious King fans, there are a lot of enjoyable little moments that only they will pick up on — but they may be more distracted by their own expectations based on the source material.
And that’s where I’ll leave things, as far as the movie itself is concerned. For those of you who want a few more thoughts on how it ties to the books, along with some some heavy plot spoilers regarding that ending, read on.
Still with me? Ok. First, I’m sure you’re aware that there are a lot of fun little King Easter eggs in the film (some, like the ruins of the Pennywise theme park, were pointed out in the trailers). Numbers play a big part in the books, so I was always on the lookout for those, but the one that made me smile was a “1408” sighting (which is the title of one of his short stories, about a creepy hotel room). Book fans may miss Susannah and Eddie, but I missed Oy the billy-bumbler. Or I did, until I saw a very pointed commercial playing on a TV in a hospital room featuring talking raccoons. There are plenty of those sorts of nods and nuggets sprinkled throughout the movie, things that don’t make a difference one way or the other in terms of the plot, but still let you know that someone behind the screen cared enough to include them.
If you’ve read the books, you know that they were never really about Jake at all. They were always about Roland, and that DNA was hard to shake in this reimagining. I get why they chose Jake: common wisdom asserts that we need a character whom the audience can relate to as our window into any strange new fantasy worlds. A nice kid from Brooklyn, or a weird vaguely Arthurian/Spaghetti Western knight from another reality? Safe money is always on Brooklyn. But to sell it, Jake is transformed from an important kid into that Specialest Boy In The World — which I called Harry Potter before, but you knew what I really was talking about. He’s Danny Torrance from The Shining. He’s Jack Sawyer from The Talisman. He is every gifted or important child in any Stephen King story ever. It’s a nice bit of homage in and of itself, really. It’s classic King. But those children were the stars of their own tales, and so this movie had to contort a plot that is literally about how “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed,” into a story that is all about Jake. And to be fair, they found all the necessary elements in King’s writings, waiting to be remixed. Jake was always a bit psychic. The Breakers, those special kids being used to break the beams and tear down the Tower, are a part of the tale. But Jake’s real importance always stemmed from his ties to Roland and his contribution to their ka-tet. Roland is the one who can get to and save the Tower. He may need help along the way. He may need Jake. But the movie replaced all that with Jake being used to break the Tower, and Roland having to save him (and by extension, the Tower).
So here is the big climactic spoiler. Ready? In the end, Roland succeeds in killing Walter and rescuing Jake. Then they go back to NYC, eat a hot dog, and hop into another portal… to somewhere. The fact that Walter dies fits with the ending of The Gunslinger, the first book in the Dark Tower series, before King reissued a corrected version that makes Walter’s death more ambiguous (so that he and Marten Broadcloak could be the same character later on — the man who is also Randall Flagg). The big question I have is whether this film is a one and done thing, or if it will continue into a larger series that will tackle more of the books. If there are more movies, will we find out that Walter didn’t die of his (rather mortal) wounds? Will Marten appear, and be a separate character? The door is open to more films, because the Crimson King, who is truly the adversary in The Dark Tower books and the one orchestrating the Tower’s collapse, is mentioned in passing on graffiti in the film. It isn’t revealed that Walter is working for him, or what his role is — but the fact that his name is there could be more than just another Easter egg if they want it to be.
The issue is how to interpret the idea that the film represents the next and final cycle of Roland’s journey to the Tower. Much has been made of the fact that Roland has the Horn of Eld in his possession this time around, which he didn’t have in the books. Which makes the film a sequel, really — and goes a long way toward waving away any of the changes made between the books and film. So Roland saves Jake rather than letting him die (as he does in The Gunslinger), and Walter perhaps doesn’t have to be Marten. Who knows! It’s hard to tell, because this movie just isn’t really the tale from the books. It pulls elements and remixes them, but the further it goes off-book the harder it is to anticipate the implications.
One thing I will give the film is that, while it may not feel like the Dark Tower that I have in my mind, it does feel like a Stephen King story to an extent. Not just because of Jake’s Special Specialness, but because of the little moments. The house that tries to eat him. The creature from another dimension hiding in the woods, taking the forms of Jake’s and then Roland’s fathers. The Can-toi henchmen. The ballsy outlandishness of the entire plot, where psychics can break a tower that is the lynchpin binding whole worlds. But the Dark Tower series also had a certain amount of poetry to them, and a way of gripping your mind. I can’t keep all the plot threads straight, but there are scenes I remember from the books so vividly I could have lived them. The movie never comes close to that. It has the trappings of King, but not the spirit.