THE DARK TOWER
By Nathan Evans
Stephen King adaptations rarely work. With the exceptions of ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and ‘The Green Mile’, his writing doesn’t seem to translate well to the big screen. So much of what King produces concerns itself with the paranormal, and because of this, ridiculous ideas that terrify on the page come off as hokey onscreen.
Taking that into account, the film adaptation of King’s magnum opus, ‘The Dark Tower’, had its work cut out for it from the start. Having only read ‘The Gunslinger’, the first novel in the series, I can tell you that the novels are mythic in scope and plunge headfirst into hard dark fantasy with very little explanation. With his adaptation, director Nikolaj Arcel attempts to streamline and clarify King’s narrative into a tight 95 minutes, and, I’m surprised to say, he does a decent job (before I go any further I want to reiterate that my familiarity with the source material is tenuous. I’ve been reading a lot of internet hate for this film, and I know purists will find plenty to loathe throughout it, but as a casual fan I enjoyed Arcel's work).
The film concerns itself with a young boy named Jake (Tom Taylor) who’s been having nightmares of a strange world and a mysterious Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey). In his dreams Jake sees the titular Dark Tower, a mysterious structure at the center of the universe. The Man in Black, for reasons that are never explained, wants to bring the Tower down in order to allow the nightmares that creep at the edge of the universe into our plane of existence. He’s doing this by kidnapping children with psychic abilities and using them to launch powerful psychic blasts at the Tower.
Jake also dreams of another man, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), a Gunslinger; a knight of the Man in Black’s mysterious world. Roland is sworn to protect the Tower, but has given up that mission in the pursuit of revenge. He wants The Man in Black dead for the murder of his father; one of the last true Gunslingers.
After discovering his own Shine (psychic abilities), Jake is accosted by skin walkers, demons working for The Man in Black that wear skin masks to pass as human. In order to escape, he finds a portal from our world to Roland’s. Once there the boy and the man cross paths and embark on a mission to stop The Man in Black from destroying the Tower.
I’m not gonna lie: I got a little lost there in my own summary of the film, so I’m even more impressed with the filmmakers ability to economically build the world of ‘The Dark Tower’. The film’s greatest strength is that it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it doesn’t waste time setting up future sequels. I don’t know whether this was a conscious decision from the start or a signifier of the producers lack of faith in the film (probably the latter), but it’s refreshing to watch a franchise starter that’s only concerned with the narrative at hand (especially after the decent ‘King Arthur’ and the bad ‘Kong: Skull Island’ earlier in the year).
With that said, the film doesn’t necessarily escape the traps of a lot of studio driven, franchise hopeful blockbusters. Most noticeably both Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey seem extremely bored throughout the film. McConaughey flat out looks like he’s waiting to cash his paycheck, and Elba seems to lean almost solely on his inherent cool factor rather than going through the trouble of constructing an actual character. Admittedly, a little bit of that cool factor goes a long way, and does much to keep ‘The Dark Tower’ afloat; at least until the film’s straightforward, yet effective action sequences pick up the rest of the slack.
Though the first couple of action beats feel particularly uninspired (and feature some wonky CGI work), the handful of action set pieces that fill out the back half are solid. Elba strides across the battlefield like a tank, taking out everything that stands in his way with guns forged from the steel of Excalibur. The sound effects at work every time he fires his guns are instantly iconic; letting off a satisfying steel chunk that ranks up there with the thud of an Indiana Jones punch or the whine of Iron Man’s repulsor blasts.
It may seem like I’m straining for positives if the most I can get excited about are some sound effects, but the overall package that is ‘The Dark Tower’ just works. Are there some awkward, under-written, unintelligible moments? Yes. Is there some inexplicably bad ADR work? Somehow yes (there’s one moment in particular where the camera centers perfectly on McConaughey while his mouth clearly isn’t moving though he’s spouting dialogue). Does the film feature a somewhat generic score and flat visual style? Yes. But somehow, warts and all, the film pulled something very important off that a lot of blockbusters overlook: it was fun.
The world of ‘The Dark Tower’ is unique and captivating. While it’s presented in a conventional manner, the spirit of the source material is strong enough that it still manages to bleed through. A lot of the costume design is impressive, including the work done with the skin walkers and Elba’s very cool, western inspired getup. The action sequences get the job done and the whole package is quick on its feet.
Is this the best film we could’ve gotten from King’s source material? Absolutely not, but its clear that the man behind the camera, Arcel, is an actual fan that put his soul into the film. The result is a problematic action film in place of what should’ve been a contemplative dark adventure, but somehow the sum is greater than the parts. You may not need to rush out and see ‘The Dark Tower’, but when the film hits TNT, you’d do worse than to put yourself in front of it.
RATING: 3.75 OUT OF 5
For more reviews and updates on all things Nerd on Film follow me on Twitter (@nerdonfilm) and like the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/nerdonfilm/