Movie Review: The Dark Tower

Approaches competence, but never engages

The unfortunate reviews for The Dark Tower come as no surprise to fans of the original novel series. The sprawling epic is so idiosyncratic that it arguably shouldn’t be adapted to the screen. What a cruel irony then that the filmmakers actually found a plausible and simplified vision for the material yet still ended up with a trash movie.

Perhaps they should have gone for something bigger, stranger, harder — you know something more like The Dark Tower.

The Dark Tower follows a young boy named Jake Chambers who’s plagued with apocalyptic visions of a Man in Black and The Gunslinger on this tail. Jake eventually learns he’s not crazy, but destined to join an inter-dimensional struggle to fend off the end of the world.

The film presents this world-building in a fairly rote fashion. In many ways, the ideas aren’t terribly unique. The books had more pages to obscure the exposition and indulge in meta-commentary on the storytelling. Here, within fifteen minutes, we get Roland — a questing knight-cum-cowboy — and our protagonist, a 12-year-old boy who is actually “special.”

Throughout the comprehensible, if snooze-worthy, runtime the film develops a bland message on surrogate families with our two orphaned heroes. The greatest success of The Dark Tower in comparison to the books is the freedom to hone in on an identifiable theme for the story. As I recall, the first novel is more of a mood piece on the sorrowful end-of-times than a story with a real beginning-middle-end arc. (Please correct me in the comments if I’m wrong). The film’s tight focus on Daddy issues almost justifies the adaptation, if only there were more choices worth lauding also.

The Dark Tower succeeds whenever it aims low. The film ably imitates the fish-out-water style humor from Thor, getting some solid laughs from my audience. In part, that’s a credit to Idris Elba’s comic timing. But is it worth complementing the film for being a good copy of a hoary idea? Hard to say.

Unfortunately, the many obvious failures are made more embarrassing by being so pedestrian in nature. You’d think the main culprit would be the bizarre and alienating mythology of the film. Though the ideas occasionally comes across as stupid or derivative, it’s nothing too harmful. The real issue is laziness: an accumulation of bad dialogue, weak supporting performances, blasé production design, poor color correction, and uninventive fight choreography.

It’s hard to imagine that any of the filmmakers had fun making the picture. If you’ve ever seen a “behind-the-scenes” clip from The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, it’s obvious what reverence and zeal the artists feel for their subject matter. The quality of the craftsmanship can overcome flaws to the story and enhance what already works.

Meanwhile, The Dark Tower comes across as a low-budget early 2000s fantasy film dashed off to capitalize on the success of a more popular franchise (Eragon, anyone?). If you don’t recognize the valuable IP, you’d think it was made explicitly to ape something better.

Visually, I couldn’t help thinking of the obscure Bill Paxton flick Slipstream. You don’t have to watch it; just think about how weird it is that Stephen King’s imaginative book looks more like a shitty 80’s movie than like it’s own, newly minted visual world.

On the whole, the narrow focus and low ambitions of the film proves to be a double-edged sword. I was appreciative of the quick runtime and altogether slim package. Despite the possibility for sequels (and TV spin off) there is no onerous world building here. You don’t need King’s massive digressions to translate some of the fun/dread of his magnum opus.

You just need a little more passion. The Dark Tower dots it’s I’s and crosses it’s T’s, but by God is it all work and no play. As Stephen King said, that makes Jack a dull boy.