“The Dark Tower” is not the usual kind of book-to-film adaptation.
Normally, directors approach an adaptation in one of two ways: They either retell the story of each book directly, such as with “The Lord of the Rings,” or else they take various elements of the original work and reconstitute them however they want, such as was done with “Valerian.” “The Dark Tower,” on the other hand, is actually a sequel to an eight-book series of the same name written by Steven King.
This means that the first thing people are going to ask when dissecting this movie’s failure—and it is a failure for reasons that will become clear shortly—is whether or not the film’s unusual version of shared continuity was to blame. Despite some commenters’ dismissal of the idea as being inherently absurd, it could be made to work in theory. Plenty of people watch second installments of a series without having seen the first, or get into a TV show midway through a season. True—books tend to get less exposure than movies, so a lot more people will be going into the film blind. The question then becomes whether the film is able to tell a story and stand on its own two feet.
“The Dark Tower” does accomplish that to a degree, in that the plot makes sense without having to read the books. There are undoubtedly moments that are improved by having greater background information, and it does feel like there is a lot of internal mythology left on the cutting room floor, but audience members don’t have to worry about getting lost, because they didn’t read the eight novels that the film is a sequel to.
However, “It tells an understandable story” is basically the closest thing to praise that the movie’s plot deserves. The setup is that a young boy in New York named Jake has been having dreams about a mysterious “man in black” who is trying to destroy a strange tower by using power siphoned from captured children. He is opposed by a group called the Gunslingers, who have been less than successful in countering his machinations.
As these things tend to go, it turns out that Jake’s dreams are actually visions, and the man in black is an evil sorcerer from another dimension named Walter, who sends minions to capture Jake. He manages to escape and finds a portal to the dimension where the titular Dark Tower is located. He is rescued by Roland, one of the Gunslingers from his dreams and the only surviving member of his order. Roland explains that the Dark Tower protects the multiverse from demons, and Walter is kidnapping telepathic children in order to use their power to destroy the tower, thus ending all worlds.
If any part of that sounds like the setup for a Saturday morning cartoon show, that’s fitting, because Walter has all the nuance of a cartoon villain. He is never given any reason for wanting to destroy all life, and he seems to be evil just for the sake of being evil. At least real cartoon villains tend to be colorful and interesting, but Mathew McConaughey lacks the charisma to breathe life into what is ultimately a one-note villain archetype. This would have been barely forgivable if Walter had been meant to be some kind of demon or evil god as the trailer seems to imply, but having the character be ostensibly human just makes it worse somehow. It’s hard to tell if this was an issue with writing, acting, casting or directing, but the character is crying out for an over-the-top performance, and McConaughey’s evil Dean Winters impression just doesn’t cut it.
The other performances are nothing spectacular, either. Tom Taylor has the role of Jake, and he conducts himself about as well as can be expected from a reasonably talented child actor. He has some decent chemistry with Idris Elba as the Gunslinger and surrogate father-figure Roland, but it’s nothing that hasn’t been done better before. Elba almost feels like he’s phoning it in half the time. He’s just going through the motions of this genre’s version of the jaded ex-cop routine, though considering what he’s given to work with, you can’t really blame him. There is no prize for guessing that Jake’s boyish optimism is what it takes to remind Roland that there are still things worth fighting for.
For what it’s worth, the father-son dynamic between Jake and Roland is one of the few things that actually works. Some of their scenes together are genuinely touching, and there are a few chuckle-worthy moments involving Roland misunderstanding normal earth things. However, that doesn’t make up for the rest of the movie being mediocre and predictable.
“Predictable” really is the operative word for the whole enterprise. There isn’t a single thing that doesn’t feel like it was copied from another better movie. The whole opening act feels like it was lifted straight from “Percy Jackson,” and it’s not like that series was a paragon of originality in the first place. The protagonist has a dead father, so, of course, his stepdad is kind of an asshole. Walter’s powers are vague and uninteresting, and his henchmen are just generic monsters in budget-friendly human skin suits. The shootouts are so fake that the faceless goons might as well have been mannequins, and Roland’s gun-fu and slow-motion trick shots would have been cool if “The Matrix” hadn’t done them better almost two decades ago. The whole thing is so paint-by-numbers that there isn’t a single major sequence or plot point that can’t be seen coming a mile away.
Also, Walter’s motivation isn’t the only thing to never be properly explained. The normal human world is referred to as Keystone Earth, something that sounds significant but, despite being mentioned a dozen times, never gets explained. Presumably, it has something to with its position in the “map” of the universe, which looks like a wagon wheel with the world containing the Dark Tower at the center. That would just be a guess, however, as would the source of Roland’s immunity to Walter’s mind control and almost supernatural resilience. At one point, Walter mentions that Roland is a descendant of King Arthur and that his guns are forged from the melted-down Excalibur, so maybe that was supposed to be the reason. However, seeing as no mention is ever made of trying to separate Roland from his guns, Walter is either an idiot or that is meant to be unrelated.
While “The Dark Tower” may not be the worst movie in theaters this summer, it fails on almost every level. There isn’t a single performance, effect, set piece or event that doesn’t feel like a discount version of something else. The film had a pretty troubled production and it really shows, as it’s full of half-realized concepts and omitted details. It is left as a monument to throwing good money after bad, riddled with fragments of what might have been good ideas.