For Stephen King fans at the turn of the millennium, the Dark Tower series was what George R.R. Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire is now: a gritty epic that stood as its author’s most sweeping accomplishment, but looked like it might never be finished. King’s genre-hopping series about a grim hero from a post-apocalyptic world, eternally battling his way across realities toward a mystical tower, launched in 1982 with The Gunslinger. But the sequels came at distressingly long intervals, and it frequently seemed as though King had shelved his magnum opus entirely. Fans waited more than 20 years for the complete story, which spanned thousands of pages and seven books, plus a later anthology, a series of graphic novels that expanded the series’ backstory, and a long series of crossover references in seemingly unrelated King novels and stories.
So it’s inevitable that the first film adaptation would be something of a disappointment for fans, because no one movie — especially not one that clocks in at a scant 95 minutes — could possibly live up to the epic image of this character and this world in their heads. And it’s particularly difficult to adjust to the way the story has been remodeled for a mainstream audience, and steamrollered flat into a familiar fantasy form. The Dark Tower, helmed by Danish director Nikolaj Arcel, is so simplified in places that it seems outright generic.
At the same time, though, it’s peppered with details and inside jokes that only King readers are likely to understand. The film, which emerged from a well-publicized, troubled process of studio-switching development, reshoots, and delays, feels like it’s perpetually at war with itself. It’s alternately aimed at newcomers to the series, who presumably need hand-holding through the story beats, and insiders who can fill in the narrative gaps for themselves, and feel the weight of significance on things given little gravity in the film. But the struggle to appeal to both halves of its presumed audience has left the film conflicted and erratic, a puzzling mix of highly specific details and frustratingly broad fantasy strokes.
That confusion over the intended audience isn’t the only way The Dark Tower works against itself. The script, credited to Arcel and three others (including Akiva Goldsman, also a writer on the comically botched adaptations of Winter’s Tale, Insurgent, and The 5th Wave), struggles to establish whose story is important, what tone the film should take, and whether this is meant as a stand-alone story where the loose ends can be neatly wrapped up, or a franchise-launcher meant to draw people into a cinematic universe.
King’s series kickoff The Gunslinger starts straight off with its battle-weathered protagonist pursuing a hated enemy across a desert. But Arcel’s Dark Tower attempts to ease newcomers into its world through the point of view of Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a young New Yorker haunted by nightmares about the magical Dark Tower, and a hideous child-powered machine that’s being used to rip holes in it. The dreams seem to be connected with a global rash of increasingly severe earthquakes, but naturally, no one believes Jake when he frets over the possibility that his visions of otherworldly crisis might have significance in his world. His concerned mother (Katheryn Winnick) and sullen stepfather (Nicholas Pauling) assume he’s having a psychotic break, and needs intense therapy.
But eventually, Jake learns what the opening titles already explained — that there are many worlds, and the tower is an artifact at the center of them all, holding back darkness and keeping demons at bay. It’s not exactly clear what that means in the context of the film, since Jake winds up facing demons anyway, and the tower seems to have no effect on the considerable darkness the film’s villain brings into the world. The exposition comes awkwardly in The Dark Tower, with an unapologetic frankness that makes some of the potentially more poetic, mythic reveals land with all the grace of a dropped anvil. And there’s no attempt to build the world’s mythology past the most rudimentary levels. There’s a tower. An evil sorcerer named Walter (Matthew McConaughey) is attempting to destroy it. Jake has visions that might help. And that, apparently, is meant to be enough to carry this opening chapter.
Jake does have a reluctant partner in Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last of a line of honor-bound, gun-wielding warriors whom King modeled after King Arthur and the knights of the round table. In King’s books, Roland is a fantastically hardened, weary man who’s spent his life obsessively seeking the tower. In Arcel’s movie — consciously developed as a sequel to the books, though only die-hard King fans are likely to notice — Roland has become pessimistic and embittered, and has given up on fighting the good fight. Reminded of his oaths to protect the tower, he says the war against darkness is over, the forces of light have lost, and the tower’s destruction is inevitable. His only goal is to take revenge on Walter, who murdered Roland’s father Steven (Dennis Haysbert).
The movie version of The Dark Tower is as much about Roland reclaiming his faith and his will to fight as it is about Walter’s scheme. But the film doesn’t do enough to establish who Roland is, and why his fall from grace and return to heroism should matter. Handled correctly, that lack of focus might just make Roland seem mysterious and compelling. King built him around the iconic imagery of the Arthuriad, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Clint Eastwood’s grim, laconic “man with no name” character from Sergio Leone’s classic Westerns. He’s meant as a figure of larger-than-life fairy-tale resonance, which shouldn’t require detailed explanations. And Elba plays him as a haunted but powerful man, playing up his certainty and force of will in a convincing way.
But the script does him no favors. King built up an entire civilization to explain Roland’s tragic backstory, and the film reduces that entire history to one brief scene, which feels both curiously offhand, and detached from the movie. (It was almost certainly part of those late-in-the-game reshoots.) He’s framed not as a grand and tragic figure, but as a standard-issue reluctant messiah, like so many others. In an overcrowded fantasy-movie landscape, he doesn’t stand out, and the similarly simplified images of a magic tower and an evil killer feel more like lazy shorthand than like iconic figures.
The script has more success with Jake’s coming-of-age story. It does posit him as a frustratingly familiar Chosen One with special powers (dubbed “the shine,” which will ring bells for fans of either the book or film version of King’s The Shining), but it also takes the time to establish his family dynamic, and linger on the pain of a pre-teen discovering he can’t rely on the adults in his life to understand or stand up for him. Tom Taylor plays Jake as a kind of rolling tragedy, staggering through a waking nightmare with dogged determination and admirable grit. But he also steadily brings across the fear involved in facing Walter, whom the script gives near-infinite powers, a towering head of rage, and a habit of casually murdering nearly everyone he sees.
When The Dark Tower just relies on McConaughey’s dead-eyed creepiness, the alienness of Roland’s homeland of Mid-World, and Jake’s struggle to reconcile reality and fantasy, it at least finds an emotional balance that carries the story forward. Even so, Arcel never entirely seems in control of the material. A battle scene in the woods is so dimly lit, it’s impossible to follow. Some fish-out-of-water humor sequences feel like they were cribbed from the wacky time-travel adventures of Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home. One action sequence, involving a demon in a decrepit house, is abandoned mid-stride, then hand-waved away much later in a way that just raises more questions.
And there are too many other questions that feel like first-draft script problems that never got worked out. Why is Roland immune to Walter’s powers? Neither of them even seems remotely curious about that, even though it’s core to their long-term personal vendetta. Why does Walter tell a dying man there’s no afterlife, then instantly turn around and claim hell is real, and he’s been there? Why did the writers think it would be a good idea for McConaughey to interrupt a battle to explain, to no one in particular, that Roland’s guns were forged from King Arthur’s sword? What is Joss Whedon favorite Fran Kranz doing in the middle of all this, essentially reprising his role from Whedon’s TV series Dollhouse?
And above all, who is this film meant for? In so many little ways, it’s a payoff for King fans, who can chuckle in satisfaction when they spot a photograph of the Overlook hotel from The Shining, or the graffiti “All hail the Crimson King,” or the images of roses scattered throughout the film. But it’s also a clumsy, halfhearted setup for a sprawling television and film franchise that would see Roland filling in his backstory and continuing his quest, whatever it may be at this point. King’s series-launcher The Gunslinger was also brief, simple, and broad, and it gave virtually no hints of where the rest of the series would go over the course of its decades-long history. If that book is any example, the Dark Tower film franchise might still recover from this unfocused introduction, and rely on its strongest elements to build the basis for a cinematic universe. But if later films do get off the ground, they’re going to need to spring from more singular, confident visions than this.