5 out of 10
Idris Elba as Roland Deschain / The Gunslinger
Matthew McConaughey as The Man in Black
Tom Taylor as Jake Chambers
Claudia Kim as Arra Champignon
Fran Kranz as Pimli
Abbey Lee Kershaw as Tirana
Jackie Earle Haley as Sayre
Katheryn Winnick as Laurie Chambers
Dennis Haysbert as Steven Deschain
Michael Barbieri as Timmy
José Zúñiga as Dr. Hotchkiss
Alex McGregor as Susan Delgado
Nicholas Hamilton as Lucas Hanson
Magic, like a good joke, works best when you don’t explain it too much. But for being the land of movie magic, Hollywood has traditionally had a problem with actual magic. La La Land has long preferred logic and mechanisms which can be directly communicated and understood by audiences everywhere.
Trying to make the impressionistic reality of fables and fantasy fit into the needs of commercial storytelling always runs a risk of wringing out the ephemeral charm that makes magic, you know, magic. So you can imagine what trying to fit forty years and eight books of genre-mashing weirdness into a 100 minutes of pretty standard action movie is going to end up like.
The Dark Tower is the lynchpin of reality, a multi-mile tall edifice which ties all the worlds of the universe together and, more importantly, keeps out the horde of ravenous creatures waiting in the great beyond. And it is under attack.
The mysterious Man in Black (McConaughey) is tearing at the tower piece by piece. The only thing he needs to tear it down completely is a child of sufficient imagination and sensitivity who he can use his strange machines to transform into a weapon. A child like the troubled Jake Chambers (Taylor), who has been haunted since his father’s death by images of the tower and the Man in Black. And of one other person, a gunslinger (Elba) from another world who is searching for the Man in Black.
What follows is the sort of bog standard boys own adventure Hollywood has become expert at crafting and very bad at making magical. This version, adapted by Akiva Goldsman and Jeff Pinkner (after a decade of development by various other hands), turns its back on the mystery of the Gunslinger chasing the Man in Black across a future desert to focus on Taylor’s boy from a broken family struggling with the oppression of real life.
As The Dark Tower’s point of view character, the idea is that he can introduce us to the weirdness of the Tower’s story after grounding us in modern New York City so that audiences will not feel too lost by direct immersion. It’s not a bad idea; in fact it’s such ‘not a bad idea’ that it has been used by almost every similar action fantasy produced over the last forty years.
Taylor soon finds himself ejected from his middle class life into a world of increasing danger as he discovers he is secretly the key to the Man in Black’s plan and his only chance to survive is to learn to believe in himself regardless of what society teaches him. He is such a clear refugee of ’80s-era Spielbergian filmmaking he could be a cast member on Stranger Things without trouble.
[There is a different and very long essay to be written on the religion of self-belief in the modern studio film, approached with a single-mindedness which would make a Catholic bishop blush].
Bland and cliché filled as Jake is, he wouldn’t be such a problem if his elevation to the heart of the film didn’t require pushing Elba’s Gunslinger to the side. The nominal protagonist of the film, he doesn’t actually appear for more than a reel in order to properly set up Jake’s situation and he is seen mostly through Jake’s eyes, as a reflection of the child’s growth rather than a developed character in his own right.
Elba brings all the sturdy gravitas and action star swagger you could want from the role – all of The Dark Tower’s best scenes come when he is on screen – but he exists on the periphery for so long that the film never takes full advantage of him. Instead, he must split time with Taylor and McConaughey’s Man in Black, neither of whom are nearly as interesting.
McConaughey, in particular, seems overly aware of the iconic nature of his villain and wants to make him a great screen antagonist but isn’t allowed to share the screen with the other characters till the end and is left staring at screens and over acting.
Or expositing. Director Nikolaj Arcel has made a competently-put-together film and the moments when Roland actually does sling his guns well thought out and executed, even if most of the big moments had to be crammed into the big finale giving the beginning a slow pace.
In between, however, with all the character growth given to Jake, the adults are left with the explaining. In order to make sure the travel across planets and telepathy and other pieces of magic don’t leave us behind, Elba in particular is left to explain exactly what the rules are and not much else. Until it becomes time to take on the Man in Black directly, at which point Elba finally gets to slide into the main character slot, but it is a clumsy transition to say the least.
Studios have been making movies like The Dark Tower for a long time and will continue to make them for longer still because these choices do work (right up until they don’t). But they are beyond familiar by this point, which is not a good starting point for magic. It’s not bad. It’s not good. It’s all terribly, terribly rote.