Binging on Parlor Tricks and Painkillers
Based on the massive and bestselling seven book novel series by Stephen King, The Dark Tower has been a film stuck in the planning stages for the past decade with three different directors being attached along the way. To make matters even more confusing, the film we’ve received is meant as a sequel and direct continuation of the story picking up where the last book left off. A Royal Affair director Nikolaj Arcel steps in as co-writer and director of the film while Akiva Goldsman (Transformers: The Last Knight), Jeff Pinkner (The Amazing Spider-Man 2), and Anders Thomas Jensen (Men & Chicken) all chip in writing duties on the screenplay.
The Dark Tower is not a smooth experience. Originally pitched by Ron Howard (who is still listed as a producer on the film) as a trilogy of films and a two season television series (which is still happening, by the way), The Dark Tower’s 95-minute duration feels entirely rushed and nothing feels like it’s given the proper amount of time. The story is also clunky and predictable while only offering faint glimpses of something momentarily different through tattered portals that send characters barreling from one lackluster world to another. But its abysmal reputation isn't entirely deserved since the film is much more decent than some are making it out to be.
Interestingly enough, The Dark Tower does have a few gems tucked into a thick blanket of mediocrity. The Jake Chambers character, portrayed by Tom Taylor, is fascinating from a writing perspective. Jake is a young boy cursed with drawing out the nightmares he has every night. While he believes he’s having visions of an alternate world, everyone around him including his best friend, his parents, and his therapist all believe that Jake belongs in a straitjacket and that his issues stem from the loss of Jake’s father a year prior. Jake is an introvert who actually seems to take solace in being alone, but characters like this are usually made out to be weak pushovers who struggle with finding themselves over the course of a film. Jake is of a different mold though. He stands up to bullies without a second thought, he’s determined enough to venture off on his own to seek answers that he believes are important not only to himself but for everyone around him, and his one-liners are far more humorous than anything that comes out of Idris Elba’s or Matthew McConaughey’s mouths. Tom Taylor has this genuine charm about him and while The Dark Tower doesn’t fully explore that it does allow that glimmer in Taylor’s eye to shine on more than one occasion.
The film itself is a science fiction western that feels like it borrows heavily from Stephen Sommers back catalog by trying to cram all of the best moments from Odd Thomas and The Mummy along with elements from Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted into an hour and a half highlight reel. Speaking as someone who hasn’t read the books, viewing the film as a standalone feature was really the only way to approach it. Even looking at it from that perspective leaves you feeling like a trilogy of films was crammed into one brief film. Certain franchises are guilty of milking things out for far too long, but you can easily pinpoint instances where The Dark Tower could have stretched out concepts, performances, and visual sequences for multiple hours and films.
The Dark Tower novels ended up connecting all of Stephen King’s work into one universe. It seems like they may have attempted to do some of that with The Dark Tower film, but for the time being remains to just be Easter eggs for die-hard fans familiar with films based on other books by King. All that really remains is Matthew McConaughey portraying The Man in Black, who is also Randall Flagg in The Stand. McConaughey was rumored to be portraying Flagg in a new film adaptation of The Stand, but since the character has the ability to change his appearance it could mean he will be portrayed by different actors like Tony in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus assuming that adaptation or future works still happen. Jump-starting a Stephen King film universe could have and would have been really cool especially since Universal’s Dark Universe looks like a bust.
The approach Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey take to portraying their roles in The Dark Tower is bizarre. Elba’s Roland Deschain aka The Gunslinger is stoic and stubborn. His demeanor is basically a less funny Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy. Roland is supposedly driven only by revenge and has lost his way as a gunslinger even though he’s the only one left of his kind. The character can do some impressive stuff with ammunition and firing his twin revolvers (which are actually forged from Excalibur), but he’s pretty dull until he steps out of his world (Midworld) and jumps into ours (Keystone Earth). Meanwhile, Matthew McConaughey is obnoxious as The Man in Black. He does nothing but play head games with people all while being pretentiously subtle without an ounce of emotion in his body. If McConaughey didn’t wave his hands around like he was practicing to be the villain in Now You See Me 3, then he’d probably be forgotten entirely.
The film’s biggest issue, even though there are many, is that the finale is overly melodramatic and disappointing. The Gunslinger/Man in Black confrontation is built up to be a big deal throughout The Dark Tower; probably less than it should have been but more than anything else in the film. When the moment finally comes though, it seems really hokey as Roland fires these amazing pistols at an evil sorcerer who makes rocks float in the air to block his bullets. To add more fuel to the fire, Walter begins catching bullets with his hands before throwing them back at Roland as if they were just shot out of a cannon. You’re expecting this all out, no holds barred fight between two eccentric characters and all you get is lukewarm weak sauce.
With all of its production issues and behind the scenes drama (Media Rights Capital aka MRC and Stephen King had the option of vetoing whatever they didn’t like in the film and Sony still had power over MRC to do as they see fit), it’s amazing The Dark Tower is a film that can actually be labeled as completed. While the film suffers from being incredibly mediocre and is likely forgettable, it also isn’t a bad way to spend 95-minutes. The Dark Tower is the type of film you blind buy out of a clearance bin and enjoy as a one-time watch. It’s a sloppy kind of popcorn entertainment like a McRib you ingest with your eyeballs. The Dark Tower is the fast food equivalent of the summer blockbuster.
© 2017 Chris Sawin