The Dark Tower – Film Review by David Minogue.
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Writers: Akiva Goldsman (screenplay), Jeff Pinkner (screenplay)
Stars: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor
Stephen King’s epic book series The Dark Tower began in 1978 when the first novella The Gunslinger was published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Between then and 1981, King wrote four more stories that would become the first volume in an 8 book series. The early stories introduced readers to the books protagonist The Gunslinger, Roland Deschain, and his quest to protect the mythical structure The Dark Tower, that keeps all universes safe from evil, from being destroyed by Roland’s nemesis the Man in Black who is also known as Walter o’Dim. The final book in The Dark Tower series wasn’t published until 2004. Since 2007 the film adaptation of The Dark Tower has been in development with J.J. Abrams initially involved and then Ron Howard. It finally comes to cinema screens directed by Nikolaj Arcel who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen and Akiva Goldsman.
Instead of a straight forward adaptation of the first volume of stories in the series, the film adaptation of The Dark Tower uses elements from the whole series of books. The film’s opening statement that the mind of a child can bring down the tower leads directly into a vision experienced by an eleven year old boy Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), who witnesses the Man in Black (Mathew McConaughey) harnessing the minds of children to destroy the tower and The Gunslinger’s (Idris Elba) crusade to stop him from doing so. Jake is given the briefest of back stories in that he is bereaved of his father and lives in New York with his mother and stepfather who dismiss his visions as just dreams and instead try to help him through psychiatric care. While the city experiences unexplainable earth tremors, Jake witnesses monster like creatures in human skin on the streets that only he can see. He flees his apartment from two such creatures posing as human care workers that his parents believes will help him and within relatively short screen time he discovers a way to be transported into a place that is known as mid–world which resembles the old wild west where he meets Roland, whom he recognises as The Gunslinger from his visions.
By placing Jake at the forefront of the story, Roland becomes someone Jake meets in order to prevent the Dark Tower from being destroyed, instead of being the main character from the story’s onset. Idris Elba is well cast in the role of Roland, he looks the part and plays him with conviction but apart from brief scenes with his father (Dennis Haysbert) there is no substantial back story as to how he became The Gunslinger. The same lack of characterisation applies to Mathew McConaughey, who as Walter o’Dim plays the Man in Black as someone floating in and out of universes with a strange mix of slickness and creepiness. He is afforded some moments of humour but many of these fell flat. Walter’s actions are marked by quick-fire acts of evil but because this is a 12a certificate the killings are either implied or depicted off screen. The tension and scares that make famous Stephen King’s multitude of characters are largely absent. Dotted throughout the film are objects from Stephen King’s other books such as It, The Shining, Christine and The Shawshank Redemption which are connected to the universes surrounding the Dark Tower. These are just presented but never explained.
For the most part The Dark Tower is a sequence of chase, fight, rescue and escape scenes. While some are choreographed well they mostly feel rushed on screen and one of the best in an old abandoned theme park is shot in near darkness. The fact that the characters move in and out of mid world and what is known in the film as Keystone Earth should be thrilling and rich in potential but they are strangely unexciting. It is a film that the many fans had hoped would be faithful to the books but instead in its 90 minute running time, it tries to cram too much in and becomes another fantasy drama aimed primarily at a young teenage audience. While important to the specific scenes that they are in, the few female characters such as Jake’s mother Laurie (Katheryn Winnick) and the Seer Arra Champignon (Claudia Kim) feature only fleetingly throughout the film.
Director Nikolej Arcel showed his skill as a filmmaker with his Swedish language Academy Award nominated film A Royal Affair in 2012 which also brought its stars Mads Mikkelsen and Alicia Vikander to international acclaim so it is unfortunate that his first major Hollywood production is a disappointment. It is writer Akira Goldsman’s influence that is felt throughout this film as the tone and the action sequences are more akin to other films he worked on such as this year’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Transformers: The Last Knight. We can only speculate how J.J.Abrams may have adapted the various books as separate films. Overall The Dark Tower is a missed opportunity where the great source material deserved a better adaptation to cinema.