The Dark Tower – Film Review
Director: Nicolaj Arcel
Cast: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor
by Roger Crow
In 1990 I remember listening to the first audiobook of The Dark Tower, Stephen King’s much talked about epic. Part Western, part Lord of the Rings-style fantasy, it had caught the attention of Hollywood, like so many of his tomes do, and like many sprawling fantasies, it languished in development hell. For decades.
Fans of chilling movie masterpiece The Mist will have seen a nod to The Dark Tower at the start of that film. One cross reference in a movie that good is fine. It’s a sly nod and moves on fast.
In the first few minutes of The Dark Tower we have nods to Cujo, Christine, and later The Shining, It, 1408 and The Shawshank Redemption. Fans will no doubt spot a lot more. As a King addict who devoured many of his best works in the 1980s, I was pretty bored. ‘Yes, we get it!’ I mentally yelled at the screen, wondering how long it would be until our young hero wound up with a girl called Carrie, who lives in a ‘dead zone’ and has trouble with her ‘Cell’ phone after taking her cat ‘Tommyknockers’ to the ‘pet semetary’.
The plot is more The Dark Crystal than The Dark Tower as abducted kids from Earth are strapped into chairs on another world and used to power some laser in the hope of destroying the eponymous construct. Said building is the thing that stops evil man in black Walter (Matthew McConaughey) from becoming all powerful. Or something.
We don’t get much of a look at the Tower, which is a shame, as I’d be more fascinated by it than Jake (Tom Taylor), the generic kid who is haunted by bad dreams and sketches with perfect clarity everything that is going to happen in the next hour or so. It’s like Richard Dreyfuss making models of Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters, only a lot less subtle.
The kid’s guardians are concerned about the lad when his obsessions become more intense. So when a couple of so-called experts turn up to carry him off for psychological examination, there’s no surprise that his folks (a soccer mom and a gruff stepdad) side with two creepy strangers rather than the troubled lad. They’re that stupid.
Thankfully our young hero has perfectly sketched an old house in New York that someone online recognises, so after a breathless chase, he winds up there, and is transported to the other world. Jake crosses paths with Roland (Idris Elba), the Gunslinger whose skills with revolvers are the stuff of magic. He shoots with his mind and his heart rather than his eyes. I should know it verbatim the amount of times we have to sit through the same speech, first via Roland and his dad (24 veteran Dennis Haysbert) and then again and again before it’s reused in the third act.
Threading his way from world to world and scene to scene is McConaughey, who has the intensity of a man wondering whether to have chicken or fish for dinner. He’s a magnificent actor when the occasion demands in projects such as True Detective, but here his skills are sold short by the humdrum script.
“Stop breathing,” he tells random characters, and they do. They just drop dead. No tension. No reaction. Just lives snuffed out of existence. We care so little about them that there’s no sense of loss. If Elba weren’t so magnetic, McConaughey would have been the character I rooted for most.
The movie is part of an enormous universe with no doubt more complex characters and interesting locations. If so, just a shame so few of them made it into the first part of a multi-platform saga; a TV series is due next year.
One of the problems is the lack of humour. Even when Roland winds up in New York and there’s a chance to experience the sort of fish-out-of-water fun that made a Crocodile Dundee so enjoyable, the filmmakers stick to a path so earnest, there’s little wonder Idris looks so pained at times. All good movies need levity and there’s a Grand Canyon-sized hole where any gags could have been.
By the finale, things get more interesting with Elba proving why he can keep the most leaden project afloat. An epic shootout with humdrum bad guys is the film’s most interesting moment.
Eventually the movie reaches a conclusion and easily the dullest closing scene of any motion picture in recent years. It features a closed door and a suggestion of magical things beyond it. (The last five minutes feels like a TV movie pilot setting up a telly saga).
It’s as if producer (and original director) Ron Howard was so busy trying to salvage the young Han Solo movie, he signed off on the film, sight unseen. A shame as this could have been something special. Alas, the kid in it is pretty bland, the script annoyingly predictable and the tone is so by-the-numbers that there’s little wonder it’s such a let down.
A towering disappointment.