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‘The Dark Tower’ Review: Bad Stephen King Adaptation, Perfectly Okay YA Adventure

Forget everything you know about Stephen King’s ‘The Dark Tower,’ because this isn’t it.
The Dark Tower
By  · Published on August 3rd, 2017

Forget everything you know about Stephen King’s ‘The Dark Tower,’ because this isn’t it.

There was never really much of a chance that Stephen King‘s multi-volume fantasy opus, The Dark Tower, would be adapted properly for the screen. An HBO series covering one novel per season might have worked, but as a film franchise there was no real way around the first volume’s quiet simplicity or the later books’ meta weirdness. Despite being bestsellers, they also lack the public awareness needed to justify the big budgets needed to do them justice.

And even if none of that was true… the prospect of a great adaptation was doomed the very minute Akiva Fucking Goldsman (Rings, The 5th Wave, Insurgent) became attached to write and produce. The man’s never met an onscreen action that he couldn’t have his characters verbalize or a plot point he wouldn’t drive into the ground, and while he’s just one of four writers here his sloppy fingerprints are all over it.

That said though, and even with the additional criticisms below, The Dark Tower works just fine as an occasionally fun and middling YA adventure. It’s nowhere near the film fans of King’s books wanted, but it’s a better one than we feared.

This is Jake Chambers’ (Tom Taylor) tale even more than Roland the Gunslinger’s (Idris Elba). The boy has been troubled since the death of his father and suffers vivid dreams detailing an enormous tower, the Man in Black’s (Matthew McConaughey) efforts to destroy it, and the gunslinger’s quest to kill him before he succeeds. Jake’s family, friends, and therapist think he’s imagining things, but when evil creatures in human skin attempt to snatch him up he finds his way to a portal and to the world of the dark tower. Deadly monsters, children used as weapons and then discarded, and a defeated and dwindling populace living in the shadow of a devastating war await.

Director/co-writer Nikolaj Arcel crafts a competent and sporadically thrilling film from a script that cherry picks elements equally from King’s novels and familiar genre tropes. The key battle is between Roland’s good and Walter’s (aka the Man in Black) evil, but Jake plays a pivotal role as “the one” child whose mental power — his “shine” — is capable of saving or destroying the tower, and thereby the universe itself. We’ve seen this story before as the modern boy and fantastical hero clash and mesh, each taking turns as fish out of water on their way to a final battle, but while the narrative beats fail to surprise the ninety minute ride delivers a few affecting beats, some laughs, and just enough personality.

Taylor is fine as the boy alternating between awe and distress at what he’s experiencing, but the film belongs to McConaughey and Elba. That latter takes a bit to warm up, an effort that mirrors his growing relationship with Jake, but Elba finds the character’s stoicism and convinces as a legendary warrior. McConaughey has the far flashier villain role and delivers an ominous and cruel killer with a darkly humorous streak. His jet black hair stands as possible evidence of re-shoots — it’s spiky in some scenes and a brushed back pompadour moments later — but his performance remains slick and casually chilling throughout.

A few familiar faces appear in minor roles too including Jackie Earle Haley as the leader of New York City’s rat-people contingent — don’t ask — and Fran Kranz as a sweater-wearing technician in Walter’s pseudo-gothic control room on another world. Neither character comes with even the slightest explanation and instead join a growing number of questions the film seems uninterested in answering. Why are they punching a clock for Walter in a bid to end the world? Who built the tower, and what powers it? Where do Walter’s kids come from? How has Roland not found the man’s giant, metal, pyramid-shaped headquarters after dozens of years of wandering? A longer, more in-depth telling of the tale might explain these things and more, but this jumbled piecemeal of a film isn’t interested.

Like Arcel, cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk proves himself capable without ever truly standing out. The camera moves through action sequences with a steady hand, and while later gunfights hold the attention through sharp effects and deadly outcomes it’s an early rooftop foot chase in NYC that feels the most alive. The film’s CG is effective with eye-catching landscapes and an (admittedly darkly-lit) encounter with a large creature revealing a creative design, but as with so much of what the film has to offer it all works in the moment, for its hour and a half run-time, without ever feeling all that memorable once the lights come up.

Small moments work well including quick nods to King’s universe that pop for the fans — a photo of the Overlook Hotel, a toy Christine, references to Pennywise and 1408 — the banter between Roland and Jake, particularly while on Earth, delivers some laughs, and at a quick ninety minutes the lulls are almost nonexistent. There’s also a welcome nuttiness to it at times in the humor and in the side characters, and like everything else there’s just enough of it to keep you engaged.

The Dark Tower should have been more than just fine, and fans of the books are destined to be disappointed unless they can separate King’s vast, endlessly imaginative creation from the neutered, far more palatable story being told on-screen. It was never a story for the masses, and attempts to overcome that have traded the fantastic for the familiar and the mesmerizing for the mundane. It is, rather consistently, an entertaining enough diversion.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.