Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Cast: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Katheryn Winnick, Claudia Kim, Jackie Earle Haley, Abbey Lee, Fran Kranz, Dennis Haysbert
Plot: A boy (Taylor) has visions of another world collapsing in on itself. While everyone tries to tell him his visions are just dreams, he manages to find a portal to the universe in his head.
The Dark Tower is the kind of story that demands interest, just from its peculiarities. For one, it is the one time Stephen King has breached the world of serialised novels, the Dark Tower an eight book literary series, rather than his usual brand of stand-alone fiction. For another, this film has been trying to get off the ground since 2007, passing through the hands of J. J Abrams and Ron Howard. Here it is, a story of which I know nothing about, but am endlessly intrigued by. The premise: the Dark Tower is a tall, foreboding building at the centre of the universe, which bridges all the parallel dimensions together. If it was to fall, the walls to the demon-world would cave in on itself and bring in hellish creatures from the nether dimension. Meanwhile in Earth, just one of the dimensions in this world, a young boy, Jake Chambers, suffers visions of the Tower being assaulted using the minds of children. While his mother thinks he is acting up after the death of his father, Jake is convinced that his dreams are visions of a bigger truth out there. As he tries to break from his world into the home of the Dark Tower, the real battle rages on. Jake’s visions are actually the history of a long conflict between the Man in Black (a dark mage believed to be the Devil – played astonishingly well by McConaughey) and the Gunslingers, a creed of cowboy lawkeepers. The Man in Black, amusingly known as Walter, wants to bring down the Tower and bring in the monsters. All he needs are the minds of children, but when he realises that there is a young boy on Earth with the power to see into their world, he believes he has a mind strong enough to annihilate the Tower with a single hit.
There is a lot of hate going around for this film at the moment, mainly down to the fact that it is allegedly a pale imitation of the book series. The Dark Tower does strike like the heavily edited version of some weighty material, exposition flying through the audience’s mind Harry Potter style and supporting characters reduced to glorified cameos. However, as someone unfamiliar with the book series, my review offers an insight separate from that of the book lovers. The Dark Tower is not as big a disaster as the fans would have you admit. Boiled down to its bones (admittedly something which started the disdain of this movie), The Dark Tower is a meaty Western set in a fantasy world. Idris Elba plays the last of the Gunslingers, a man who has lost his faith and now uses his holy mission as an excuse to serve out revenge for the death of his father. The mythology of the Gunslingers is intriguing from their controlled love of weapons and their ritualistic chant when in battle. Throw in a child companion in this grizzly world and we are given textbook movie for introducing an audience to a new world. Elba guides both Jake Chambers and us through the world of demons, sages and orc-like henchmen. Yes, drifting is perhaps the word of the day and the main reason people are so disappointed with this movie, but The Dark Tower does stop long enough to flesh out the appropriate things. The casting of Tom Taylor is strong, a child actor that manages to steer clear of the annoying child hero syndrome and deliver depth to his role of misunderstood boy. It is the kind of casting that makes or breaks a movie. Wooden delivery in this role would have been a fatal bullet to the head for this film. Elba, as ever, shines. The role of Roland was probably a lot better in the book, the story about the last of the Gunslingers consumed by revenge, never quite rising above stock Eastwood movie here. But Idris Elba fills his stereotype role with ounces of flavour, moments where he reflects, feeling like painful reflections of a brutal past. Your heart goes out to the character without us ever understanding what made him this way. Of course, McConaughey steals the show with a deliciously monstrous villain. In some ways, McConaughey is even more of a stereotype than Elba, but this is the stereotype you don’t mind having in films. It is a lazy day at the office for a veteran actor like McConaughey, drifting through a role with a Southern drawl and sinister charisma. A cross between Lord Voldemort to Jessica Jones’ Kilgrave, Walter is a tremendous bad guy on offer here, a outrageously powerful dark wizard, hinted to be the Devil, but McConaughey plays the role in such a way that hints he is simply a superbly strong wizard who has been at the heart of chaos for so long, he has forgotten that he is not actually the Devil. Whenever he is on-screen, The Dark Tower goes from solid action to pulse-pounding fantasy thriller. McConaughey has the power to order people to stop breathing, catch bullets with his fingers and jump from dimension to dimension, like a video game character addicted to the Fast Travel function. Even eerier is his nasty habit of telling people there is nothing after death, just before killing them. Scenes where he gets his hands on one of the disposable but likeable supporting characters are lessons in dialling up tension, our hearts in our mouths as we stand there and pray that this certain character isn’t about to be killed off. For all of The Dark Tower’s faults, there are moments like these where it undeniably comes to life.
I guess the real problem with Dark Tower isn’t with what it has, but what it doesn’t have. I am sure fans of the book will agree with me, but for those seeking a strong movie experience, free of prior knowledge of the novels, The Dark Tower is still missing a few decent things. While, on one hand, there are some superbly dark moments, overall there is a massive sense that this movie is holding back on the truly good stuff. The fantasy violence is in full force here, with lots of head-shots and swinging of swords, but minimal blood splatter or on-screen deaths. Most of the characters get killed off-screen, unless they are an enemy red shirt, seeing as they are inhuman monsters. It means that the chilling material McConaughey is given only thrills on a superficial level. Not that there are any characters worth killing off. When you have taken the three leads, and perhaps the mother, out of the equation, everyone is given half a character to work with. Fran Kranz must be frustrated at basically adopting a Topher persona from Dollhouse, but with none of the depth. Comedy would have also been appreciated. Sometimes it does try to cram a gag in there, Idris Elba’s fantasy cowboy hiding out in the real world and being introduced to Coca Cola is supposed to earn a chuckle. But when the Marvel movies have been knocking this sense of humour out of the park on a regular basis, Elba is too stoic and the writing too sharp to land the jokes home. As amusing as Elba in a Earth hospital is, we know the joke would have been ten times as funny in a Thor movie. The story is a little bare also. When you strip away the fantasy elements, it is pretty much a case of getting from Point A to B. By the time, the film hits its climax, it doesn’t really feel like we have even built anything up yet. When the final showdown is over, it almost comes as a surprise. Usually being left wanting more is a good thing, but with this film, it is hard not to feel partially cheated. The major shoot-out, Idris Elba taking on a roomful of thugs, is a little bit bland also. It is the kind of high budget firefight that the original Matrix gave birth to, lone fighters taking out roomfuls of bad guys with nothing more than their speed, accuracy and smarts. Here, it feels like it is trying to mimic that thrill, but with little idea how to achieve it. It gets daft quick and the stakes are pretty low. There is no pondering on how the shoot-out is going to turn out. Overall, the Dark Tower thrills in the moment, but there isn’t really a sense of substance. That is a massive shame when handling a novel series, paramount to the first Harry Potter film being a critical flop. It looks like the Dark Tower movie we have been waiting since 2007 for is still just out of our reach.
Final Verdict: It is a solid enough action thriller, but the dense material proves there was so much more to be gained from the Dark Tower.