The Dark Tower (2017)

“I do not kill with my gun. He who kills with his gun has forgotten the face of his father. I kill with my heart.”

Al’s rating: This movie should be eaten by a house.

Al’s review: Tull. Slow mutants. Death – but not for you, gunslinger. Lobstrosities. Eddie Dean. Detta Walker. Tooter-fish sandwiches. A giant bear with a radar dish on his head. The Rose. The vacant lot. Oy. The Tick Tock Man. Blaine the Mono. Defeating evil artificial intelligences with the power of bad jokes. Maerlyn’s Grapefruit. Your true love being burned alive by a family member. Robots that look like Doctor Doom and wield lightsabers. The word ‘Commola’ a lot. Razor-sharp dinner plates. The realization that you might actually be a fictional character. Turtles of enormous girth. Stephen King himself. The Church of the Almighty God-Bomb. Black 13. An apocalyptic spider-baby. The Crimson King. A last-minute deus ex machina character who can get you out of the corner you wrote yourself into. A giant field of roses. Any actual sort of interaction with the tower at all.

Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t see you there. I was just busy listing off things you will not find in the movie version of The Dark Tower.

What’s that, you say? It sounds like they left out a lot? Well, if you bring it up to the filmmakers, they’ll happily explain the loophole in the books that still makes this film a valid version of The Dark Tower story. And they’re not wrong. In their rush to exploit that loophole, however, they didn’t bother to check whether their totally valid new version of The Dark Tower is something that anybody actually wanted to see.

I’ve been reading and re-reading the Dark Tower books for over twenty years at this point. Warts and all, it is a series that has become a part of my pop-culture DNA. That means I should feel enraged by this movie. I should be seething that they took a book series with so much character and spectacle and bizarro plot and turned it into this movie. I should be livid that they took the very highest caliber of Buzzfeed listicle dream casting and made those actors recite these lines in the middle of this galumphing trudge of a film. But I don’t. Instead I just feel sad and disappointed.

Let’s talk plot. The Dark Tower movie is the story of Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a teenager in New York City who has psychic visions he doesn’t understand. He makes drawing after drawing of a lonely gunslinger, of a terrifying Man in Black, and of a dark tower that stretches to the sky. Jake’s classmates think he’s a loser and his parents think he’s trouble. Just as they are getting ready to have him committed, however, Jake realizes he’s not crazy and he’s not safe. He makes a dramatic escape from the Forces of Evil followed by a leap through a futuristic portal, and he is brought face-to-face with the man in his drawings: Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), Gunslinger of Mid-World.

The Gunslingers are a nearly-extinct order of pistol-toting paladins, and Roland, their last soldier, is on a mission to save The Dark Tower from being destroyed by Walter, the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey). The Dark Tower stands at the center of the multiverse and if it were to fall – if, for example, Walter forced an unstable teenager to put the whammy on it with his psychic powers – it would mean the end of all existence. Roland reluctantly accepts Jake as his padawan learner and, together, they need to journey through both Mid-World and Keystone Earth to find Walter, stop his evil plans, and ensure that the Dark Tower will be safe forever.

So, that’s the plot of this 90-minute movie. It is definitely NOT the winding, self-indulgent, whackadoodle plot of the Dark Tower book series. I know what an impossibility it would be to eat that elephant, but I also don’t think it gives them license to disregard 90% of the source material, then totally make up their own thing and declare they are bringing Stephen King’s vision to the screen.

I have been known to roll with changes, though, even big ones, and characters seemed to offer a glimmer of hope: Idris Elba appears every inch to be Roland of Gilead, and Tom Taylor is totally serviceable as Jake. I’ve seen Matthew McConaughey ooze the right mischievous charm needed for the Man in Black, so that was alright alright alright by me. Clearly, the casting director and costume designer clearly GET this story.

I just wish I could say that about the rest of the production team. This Roland is not the gunslinger we’ve waited decades to see on screen. Instead of an ancient warrior forged with deep steel and unflagging in purpose, he is a tired, broken man who is a on the verge of giving up. Instead of Walter, the arrogant, playful, dangerous imp; we get a Walter who exhibits no dramatic flair, no creativity, and no intelligence. He strides into poorly-lit rooms, spouts off clumsy dialogue, and then maybe says magic words to make someone kill themselves. Then he is off to the next poorly-lit room to rinse and repeat. Movie Walter is a Generic, All-Purpose Evil Guy. Why is he killing people? Because he’s evil. Why does he want to destroy the tower? Because he’s evil. The script asks nothing of the actors, and the actors give nothing back to the script. It must have been the easiest paycheck they’ve ever taken.

Mid-World itself is just as big of a character in King’s story, so its naturally just as big of a disappointment here. The books describe it as a world that has “moved on.” It is a land of ruin, but magic and technology dance at its edges. It should be full of creepy creatures and fantastic ancient inventions. It should be teeming with reminders of the past that are familiar to the viewer but not quite right. It should have ancient robots and billy bumblers and armies of senior citizens fighting to the death in broken-down cities. Instead, the Mid-World we get in this film is black and brown and grey, and full of dirty people living in tent towns. Its small and barren and boring in a way that the books never were.

Upon my rewatch (because I did sit through it twice), I found small things that I enjoy. I like the Low Men with their fake faces. I like the recitation of the gunslinger litany. I like that they refer to Jake’s powers as his shine (not a book thing, but a cute King connection nonetheless). I love the bullets dancing as Roland reloads in the middle of a firefight, and his attempts to deal with “real people’ when he wakes up in New York at one point.

But none of these marginal bright spots forgive the other 85 minutes of this movie. Readers who love The Dark Tower series tend to love it for how joyously it dives into weirdness, but there is no joy here and there is no weird. It appears that neither the screenwriter nor the director understands who these characters are, what they are doing here, or why anybody should care. Frankly, I have a hard time believing that the architects of this movie are fans of these books at all. Every line of dialogue in this film is a cliché. Every narrative decision feels like it was made by committee. It’s insulting that they would give audiences something so normal and try to call it The Dark Tower. Everyone involved in this mess has forgotten the faces of their fathers and when I’m on my next trip to the field of roses, spending ninety minutes on this movie is a choice I won’t be making.

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Justin’s rating: Oy vey

Justin’s review: Back in college, I think I would have killed (with my heart) to get this movie. I went through a pretty heavy Stephen King phase in the ’90s, fascinated in particular with his genre-crossover blockbusters The Stand and The Dark Tower. The latter, in particular, captivated my imagination with the tale of a lone gunslinger in a worn-down, post-apocalyptic horror world who was on a quest to reach and save the titular tower. Along the way he assembles a family, overcomes great odds, and jumps across Kings’ many novel settings.

It was a great ride, but in the years since, my passion for Roland the gunslinger and his ka-tet has simmered greatly, and my interest in King’s books all but vanished. Life is like that, sometimes. We move in an out of interests. So while I would’ve been in the theaters on day one if this film had been released in 1998, it’s taken me three years to see it at all.

I don’t think the word-of-mouth and critical drubbing that The Dark Tower got helped in that regard. This movie came only after a decade-long struggle to get it made at all, and the end result was a fairly brief 95-minute ride that took a lot of liberties with the setup and gave us a different experience than the eight-part book series. From both interviews and from some hints within the film itself, apparently the movie is more of a sequel to the books than a retelling of them, which makes it all that much more confusing.

Yet after watching it, I sat back, stroked my chin, and thought… that wasn’t half-bad. For starters, the acting is actually pretty strong, with a brooding Idris Elba as Roland Deschain, a likeable Tom Taylor as Jake Chambers, and a gaunt, malevolant Matthew McConaughey as Walter, the Man in Black. The movie also looks pretty good, moves along at a nice clip, has a few great action set pieces, and delivers more than a few welcome references to the books. Hearing Roland repeat the gunslinger mantra or seeing him do his speed-loading trick gave me chills. And despite it being PG-13, there are a few scenes that are pretty visceral and unnerving.

That said, it’s a weird diversion from the books because it’s similar while also going in a different direction. In this telling, Jake is a modern-day kid who has the “shine” (yes, from The Shining) and has strong visions of Walter and Roland and their battle to destroy and save the Dark Tower, respectively. He’s also being hunted by kid-snatchers who are using shine-empowered kids to launch some sort of psychic assault on the Tower itself. Escaping some pretty freaky skin-changers, Jake jumps through a portal into Mid-World, the aforementioned rundown setting where Roland has been questing for many lifetimes.

Except that now, apparently, Roland has given up the quest to reach the tower and is more about vengeance against Walter for killing his father. If you’re coming to the movie from the books, it’s jarring to see him like this, and if you’re coming to the movie fresh, then I guess he just comes off as another disenfranchised hero. While a lot of time is given to Jake, at least to his journey, not as much is handed to the more more intriguing gunslinger. In fact, the movie only feels like it’s starting to get going in the last half-hour or so, when Jake and Roland team up together and hop between worlds.

As a previous super-fan of the books, I can’t help but feel let down that Mid-World has a kind of generic feel that isn’t explored. Sure, there are some villagers who say “thankee sai” and some random demons, but it’s lacking the character that it had in spades in the novels. We could’ve at least gotten the city of Lud or Blaine the Train, for pete’s sake!

The ending, at least, teases the possibility of the start of a series, and I do like that. It would’ve been great if The Dark Tower explored what a gunslinger actually was, or connected with Eddie, Detta, and Oy the Bumbler, or spent more time in Mid-World than in modern NYC. And for the film to mention things like the Crimson King and the Dark Tower without much explanation is another missed opportunity to make this something more than an above-average fantasy flick.

It’s not horrible. It really isn’t. If we do get sequels or a miniseries some day, it might be viewed in a much better light when it’s not the only cinematic vision of these novels. But The Dark Tower can’t hold up the legacy that it tries to bear. It forgot the face of its father.

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