DIR: Nikolaj Arcel • WRI: Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, Nikolaj Arcel • PRO: Akiva Goldsman, Ron Howard, Erica Huggins • DOP: Rasmus Videbæk • ED: Alan Edward Bell, Dan Zimmerman • DES: Christopher Glass, Oliver Scholl • MUS: Junkie XL • CAST: Katheryn Winnick, Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Ask anyone who’s read Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series what they remember most about the books, and their answer will most likely be that iconic opening line. Much like adaptations of his work, King’s novels can vary widely in quality from modern classics such as Different Seasons to the absurdly unsalvageable Tommyknockers, but perhaps none are as divisive among readers as The Dark Tower, the horror writer’s self-declared magnum opus.
Initially conceived as a blend between The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, The Lord of the Rings, and Arthurian legend, the series began as a simple revenge story as basic as its first sentence suggests. The last of a group of magical knights known as gunslingers, Roland, pursues an enigmatic man in black in the hopes to avenge his fallen allies. However, over the course of many years and increasing frustration from demanding fans, King transformed The Dark Tower into a quasi-spiritual and full-blown meta-narrative whereby its characters, including a tongue-and-cheek insertion of Stephen King himself, are at the centre-point of a multidimensional universe which connects all of King’s other novels as a collective story, with its central antagonist influencing the events of those other books.
In other words, near unfilmable. Since its final volume in 2004, talks of an adaptation have been circulating around Hollywood with Ron Howard’s name in frequent attachment. Now, after what can easily be seen as a decade of development hell, The Dark Tower is finally here. And very, very flawed. Following the story of Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a supporting character from the novels, Jake is a New York kid who has repeatedly been experiencing horrible visions in his sleep since the death of his father. In them, he sees the man in black, Walter (Matthew McConaughey), using children to help demolish a tall, black tower in the centre of a wasteland. But Jake also sees a gunslinger, Roland (Idris Elba), who holds immunity to Walter’s influence, and can therefore stop him from destroying the tower. When servants to Walter try to kidnap the young boy, Jake runs to an envisioned portal connected to another world, where he meets Roland and begins his quest with the gunslinger to defend the dark tower from being destroyed.
In a commendable effort to make the story accessible to a much wider audience, The Dark Tower suffers from trying to compact over 4,000 pages into 90 minutes, making most of the story difficult to follow or fully grasp. Heavily edited by studio mandate into a clean 95-minute film, the film skips along from scene to scene, with overuse of flashbacks to fill in the expository gaps left on the cutting room floor. As a result, what occurs can be best described as what might’ve happened had Warner Bros. decided to make one Harry Potter film about all seven books.
While not having precursory knowledge of the series probably benefits those experiencing The Dark Tower with fresh eyes, fans of King might feel especially alienated throughout. Especially in its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references to other Stephen King films, which suggests a collaborative effort to incorporate the series’ meta-narrative to something more than just mere fan service. Its allusions are so minimal and obtuse to avoid paying licence fees to other studios that it can be easy to miss when other Stephen King films become part of The Dark Tower’s overarching storyline. For instance, not only do Roland and Jake fight off the creature suggestively from Stephen King’s It, but Jake possesses an important power known as “shine,” the very same psychic ability as the small boy from The Shining. This would be a nice little trivia piece for fans of Stephen King, but “shine” is so integral to the story and yet so underdeveloped that seeing Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic might be required beforehand.
What’s evident in The Dark Tower is a clear aborted attempt by Sony and Columbia Pictures to create a new cinematic universe based on nearly forty years’ worth of established films. While ambitious and faithful to King’s intent with the series, the failed execution to bring such an idea to the screen makes for an incomprehensible viewing experience. Idris Elba struggles to remain compelling as a hero, performing an understated imitation of Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name,’ while McConaughey borders on hammy over-the-top villainy which might have been fun to watch had he fully committed. With the film now released, talks of a supposed television series are in circulation and, if true, The Dark Tower serves as a messy and dull pilot for things to come.
12A (See IFCO for details)
The Dark Tower is released 17th August 2017