Dark Tower review

The Man in Black fled across the desert, and Idris Elba followed.

Stephen King's Dark Tower series is an odd beast. I've only made it through about half of it, myself -- I think I got sidetracked somewhere in Book IV and just remember Roland Deschain and his pals suplexing Thomas the Tank Engine with, uh, riddles or something? If you have no idea what this could even begin to refer to, let me reduce it down to a sentence: These books are weird.

More specifically, Dark Tower is a sort of nexus or hub-world amalgamating all of Stephen King's various story universes. Its central antagonist, The Man in Black (played by Matthew McConaughey doing a surprisingly effective Christopher Walken a la Prophecy), appears elsewhere in King's fiction as Randall Flagg, serving the similarly book-spanning Crimson King. Characters in the film refer to a boy's psychic powers as "the Shine," an unsubtle allusion to The Shining. There's even a scene in a long-abandoned theme park where we get a quick shout-out to Pennywise the clown from It. The conceit of Dark Tower is that all these story continuities intersect on an upper-dimensional, metaphysical plane, at the center of which lies the titular Tower itself, acting as a linchpin holding the fabric of the multiverse together.

The thrill of the Dark Tower series, then, is at least partly in that it's canon crossover fanfic. Rugged Gunslinger Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) and his fate-bound companions hop from one Stephen King timeline to the next, all on an Arthurian quest to reach the Dark Tower. And it's not just Arthurian as, like, an allusion thing: Roland is literally a descendant of his world's King Arthur, weilding pistols forged from the metal of Excalibur.

All Dark Tower the film had to do to succeed was capture a bit of the books' weirdness, but somehow, it doesn't even manage that. We see the Tower standing in a rather ordinary-seeming bank of clouds with no explanation of its actual metaphysical significance. We see that the film's "Mid-world" is connected to our real planet Earth (the "Keystone world") but we don't really ever get an explanation of Dark Tower's multiverse or why these King shout-outs aren't just your typical Easter eggs. We are told in passing about Roland's history and heritage, but none of it ever really has a chance to land before the story is moving on, trying to cram seven books worth of existential suffering and a bitter revenge quest into 95 minutes.

The devil's name is WALTER? The devil's name is WALTER?

Matthew McConaughey's performance is the only one that works here, because he requires the least amount of extratextual information to get. You see him, you know exactly what kind of character he is: a renegade devil; a Mephistopheles type reveling in the chaos he causes and so supernaturally powerful he seems downright bored at the resistance mere mortals put up against him. He kneels over a dying soldier who tells him to "go to hell," quips "been there!" and nonchalantly sets the guy on fire. This is an actor I find unbearably smug and same-y in almost all his roles, but here, he steals the goddamn show, for as much as there even is one.

That isn't to say that Idris Elba's performance isn't without its charms, but most of them rely on being Idris Elba rather than The Gunslinger specifically. It's funny when Roland asks the Relatable Teen Boy Access Character what breed of hot dog he's eating because it's Idris Elba asking the question, exactly how you might imagine him asking it. Yes, right now, are you picturing it? That's how he asks it. It's amazing. But Roland Deschain, the character, only appears in brief flashes in this film, mostly when he's reloading his pistols really really quickly. Which looks cool, admittedly, but when your opponent can effortlessly stop bullets in midair, it starts to lose some of its flair.

I don't feel Elba was miscast here so much as I believe he's criminally under-utilized. Or maybe he's just phoning it in because the script is hot nonsense, and who would blame him? He signed up to play a larger-than-life fusion of King Arthur and Clint Eastwood and instead he's a playing grumpy old man getting upstaged by store-brand Christopher Walken. There's not much you can do in a situation like that but go through the motions and trust the public will forget about it in a hurry.

Dark Tower is a film seemingly designed to satisfy no one. If you're a fan of the books, the film retains so little of their essence that it's almost not worthy of bearing the name. If you have no familiarity with the source material, the film is a jumble of compressed narrative and allusions to things you feel you're supposed to have the background for but don't. It probably doesn't even satisfy whichever studio executives ordered its throttled runtime and shoddy redubbing, likely in some vague hope of turning a film they extremely didn't get into something they believed would sell. Hollywood has always sort of struggled with SFF book-to-film adaptations like this, titans like Lord of the Rings aside (and even there, it took half a century to come up with a version people were happy with).

As King's so-called magnum opus, Dark Tower might never have done well as a film, or even a TV series. It may just be too large, too sprawling, too self-indulgent to do well inside cinema's constraints. After all, a big part of Dark Tower's appeal is how often it flouts genre convention -- all the genres, really, but especially the ones it touches most directly, dark fantasy and the western. A studio film was always going to struggle with bringing that to life, even under the most favorable circumstances.

One thing that is certain is that this adaptation misses the mark in spectacular fashion. You can go in with the lowest possible expectations, and still the film will find a way to fall short of them. The best you can say about this Dark Tower is it might convince more people to pick up the books.

Verdict: No