Overview: The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed. Columbia Pictures; Rated PG-13; 2017; 95 minutes.
Full Disclosure: After decades of anticipation from fans of Stephen King’s legendary book series, The Dark Tower has finally made its way to the big screen. I am unfamiliar with the books. I have passing knowledge of characters and ideas found in the original series, but otherwise I headed into The Dark Tower without expectations other than what was given to me through trailers. Further disclosure: because of a strangely substandard trailer campaign, my expectations were low, but I have heard so much from fans of the books that I too started getting excited for the adaptation.
Sorry: The Dark Tower doesn’t play well with including the audience on its journey. As a fan of other adaptations gone horribly awry, it’s easy to tell when an endeavor lacks the necessary backing or confidence. During pre-production it was referred to as a sequel to the series, which was a a bummer for a handful of reasons. It isolates the incoming audience and restricts the creative freedom a cinematic experience should provide. Adaptations, more often than not, need to stand on their own. We’re paying to watch storytelling in another medium. How it’s played with after the fact is why we talk about movies. Furthermore, a quick shout out to the editing job that renders this movie borderline incomprehensible. It’s a good thing individual ideas stood out out to me, because I had no idea what anything meant or what motivations were beyond The Gunslinger’s. The Dark Tower just doesn’t work.
It’s further unfortunate because it wastes two of our great actors in opposite roles. Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey both should be given as much room to play against one another.
The Gunslinger: Though the actual character traits ring false, hollow and even uninspired, Elba plays The Gunslinger with classic action hero bravado. He commands the screen when it’s not cutting away to focus on a kid (Jake, played by Tom Tayler) who was certainly injected to be the audience surrogate. It’s easy to see, even in fleeting moments, how there’s a grand mythos behind The Gunslinger character. Smooth as hell with his voice, even smoother with his quick draw, this should be one of the best cinematic characters of the year. But the script doesn’t do him any favors with dialogue or greater purpose beyond a quest of vengeance. Elba still manages to convey a sense of anguish behind the eyes of The Gunslinger, perhaps, one might imagine, that pain is because of both actor and character getting short shrift.
The Man in Black: Matthew McConaughey as The Man in Black doesn’t fare much better. For those who’ve seen Jessica Jones, The Man in Black feels reminiscent of Kilgrave. But where Kilgrave works as an exploration of entitlement and trauma against that story’s protagonist, Walter O’Dim/The Man in Black just comes across as loud. McConaughey refers to him as “The devil having a good time,” which sounds like a fun villain presence, but the actor just feels like he’s performing on an entirely different planet with alien linguistics. So on some level, McConaughey is doing something interesting, if not appropriate for this movie.
From the perspective of visual storytelling, The Dark Tower feels either rote or flat. As much flack as the Resident Evil and Underworld movies get, these comparable films at least have a distinct style that is easy to recognize. Cheap, efficient, and just enough atmosphere to get by. The Dark Tower has more in common with the aesthetics of all the post-Twilight Young Adult cash-ins. I ended up enjoying the first two Maze Runner movies for their ability to build action set pieces out of smaller budgets. This movie doesn’t even have that to offer. A movie with Idris Elba as a gun-toting cowboy from another dimension lacks basic action geography and choreography. Given the character’s proclivities, the movement should range from balletic to fierce. Action needs to be fluid but also pack a punch. It’s shot well enough but it doesn’t sing like it needs to.
A weak script can be serviceable enough with even the most talented director or salvageable editing. The Dark Tower has a symptom all-too-common with plenty of big budget movies. They’re edited for pacing while sacrificing necessary character or thematic work. Sometimes it works in the movies favor (basically every J.J. Abrams movie) and other times you get… nearly every major release from 2016. Unlike some stronger examples editing for pace, The Dark Tower also doesn’t understand what pacing is. What ends up happening is the film’s story reads like notecard style storytelling. Here’s a beat where the plot kicks in. There’s a beat where the conflict is introduced. Another beat where the character is at their lowest point. It never bores as much as it could, it just rings false.
That’s the real tragedy of The Dark Tower. For book fans, the adaptation could be interesting to see physically realized. For the uninitiated, we’ll be lost in the shortcut editing rhythm and lackluster script that renders two of our greatest actors null and void.
Overall: There’s probably a great story to be told in this Dark Tower universe. This movie adaptation certainly isn’t it.