Nicolaj Arcel directs this adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower – or at least some potentially post-series quasi-sequel to the original story? Lee and Darren review.
While the visual language often is preferred over exposition, there is something charming in the reckless adaptation – where the history and inner workings of a novel-sized world are condensed to more than a few stray lines from the mouth of some clairvoyant/omniscient smart-ass. The bigger the novel, and the shorter the runtime, the more character interactive dialogue gets switched out for prosaic info-dumps, and that can be fine, when the story calls for it.
2016’s Warcraft comes to mind as a fair example; a story in which it would be hard to imagine these Tolkien-esque fantasy characters speaking in anything other than large political statements and agony-ridden lore; certainly gets the tone across, at the very least. But what about a dimension-hopping cowboy seeking revenge for his father’s death and picking up a downtrodden kid along the way really calls for a heavy hand in the exposition department?
For all its pretence of heft and gravitas, The Dark Tower is a relatively straightforward film about two loners banding together against a greater, vaguely metaphorical evil using only their wits and their guns (mostly guns) to do so – a relatively straightforward premise that is bogged down start-to-finish with scene after scene of characters sitting down and talking about the bigger picture that they either aren’t involved in or are too infinitesimally removed from that picture to change it in any active way.
Moreover, there’s no faith in the images we’re being shown getting across this same information, leaving a story riddled with doubt on how it should be told and whether telling it would be enough, so they tell us everything twice. This at the cost of what is a pretty fun action movie waiting beneath the mess; one bolstered with fun performances and some cool settings that play with the imagination – something that makes the final product all the more a shame.
With the door left tantalisingly open for a sequel as well, the frustration becomes clear: another studio-mandate film is forced over the line for release with so little faith in its potential to make all the money in the world that it comes spring-loaded with all the boring groundwork packed in so that, eventually, a sequel may come out that can just fit some cookie-cutter form for action films and not have to worry about all that backstory. But a problem shared is a problem halved: if there are at least two films planned, why not leave some blanks for the sequel to fill in, and let us have two good films?
We beat ourselves over the head with Star Wars as this golden example of ‘how to franchise’, but the truth is that, like it or hate it, it did a damn fine job convincing the masses of its world and story while also keeping people invested in at least two of its films: that being the original, where story is introduced but mostly left vague and unanswered to allow for its simple adventure premise to take hold, and its sequel, which cements the character relationships, world-building and interlocked states between these elements by filling in those blanks left open from the original. Voila, franchise built.
Without patience, control or even a short-term plan as to what a sequel might potentially accomplish beyond this film, you are left with a film like The Dark Tower; a husk resembling a good time as it has all the elements required to be one, minus any of the will or trust necessary on the part of the creators to help it rise above. Its fear in even being seen as a failure, by taking any form of risk with its audience, conversely and ironically will stop it from ever becoming the success it wishes it were.
Colour in Western Cinema can sometimes be such a non-issue. We like bright colours, unmuted and free. With some exceptions to genre, such as crime dramas being physically more grainy and undershot, horror dark and gloomy, we tend to be very uncreative with this. Gone are the days of light and shadow that marks the cabinet of Dr. Calligari; nowadays it’s Eastern Cinema that uses it much more effectively like Ghost in a Shell (1989) or Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. And after the hash that The Dark Tower makes of it, it’s probably for the best that it stays there.
Jake Chambers has dreams that he can’t control. Those of a Man in Black and a Gunslinger, fighting eternally; one to save a tower and by extension the universe, the other to tear it down and let in all that lurks outside our world. Can Jake find the Gunslinger, protect the tower and save all the worlds?
King is known as the master of horror these days, so his foray into fantasy is both a surprise and not. Dealing with things not quite of this world should be an easy fit but as anyone will tell you, each genre has its own conventions and sometimes what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for the other.
Based on his wildly successful series of novels (though what exactly is/isn’t wildly successful?) The Dark Tower is your standard Hero’s Journey dressed up in post-apocalyptic fantasy tale. Think The Matrix crossed with Labyrinth or, perhaps more accurately, The Shannara Chronicles on Amazon. With all these kinds of stories the main character is your typical white audience surrogate: boring, emotionless with no particular personality. Unlike other movies however, instead of having other family or friend characters to humanise them, ground them or just give us some semblance of a reason to care about them, Dark Tower makes the startling decision to also cast unlikeable robots in every side character role. A mother who is too dependent on the cliché evil step-parent, a best friend who has all the warmth of an icebox and a deceased father who practically screams tragic backstory every time he is mentioned. Hardly the cast of a generation.
But let’s not pretend you wanted to watch this for anything other than Idris Elba. The former Luther star brings his trademark charm and charisma into what is an otherwise tepid and dreary story. McConaughey, our villain, seemingly a representation of nihilism, just flounces through the picture leaving all the work for Elba’s broad shoulders to carry. That too is part of the problem.
Elba gives the film a shred of weight, of charm, but his character of Roland is a flat stoic Gunslinger that doesn’t really mesh with the conceit of the film. If we take it that he is a depressed, cynical old defender of life and McConaughey is this spirit of destruction and decay, they don’t truly oppose one another. They are too similarly characterised to give us any kind of message. The lead, Jake, then is to take up this burden and give us something more to want than this decay but unfortunately can’t deliver, making what relationship is built up between him and Roland empty and meaningless.
Add to this stereotypical King plot points and nods that feel both obvious and frustrating, a dark colour pallet even in sunny shots that achieves exactly nothing, and a plot that goes through the motions and you have a mediocre Last Action Hero.
Creatively bankrupt, exposition that is somehow bloated and anaemic; The Dark Tower is this year’s forgettable blockbuster.