Translating a book (or books) into a movie is a tricky proposition, like disassembling a car for parts and using those parts to build a motorcycle. They’re both story-telling vehicles, but they have a whole bunch of differences. The “The Dark Tower” books by Stephen King have been thoroughly popular for years, offering an epic story packed with complex interrelations and details. By its very nature, a film was going to have to distill at least a good-sized chunk of that material down into just a couple of hours. Even without having read the books, it’s obvious that while they were doing that, one of the things that evaporated was its heart.
The plot works great on paper: young Jake (Tom Taylor) keeps having nightmares about a struggle between the last Gunslinger, Roland (Idris Elba), and the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey). The Man in Black killed all the other Gunslingers, as part of his quest to destroy the tower that protects the universe from unknowably horrifying monsters. Jake finds his way to the dimension Roland is in, and joins the quest to save the tower and get revenge on the Man in Black.
Elba and McConaughey are heavy-hitters when it comes to movies, chewing scenery when appropriate and handling emotional scenes with aplomb. But even they can’t overcome mediocre directing and a clunky script. It feels like the movie is written in shorthand, but it’s a shorthand newcomers don’t understand and book-lovers will likely find skips over too much.
In recent interviews, director Nikolaj Arcel has confirmed that the movie is intended to be a repetition of the same cycle covered in the books – each time Roland saves the tower, everything essentially gets reset and the process starts over. So, things aren’t the same as in the cycle described by the books. Unfortunately, the film also has to stand on its own, and it doesn’t. The pieces are all there, but the emotional glue that binds them together is just… not.
It’s increasingly frustrating as the film goes on – everything else about it is at least competent, and often excellent. The special effects are cool, even when it’s not at all clear what’s driving the action they portray. McConaughey seems to be enjoying himself and gets some good dialog and pretty cool magical abilities, but most of his screentime is whipped through so briskly that we don’t get to enjoy it. The makeup used on the strange creatures who serve the Man in Black is mostly very good, but we never find out who or what they are, or why the Man in Black requires them to pretend to be human all the time.
There are apparently plans for a sequel and a television series treading the same narrative path as “The Dark Tower,” but if the poor box office numbers are any indication, those may be on hold indefinitely. It’s a shame, because this is a story with a whole lot of potential. It’s probably worth seeing if you are a huge fan of one of the actors or a completist fan of Stephen King, but even then, you’re probably better off waiting for it to hit the second-run theaters. This is not a film that’s worth the cost of a full-price ticket on top of taking up an hour and a half of your life.