The Dark Tower (2017)
Directed by: Nikolaj Arcel
Written by: Akiva Goldsman, Anders Thomas Jensen, Jeff Pinkner, Nikolaj Arcel, Stephen King
Starring: Dennis Haysbert, Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor
IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 95 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Eleven-year-old Jake Chambers experiences visions involving a Man in Black who seeks to destroy a Tower and bring ruin to the world, and a Gunslinger who opposes him. Jake’s mother, stepfather, and psychiatrists dismiss these as dreams resulting from the trauma of his father’s death the previous year. When a group of workers from an alleged psychiatric facility offer to rehabilitate Jake and he recognises them from his visions as monsters wearing human skin, he flees and travels through a portal to find himself in a post-apocalyptic world called Mid-World where he encounters both Walter Padick the Man in Black and Roland Deschain the Gunslinger….
The works of Stephen King, surely the most adapted writer ever [at least in terms of number of stories], have inspired a lot of very fine films, while I must say that I even tend to find some enjoyment in distinctly lesser efforts like Graveyard Shift and Maximum Overdrive, at least as guilty pleasures. But The Dark Tower is close to being a cinematic catastrophe, and this is coming from someone who hasn’t read any of the eight books in King’s epic fantasy series. In fact, during the days leading up to my trip to the cinema to see this film, I had a distinct feeling that I’d be rather fond of The Dark Tower, that it would at least entertain. In fact the first 20 minutes or so have a few good moments, but then it begins to totally go to pot and gets steadily worse as the film progresses. I’m happy to believe people when they say that the book series is good, but you wouldn’t know it whilst watching the dumb, unimaginative and downright boring nonsense that unfolds on screen. I’m now mystified as to how I ever believed that it could be good, considering that this is a film which, in one of the most idiotic creative decisions concerning the movie adapting of literature ever, has condensed eight books into one hour and a half movie, virtually the opposite of what Peter Jackson did with The Hobbit and that was a bad move too.
Actually, from what I gather, the four screenwriters have basically taken bits and pieces from all of the books and created a kind of story that follows on from them. They’ve also changed the main character of the series from being Roland Deschain the Gunslinger to the boy Jake Chambers, presumably in an attempt to appeal to kids, though the fantasy/horror/western doesn’t really seem to be kid friendly material in the first place. But then there are so many baffling choices that have been made with this film which severly weaken the story as told on screen, such as explaining nearly everything in the opening section so that there’s not much left to discover. It’s hard to tell whether the reshoots were trying to save a turkey or to dumb it down for idiots – I suspect it’s a combination of both. I do get the sense that the studio didn’t like what was being made so tried to turn into a Marvel-style movie, while having no understanding whatsoever of what makes those films so popular. The result feels like the pilot episode of a TV series which they tried to turn into a standalone movie by reshooting the final quarter so things hurriedly wrapped up, kind of like a totally inept attempt at what they did [surprisingly well] just before the first series of Twin Peaks came out because they wasn’t sure that it would be a success.
So we begin with a hideously cut scene, which turns out to be both a flashback and a dream of Jake’s, of some hypnotised kids in the 1960’s [I think] being abducted. This is happening because the evil sorcerer Walter wants to bring down [don’t worry, none of this information counts as spoilers, you learn it all really early on] a tower which holds together the universe, and can only do so by using the powers of psychic children. If the tower falls, then darkness will engulfe the universe, something which I’m sure wouldn’t be of much benefit to Walter but never mind. Whenever he tries to do this, earthquakes occur on earth. There, young Jake has visions of some of what’s going on but of course isn’t believed. Now it soon becomes sadly apparent that Tom Taylor doesn’t actually have a character to play here: he’s just a troubled younger teen who exists primarily to move the plot forward. Taylor actually doesn’t do badly in the part but after a while we cease caring about him because the role is so thin – mind you after half an hour I’d cease to care about anything that was taking place on screen. However, there is a bit of a paranoid feel to some parts of this early section despite a reluctance [something that plagues the whole movie] to have scenes running for more than a minute. When Jake realises that people from a psychiatric centre are actually demons trying to abduct him, things are even a little scary, though this is soon minimised by Jake’s Bourne-like abilities as he flees across some rooftops. Something which did impress me here was Katherine Winnick’s performance as Jake’s mother: she creates a highly convincing portrait of a stressed and still grieving parent in just a few scenes. In fact she’s probably the only actual character in the whole movie.
Jake finds an old house he dreamt about and inside is attacked by a demon seemingly made of bricks which picks him up and then conveniently puts him down so he can travel through a portal to Mid-World. The fact that the demon basically propells Jake to the next scene is explained in a half-arsed fashion later on, but the film uses this device several times in lieu of actually giving us some proper mystery and intrigue. Jake meets Roland the Gunslinger who’s just had his father killed by Walter, who instead of killing Roland prefers to kill off everyone he’s with and make him suffer. Roland’s still determined to stop Walter though, and you can guess most of the story from here on. Anything really interesting is thrown away, largely because there’s just no time. For example Roland catches some terrible infection which can only be cured on Earth, and you’d think that this would create a hell of a lot of tension, but instead he’s sorted out almost immediately and the material of Roland on Earth is little more than an excuse for some mostly very halfhearted Star Trek 4-style fish out of water stuff. Tragedy strikes around halfway through, but after the following scene you wouldn’t know it for the rest of the picture. You’d think that having two of its three main characters trying to deal with the loss of a father would be something the film would exploit, but there’s only one scene which really deals with this, and like almost every other occasion where people talk, the dialogue is very stiff and unnatural.
The Dark Tower seems to have been made on a fairly limited budget, but they could have still made a bit more effort to bring its world to life and not seem to rely on Rasmsu Viebakaek’s gloomy cinematography to disguise the fact that the settings are so dull. I don’t know how much horror and violence the books contain, but this seems like yet another film that appears drastically muted to get that apparently all-important PG-13 rating. As with Suicide Squad, they seem to have tried to make something somewhat kid-friendly out of material that isn’t really suitable for kids, at least those who are very young, yet still ending up with something not really appropriate. It’s despicable really – as is the way they’ve put in some sly ‘easter eggs’ to other Stephen King material [o look, it’s the poster of Rita Hayworth, how clever!] presumably in a cynical attempt to cheer up angry viewers of a film which as far as I can see is totally pissing on the author’s work and insulting its fans while probably boring nearly everyone else. Occasional neat touches, like the gunfight where one of the participants just flicks back the bullets with his fingers that are being fired at him, are sunk in the overall dreary mess, a mess in which its director Nikolaj Arcel seems hopelessly lost and unable to get a handle on the material, his film full of scenes which seem either terrribly truncated or unfinished so were put together in a hurry using whatever footage was at hand. There’s just no flow whatsoever, though maybe one shouldn’t blame him too much considering all the interference he seems to have had whilst making the film.
You’d think that you could at least rely on its two main stars to provide some quality, but sadly this isn’t the case. Matthew McConaughey doesn’t seem to know whether to play Walter seriously or slightly tongue in cheek, thereby ending a run of quite superb performances by an actor I didn’t used to think much of many years ago, while Idris Elba just seems to be worn out. Tom Holkenborg’s thoroughly pedestrian score fails to help matters, the composer obviously [though quite understandably] not inspired by the material whatsoever, though he could have tried a bit harder than this. Apparently there’s going to be a Dark Tower TV series and possibly another film. Let’s hope that they’re made by people who actually know what they’re doing.