The Dark Tower (2017)

Their war is coming to our world.

Another year, another Stephen King adaptation. Yes folks, besides the highly anticipated new take on It (2017), the Netflix series of The Mist (2017) — which Frank Darabont successfully translated to film in 2007 — and the upcoming feature of Gerald’s Game (2017), we have the long-gestating project The Dark Tower, which, to be honest, had the best chance of nabbing the widest possible audience. I say ‘had,’ because judging by its poor global box office take, The Dark Tower looks to be dead on arrival here in Australia, after a mere few weeks in theaters.

‘ … I should probably use more color.’

Made with that classic ‘come one, come all’ rating of PG-13, a fantasy-western backdrop, franchise building potential, a pre-loaded fanbase and an alluring showdown between the formidable Idris Elba, Star Trek Beyond (2016), and slickly smooth Matthew McConaughey, Interstellar (2014), this was surely destined to do big business. Where did it go wrong? And perhaps, where did it go right?

The story centers on an 11-year-old boy, Jake (Tom Taylor), who is relentlessly haunted by visions of an alternate world where Walter Padick, ‘The Man in Black’ (Matthew McConaughey), exploits the minds of children in an attempt to tear down the lynchpin of all reality, the Dark Tower, which, if brought down, would destroy all of creation. Opposing him is Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), last of the ‘Gunslingers’ — warriors whose purpose is to protect the planet and its people. Living in New York City with his troubled mother Laurie (Katheryn Winnick) and stepfather Lon (Nicholas Pauling), Jake, consumed by these apparitions, manages to track down an abandoned house from one of his dreams. There, Jake is transported to a parallel land in ‘Mid-World’ where he encounters Roland, the pair teaming up in order to end the evil that threatens both of their worlds and the far reaches beyond.

Before I go any further, let me just point out that I’ve never read any of King’s Dark Tower novels (yeah, yeah, I know I ‘should’ etc, etc), but I’ve always been intrigued by the esteem in which readers hold the eight book series. As such, I’ve occasionally dipped into its pages by learning about King’s world, but even then, I can’t say I’m anything close to an expert. It’s this reason that puts me in a prime position to engage with the movie, as someone who’s vaguely aware of its original ideas and someone who’s open-minded enough to accept adaptation changes.

‘Who’s the man in black now?’

As a brief primer into what the novels are about, The Dark Tower series is regarded as Stephen King’s magnum opus, the story deftly mixing a variety of genres together (science fantasy, horror and western), as well as a bit of meta-fiction — King’s previous stories and the renowned author himself appearing in the narrative. It’s basically a mythological world of seemingly endless potential, one that plays with time, space and multiverses. Keeping all this in mind, the movie would understandably be regarded as a big fat fail (especially when comparing it to what’s offered in the books), but as a film in itself, I’d have to say, The Dark Tower actually isn’t that bad. And I’m not just saying that to be controversial.

To be honest, I can’t say I was ever bored — the narrative never really lets up, which can most likely be attributed to Akiva Goldsman, I Am Legend (2007), who acts as a screenwriter (one of four) on the project. The other scribes include Nikolaj Arcel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009), which makes sense, seeing as he’s the director, Jeff Pinkner, The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise of Electro (2014), who’s collaborated with Goldsman before and um … Anders Thomas Jensen, In A Better World (2010) — the latter’s contributions very much unclear. While these writers have essentially cherry-picked moments from the entire saga as opposed to translating ‘one novel,’ I still believe that together they’ve formed a reasonably cohesive narrative, albeit a surprisingly sparse one, chopping King’s expansive epic into an undersized adventure.

My main gripes with the flick basically revolve around the lack of understanding of the role of the titular tower and, in turn, the urgency of the journey at hand, and from that, the shockingly brisk showdown that’s meant to climax the entire story. As in, the entire eight book arc. Just think about that for a moment. For what seemed like a no-brainer franchise starter, it honestly feels like the bigwigs just wanted to get it all over and done with (in one hit), despite the fact that a TV show is currently being developed which would be the prequel to the film and potentially the adaptation fans want. Confusing, I know.

Heroes from different walks of life

One thing that definitely works is pitting A-listers Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey against one another. Both have their own style of charisma — McConaughey relishes in playing the relentlessly evil villain, while Elba oozes badassery during the action moments. Seeing them fight at the end is a treat, even if it feels criminally brief. I can’t say the rest of the supporting cast moved me a great deal, Jackie Earle Haley, Watchmen (2009), and Abbey Lee, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), are completely wasted, while young lead Tom Taylor, making a jump from television to feature-film, is ‘meh’ as the central protagonist, Jake — he’s fine, just neither here nor there in making a strong impression. Really, the only other cast member that drew me in was South Korean actress Claudia Kim, Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), who was a sight for sore eyes after watching Elba and Taylor trek through the desert.

On the technical side, I was blown away by the incredibly delicate sound design headed up by supervising sound editors Michael Babcock, Neighbors (2014), and Jeremy Peirson, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013). There are plenty of dynamics at play here, the sound guys picking moments to hone in on a few key noises amongst moments of chaos — a prime example being a village raid. Viewers are always aware of the geography and Jake’s proximity to Roland, whose bullets fly through the air with the weight, direction and intent of a heroic Gunslinger.

The visuals too are artfully rendered, these captured by cinematographer Rasmus Videbaek, A Royal Affair (2012), who paints a landscape of cool inky blacks during the more antagonist heavy scenes and warmer, more inviting tones with the protagonists. Moreover, the film has plenty of contrast and ‘snap’ that, when combined with the aforementioned soundtrack, is likely to make an appealing UHD Blu-ray, when it’s eventually released. For what it’s worth, the CG is well blended, never a distraction and feels justified. Overall, for a mid-budget flick of around 60 million dollars, director Nikolaj Arcel makes sure his feature punches well above its weight.

You serious?

It may not seem like much, because well, it isn’t, but The Dark Tower is a little more entertaining than the naysayers would have you believe. It’s unlikely to make newcomers feel like they’ve ‘got’ what the dedicated fans have been praising for all these years, but I can’t imagine anyone not feeling at least somewhat entertained for the flick’s breezy 95 minutes, even if that running time is a bit too breezy.

Perhaps the home video market will be a bit kinder to The Dark Tower — I’ll be interested to see.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Steve Ramsie

The Dark Tower is released through Sony Pictures Australia