Nikolaj Arcel’s adaptation of Stephen King’s colossal opus The Dark Tower is half-hearted in its ambitions. It attempts to both summarize and sequelize the crowning work of the most long-winded author of his generation, all within the space of 95 minutes. As one might expect, the results are scattered and rushed, taking the jumble of King’s labored mythology and making it even more baffling by excising the eight-book series’s most basic elements.
Instead of focusing on Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the gunslinger who roams the desiccated wastelands of his home planet, Mid-World, the film is largely seen through the eyes of Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a boy from Earth whose visions of a looming apocalypse lure him into Roland’s world. Opening with Jake’s nightmares of the nefarious sorcerer Walter O’Dim (Matthew McConaughey), a.k.a. the Man in Black, The Dark Tower tracks the boy as he dodges accusations of insanity from friends and family as well as attempts by human-skin-wearing werewolves to abduct him and other children. The exposition comes fast before and after Jake escapes into Mid-World and meets Roland, piling up details about the Dark Tower, which holds the balance of power between worlds, and Walter’s plan to destroy it.
The condensed narrative keeps the film from getting lost in the lugubrious structure of most franchise starters, but the speed with which characters lay out the dire stakes of Walter’s schemes prevents King’s rich mythology from taking root. As a result, The Dark Tower is just another in a long string of modern blockbusters to make the end of the world its default concern.
The film’s frantic pace also affects the action scenes, which are resolved either quickly or, as in encounter between Jake and a demon guarding an interplanetary portal, indecisively. And all this action, the best of which comes down to individual moments that we already glimpsed in the trailers (such as Roland showing off his reloading and sharpshooting skills), takes place against nondescript backdrops of rocky landscapes or dilapidated buildings. For an expensive summer tent-pole, The Dark Tower’s setting and desaturated cinematography are redolent of any number of Eastern Europe-filmed, direct-to-video tax shelters that generally star has-beens like Steven Seagal.
This insubstantiality extends to the characters, all middling iterations of familiar archetypes. Elba and Taylor get off relatively easy by playing the stoic killer and earnest, bright child, respectively, but McConaughey gives a miscalculated performance that isn’t helped by how quickly he must run through Walter’s demonstrations of evil. To cut off those who stand in his way, the ageless deceiver instructs them to “stop breathing,” sending his foes into instant death, and the lackadaisical manner in which McConaughey speaks the words is more comical than menacing. Elsewhere, Walter passes a little girl lovingly interacting with her mother and whispers “hate” into the child’s ear, and the only follow-up this moment gets is the kid going silent and looking at her mom with complete disinterest, as if to suggest that the ultimate power of Walter’s black magic is the making of horrible teenagers.
Such simplifications are the obvious result of streamlining an epic, worlds-trotting adventure into the length of a two-part season premiere. But it also owes to the shift in perspective from Roland’s quest for revenge and duty to Jake’s more straightforward adventure. For King, Mid-World is a graveyard for childish interests, where Arthurian legend, creature-feature horror, even early rock n’ roll have been reduced to their skeletal remains, with the author gradually working back through his cultural touchpoints to arrive at a void that predates genre fiction. It’s a multifaceted mythos that may certainly be difficult to translate to the big screen, but this film adaptation bears the stamp of just barely trying, a decade-long effort to bring the Dark Tower books to the screen that looks like a cheap, unauthorized cash-in.