Since the moment I walked out of The Dark Tower last night, I’ve been struggling with the perfect one-sentence review. At first, I was using “It’s like if you handed a one-page synopsis of the entire seven-novel series to a middle-schooler and told them to make a movie,” but that’s more hyperbole than it is reality. It’s actually far closer to the following: It’s like if you handed a one-page synopsis of the entire seven-novel series to a Hollywood screenwriter and told HIM to make a movie.
The Dark Tower is a trainwreck (a Blaine-wreck?) of a film, but a fascinatingly slight one at the same time. It’s so devoid of content and meaning that it’s easy to watch in spite of its terribleness—blink and it’s already over, and you’re walking out to your car, thinking, “They thought that was going to launch a huge multimedia franchise?”
The works of Stephen King have been subject to an incredible number of bad adaptations over the years. There are the ones that are objectively terrible, like Maximum Overdrive, King’s own directorial effort, in which the author was so strung-out on cocaine that he scarcely remembers doing any of it. There are the low-budget entries that are content to simply deliver cheap, tawdry thrills, such as Graveyard Shift or The Night Flier. And there are of course the handful of critically acclaimed masterpieces, but even in the case of Kubrick’s The Shining, the author still famously hates the finished product for deviating in key ways from the themes of his source material.
Which is all to say, if Kubrick’s The Shining isn’t good enough for Stephen King, then for the love of horror fiction, please let him never be forced to watch The Dark Tower. If you’re a friend or family member of Stephen King, I’m speaking directly to you right now: Don’t let him see this movie. It will destroy him to see the characters he labored over for 30 years be reduced to this level of bland insignificance.
The degree of condensation and simplification of the source material here is astounding. I haven’t read the entire Dark Tower series (I’m about halfway through), but it’s not accurate to say that you “need to have read the books” in order to understand the film. If anything, being armed with the knowledge of the books’ events only makes the film more confusing because its deviations are so inexplicable. Little moments from multiple books are cobbled together in a schizophrenic tapestry, demolishing the significance of any of them in the process. Everything you need to know, you can derive from the 90-minute runtime, in a film begging to be considered as “epic fantasy” while utterly desperate to get to the end credits as quickly as possible. Imagine if Peter Jackson decided that in order to tell the story of The Lord of the Rings, he would cram the entire thing into one film and cut the fellowship from nine characters to just Frodo and Gandalf, and that’s The Dark Tower.
As a result, every character’s motivations and background have been squashed and sanded down to the most glib, one-phrase explanations imaginable. There are only three people whose names you’ll be able to remember afterward: There’s The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), who wants to destroy the tower for reasons that the casual filmgoer won’t begin to be able to explain; there’s Roland, the Gunslinger (Idris Elba), who has no objective but to destroy the Man in Black; and there’s Jake (Tom Taylor), the Special Kid who is Special because he has The Shine—which the movie gracelessly screams at the audience in an attempt to make you understand that “IT’S LIKE THE SHINE FROM THE SHINING, REMEMBER THAT?!?” All three turn in cringeworthy performances, even Elba, who looks as if he was expecting a meaty role, only to be gifted with the blandest quasi-protagonist imaginable. McConaughey is likewise lost, unsure if his character is supposed to be Voldemort, Satan, The Joker or some combination of the three. His idea of intimidation is to scrawl a smiley face onto a boy’s bedroom wall, which comes off looking like a Hot Topic decal.
Hell, even the action fails to convey excitement, including several CGI-heavy sequences that are presented in near-darkness to hide the shoddy effects work on the creatures. It’s telling that even with a property where you have storyline liberties to make a character into the most ridiculous, physics-defying gunman imaginable, it still suffers mightily in comparison to the likes of John Wick: Chapter 2. In the end, John Wick is a far better gunslinger than the freaking gunslinger is.
I can’t even fathom what could have been done differently with The Dark Tower. Perhaps you could somehow make a film that was actually based around the first entry in the series, 1982’s The Gunslinger, but that film would be a slow, atmospheric, character and world-building journey through the desert on the trail of The Man in Black—more Sergio Leone than YA Fantasy Adventure. What the producers at Columbia wanted was the latter, complete with the requisite SKY BEAMS, which would make a faithful adaptation more or less impossible.
In other words: The film’s ka-tet was screwed from the moment the producers decided how they wanted it to look. Such are the uncaring whims of ka, I guess.
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Writer: Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, Nikolaj Arcel
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Idris Elba, Tom Taylor
Release date: August 4, 2017
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and genre movie attendee. You can follow him on Twitter.