Released: August 2017
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Some films are all about questions. They open the mind up, and leave you with more things to talk about and theorise on than you ever thought possible. However, that has to be intentional to be a good thing. In the case of The Dark Tower, it seems it’s more ham-fisted screenwriting and poor plotting that leaves you wondering, with a definite feeling of bafflement overcoming any sense of enjoyment that might have been garnered.
The Dark Tower has some pretty hefty source material. While Stephen King books may not be challenging literature, there are eight books in the The Dark Tower series, which is a lot of backstory. This means writing a film that encompassed enough history to please the book fans but was intelligible enough to newcomers was always going to be pretty much impossible.
Following young Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) as he discovers that his recurring nightmares of far-off worlds, a man in black and a gunslinger are far from just dreams, we are thrown into a fantasy world that has the potential to be all-encompassing, but instead comes across as little more than a mish-mash of trite cliches of fantasy settings.
Some of the time it seems as though the writers are trying to keep us guessing, such as by having a lot of heavy hinting that this far off world of desert wastelands, ruined theme parks and shanty towns by old tube stations is Earth in a different time, but also throwing in extra moons to scupper that idea. Some misdirection on key plot points is often welcome in films, but only for elements that are important and that end up with a resolution.
In this case, where the other place is is of no importance whatsoever. You can wonder, and they clearly want you to, but it doesn’t actually come up in the film. Even the boy magically transported there doesn’t really ask where he is, although he arrives alone in a place with empty desert to the horizon and declares that this is great, so maybe we shouldn’t look to him for sensible thoughts. So why bother with the strange juxtapositions of clues?
I haven’t read the books, so perhaps this kind of detail is delightful to those who have, but for a first time entrant into the world, it feels like it’s unresolved because they don’t have an resolution for it. They don’t even care that they don’t. It’s possible they think their laying the seeds for discussion and sequels, much like Lost did, but we are all older and wiser now, and scattering a hundred seeds to only pick up the best four or five to carry on later will not satisfy anyone.
There is so much like this throughout the film. Who are the people living by the abandoned metro station? Is how they live typical of this place, in thrown together shacks, scraping by off the land, or have we ended up seeing the Earth equivalent of an Amish village? There’s a mention in the credits of vampires, which I can only assume are the Man in Black’s henchmen, sent out to steal psychic children from across the universe, but you get no sense of that from the film at all. They’re just robed shapes. Why does the Man in Black insist on his underlings wearing fake skins all the time? Why in another universe, where henchman wear fake human skins and military dress, does the IT guy still look like a drop-out surfer from the nineties?
Who is the Crimson King that the graffiti on Earth keeps mentioning? It seems unlikely that it’s the Man in Black, the colour schemes just don’t match up, but it’s never spoken about. Again, if it’s meant to be a little Easter egg for long time fans, that’s fine in it’s place, but that place should be a passing glimpse on a background wall, not having the main character stand directly in front of the 4 ft high graffiti like it’s something important for you to pay attention to. If it’s all setting up for a huge world in the TV series, then maybe it’ll be worthwhile, but it’s a hubristic thing to do for a first, and what was potentially only, film.
Even the main characters lack any kind of depth. Jake Chambers is reduced to little more than a repository for his dreams, and even a good performance from Idris Elba as Roland couldn’t breathe life into this clay model of duty and revenge. Matthew McConaughey is either hopelessly miscast or woefully written as the Man in Black. For some reason dressed as a gothic tango dancer, his cool menacing charm is probably meant to be as chilling as David Tenant’s recent turn in Jessica Jones. Instead, he seems half-hearted, as both actor and villain, and he is wildly inconsistent in how he uses his almost unstoppable magic powers.
All the characters are defined more by their costume than anything else, even though these costumes should make no sense when they are coming from all across different worlds. The gunslinger is a classic cowboy, who can somehow walk down a busy New York high street without people mentioning that this is odd, the bad guy dresses in black, the poor people are swaddled in layers of fabric. These different costumes are clearly a lazy shorthand so they don’t have to say too much about each person, but it feels very amateur dramatics and heightens the lack of depth the script gives to each person.
The final showdown between Roland and the Man in Black is boring. It’s essentially a low-level version of the recent superhero fights that are filling Hollywood, but the two powers, one shooting very well and the other moving really quite fast, are not exactly exciting or engaging. The film has left you so uninvested in it’s nonsensical world that the fact the very destruction of the universe rests on the fight’s outcome still can’t make you care.
The thing is, there is a nugget, right in the heart of this that has the potential to be interesting. A tv series with more time to explore the myriad different worlds, instead of just slapping them together with no forethought or explanation, and more time to explain all the references, could be quite compelling, if very complex. However, the fact that they have the same directors and writers on board as for this film does not inspire confidence. Just a few tweaks in scene order, or a change in emphasis could have made this a better film, but it’s stubbornly linear.
The core conceit of the film could easily have been teased out across the first third of the story, the viewer working out what is happening alongside the confused teenager Jake, but instead it’s presented to you on a title card before the film even starts. Why on earth they thought that was the one thing that would be difficult for viewers to grasp, but all the things around the edges could be left unexplained is baffling. It isn’t a difficult formula to understand- people like to guess at a mystery that they get an answer to. Have the story of the Dark Tower a mystery to work out at the start, then an action sequence to solve the crisis that is revealed at the end. Do not explain everything about the main plot to start with, and leave everything else unimportant open to speculation. It’s boring and gives the viewer no opportunity to invest in the plot.
This poorly stitched together patchwork of worlds manages to show contempt for both the viewer and the art of story-telling, managing to spoon feed us both too much and too little at the same time.