The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
Thus begins Stephen King’s sci-fi/fantasy epic Dark Tower series. It’s such a great first sentence. It pulls you in and makes you wonder who these people are, and why one is chasing the other. It’s such an evocative sentence that King wrote eight books from it.
For a while, it looked like the man in black fled across the desert, and Hollywood followed. This is because a film adaptation of the Dark Tower saga has been in the works for years, with multiple directors and stars attached. The version that ended up being made was directed by Danish filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel, and stars Idris Elba as the gunslinger and Matthew McConaughey as the man in black.
I’ve only read two of the eight Dark Tower books, so I’m no expert, but I have a passing familiarity with the series. King loves to fill his books with references to his other books, and his multi-dimensional Dark Tower series encompasses pretty much all of them. Fittingly, the film is full of references to other Stephen King works. I caught references to The Shining, Misery, It, Christine, Cujo, The Shawshank Redemption, 1408, and Mr. Mercedes. There were probably some that I missed, too.
The film has had a long road to cinemas. There was some controversy regarding the casting of Elba as the gunslinger, since Elba is black and in the books the character is white. But King himself has stated he doesn’t care if the character is portrayed as black or white, and Elba is a good enough actor that his casting never bothered me. Also, there was the announcement that the film would be a sequel of sorts to the books, which sounded…odd. But then, how else are you supposed to adapt eight richly-detailed books that span several thousand pages into a film? Some liberties have to be taken, although adapting such a complex and beloved book series is always a risky proposition.
And the results in this case are mixed. The film got terrible reviews and scored a modest box-office opening. It’s not a terrible movie, but it could have been a hell of a lot better.
The movie’s audience surrogate character is 11-year old Jake Chambers, who has been having vivid dreams about a man in black attempting to destroy a tower and bring about the end of the world, and a lone gunslinger who seeks to stop him. The world has been suffering from a string of severe earthquakes, and Jake can’t help feeling that the earthquakes and his dreams are somehow related.
Long story short: he’s right. I try to avoid spoilers for brand new films, so I won’t go into too much detail, but Jake ends up traveling through a portal into another world, where he meets Roland, the gunslinger he had seen in his dreams. From Roland, Jake learns about the Dark Tower, which stands at the center point of the universe. The man in black wants to destroy the tower, the destruction of which would allow monsters from other dimensions to invade and destroy us. Or…something like that.
The movie’s main problem is that it feels too conventional. The setting of the books is a dreamlike sci-fi/western that’s kind of like a cross between the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and the spaghetti westerns of Clint Eastwood. The world(s) of the film don’t feel nearly as unique. The book’s protagonist is an interdimensional cowboy/knight who wields revolvers forged from the steel of Excalibur. That’s probably the coolest sentence I’ve ever written, but the movie doesn’t live up to the coolness and weirdness of the books, instead feeling like a somewhat generic sci-fi thriller.
That’s not entirely a bad thing, since the movie is entertaining enough, but it’s a shame that it doesn’t have more personality. There are some fun, exciting action sequences (Roland can do some badass things with those revolvers) but the plot feels rushed and the stakes don’t feel high enough. Part of this is due to the surprisingly brief 95-minute running time of the film. The advantage of the short running time is that there is no fat: everything in the movie has a point. The disadvantage is that the characters and conflicts aren’t given enough time to breathe. Roland and the man in black are supposed to be eternal enemies, but the movie gives all of one scene to establish their antagonism, so their enmity doesn’t register as strongly as it should.
But Elba and McConaughey are both very good. In my post about Atomic Blonde I talked about my theory of coolness, which is that coolness speaks for itself. Both Elba and McConaughey are perfect examples of that. They are cool as hell, and so are their characters in this film. Elba is a grumpy badass with a heart of gold, while McConaughey seems to relish playing an evil multidimensional sorcerer who kills people simply by telling them to stop breathing. How would it not be fun to play those characters? The young actor who plays Jake is named Tom Taylor, I believe making his big-screen debut. He’s very good, and there are some genuinely sweet and often funny interactions between Jake and Roland. There are also some funny fish-out-of-water moments when Jake brings Roland into our world, which reminded me of Gal Gadot and Chris Pine in Wonder Woman.
You’ll probably hear a lot about how this movie is terrible and it ruins the legacy of King’s books and it sucks and it’s the worst adaptation ever and so on and so forth. I think that kind of hyperbolic nonsense is a load of hogwash. The movie isn’t an abomination. It has entertaining sequences and performances, but the direction is lackluster and the truncated plot can’t help but feel rushed. Its biggest sin is that it takes the surreal, dreamlike quality of King’s novels and turns them into a run-of-the-mill sci-fi thriller. It’s an entertaining way to spend 95 minutes, but it doesn’t have much staying power. A prequel TV series in reportedly in the works, so we may not have seen the last of this series on the screen. Given the sprawling nature of the story, it seems like a better fit for TV anyway. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Coming up next is…well, I’m not sure. I was going to write about Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, but it’s not playing near me so I’m going to have to put that on hold. I’ve got some other ideas I’ve been kicking around, so I’ll probably go with one of those. Tune in next week to find out which one I picked.