The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed. King’s work is often times filled with great lines – sometimes, dead is better – but none more so than the opening line to The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger. So iconic in the mind of King fans that the film adaptation/sequel/expansion actually has it said aloud.
Like everything Stephen King writes, The Dark Tower film has been languishing in development hell about as long as Alan Moore’s Watchmen did, and with as many botched attempts to it’s history. The Dark Tower is essentially an epic tale set in the fictional world called Midworld, in a time where science fiction and fantasy collide with big beasties and gunslinging noblemen in cowboy hats battle across portals with sorcerers. With eight books to sink your teeth into, The Dark Tower as a series should have opened the door for the next in the long line of fantasy epics in the mould of what Peter Jackson did with Tolkien’s Middle Earth or even what happened with HBO and George R.R. Martin’s Westeros.
We live in a time now where fantasy entertainment is so heavy and respected that The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won Best Picture and Game of Thrones wins Emmys. There is no excuse not to think people will sit down and watch a good old fashioned tale of good vs evil. But, let’s start methodically.
The Dark Tower follows a young boy, Jake Chambers, who is haunted by visions of a dystopian wasteland and a man shooting people. When he is sent away by his concerned mother, he instead stumbles into Midworld, another place where he meets the last Gunslinger, Roland Deschain, who lusts for revenge against evil sorcerer Walter Paddick. Paddock himself wants to unleash darkness into the world by destroying the fabled Dark Tower.
There are elements here to like, namely the great score by Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL which is both epic and fantastical by with his usual flair for modern, as well as the always great Trish Summerville doing the costumes. Around that Idris Elba is a fantastic lead, he’s a proper screen presence and brings mass, weight and genuine threat to Roland the Gunslinger. However, the film is riddled with problems and for one the film feels like about five films going on at once.
First theres the ‘1980s inflected kid goes to fantasy land’ movie in which the okay but sometimes annoying Tom Taylor has dreams no one believes is real and almost literally falls into another world (if it were thirty years ago he’d be greeted by a Jim Henson puppet). There’s the ‘innocent kid with a gift bonds with grizzled former hero’ movie, in which Idris Elba doesn’t want to bring a child on his quest but does with added bonding (a film that works time and time again). There’s the science fiction lab movie in which a bad guy takes children away to harness their power. There’s the ‘fish out of water nobleman in New York’ movie where Roland doesn’t understand flirting, or doctors (a funny scene where he gives a doctor a coin and bids her a long life).
Then comes the best part of the film. The sequence sees Roland and Jake rock up to a post-technical village in Midworld where everyone is reverent but also fearful of Roland for his Gunslinger status. Also in this part is Claudia Kim who manages to deliver an exposition dump without making it look forced. But the whole section is a rushed ten minutes when it should have made up the meat of the story.
Meanwhile, Matthew McConaughey, an oscar winner and owner of such a soothing voice is wasted in a role that needs more explanation. He looks painfully bored throughout and never gets a chance to truly relish his evil – plus his name is Walter which is very unthreatening. King has made a career out of brilliant villains (Warden Norton, Annie Wilkes, Kurt Dussander, Margaret White, Mrs Carmody, Leland Gaunt, Pennywise), but a version of his villain opus Randall Flagg, there is nothing in his alias Walter that makes us fear the man who would cause havoc in The Stand or later (earlier?) Dark Tower stories.
It’s a wonder that Ron Howard struggled with the series considering he managed to turn three Dan Brown controversy trains into fun pot-boiling thrillers and has taken over the chaotic Han Solo movie. This brisk 90 minute diversion isn’t awful but it isn’t really anything, lacking any kind of style or character arc that it would really need to come alive on screen. It’s also ballsy – and really rather stupid – to bank on a back story TV Series to come into play, the alienation most people will feel coupled with the films uneven pacing will mean a TV show is too big a gamble to put money on.
Ultimately, The Dark Tower series should have been done on TV, and now is the perfect time too. After all Game of Thrones is coming to an end, The Walking Dead is losing viewers like people in a zombie apocalypse, the world needs a new fantasy show to fall in love with and on HBO or Netflix or Amazon where big novels or comic book stories have been allowed to breathe and take flight they have soared.
As it is, Nikolaj Arcel, director of the great A Royal Affair, makes a passable fantasy film that when caught on a flight or on Netflix one evening will not offend you. There will be fans, people who have read the books and get all the in-jokes (he carries a horn, that’s apparently important), but aside from Dark Tower aficionados and King fans the casual movie goer will be left wanting something better.
In the end you’ll be left with nagging questions like: did animals talk in Midworld? Why did the rabbit not scream then. If he’s magic, why does Walter need telekinetic kids to destroy the tower? Why is Denis Haysbert underused? And most nagging of all, if we’re in a fantasy world with science fiction elements, why does Fran Kranz look like he showed up late and didn’t have time to put a fun costume?
In this fairly uneven summer, the Dark Tower fled across the multiplex market but it’s unlikely the audience will follow.