Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels are beloved for a reason. They’re really good. His sprawling vision is one that melds high fantasy and his own supernatural fixations with the tropes of old westerns and the grit that marks every Stephen King novel. The Dark Tower is none of those things. It’s a movie that barely achieves feature length, takes wild departures from the source material that weaken the plot and feels cartoonish when it should feel otherworldly and mesmerizing.
The Dark Tower is a bad movie. And Sony should feel bad. The stilted plot smacks of studio notes. “Make it simple. Make it less bleak. Make it less dense. Make it feel like a YA novel.” I don’t know that any of those things were actually said, but it feels like they were, and that’s a failure all its own.
On paper, The Dark Tower is the story of Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last Gunslinger, and the last hope for the world as he knows it. Roland is nearing the end of a years-long struggle against The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), a twisted sorcerer bent on toppling The Dark Tower, and existence as everyone knows it. On the screen, the movie suddenly pivots to make Jake Chambers (a supporting character in the novels played here by Tom Taylor) the focal point of everything. He’s the first character we meet, the one we follow, our antagonist. And that’s not the end of the meddling with his trajectory. But for the flimsy plot purposes of this version of the story, Jake becomes all important because he has “the shine” and that allows him to see between worlds. This fact makes him useful to both The Gunslinger and The Man in Black. And so, the old foes have something more to squabble over.
Tom Taylor turns in the most layered performance of the picture, vacillating between frightened child and determined upstart, even in the face of some weak CGI. Idris Elba is cool, because Idris Elba is cool. But for being the hero in this movie, he sure doesn’t get to do much. Until the third act, he mostly is left to brood and grunt. And when he finally gets to live up to his title, it’s against cartoonish, outlandish visuals that are completely distracting. For his part, Matthew McConaughey warps back into the over the top looniness that characterized his career in the late 90s and the aughts. He’s more comic entertainment than believable menace. And that’s probably not entirely his fault. When you take a Stephen King work and scrub it squeaky clean to hit a PG-13 rating, you’re going to change the feel of a narrative. And likewise, how you manage to pull barely more than 90 minutes out of a collection of eight novels is almost inconceivable.
There was a rich world to explore, there is a talented cast in place. But, instead of an adaptation that makes the most of the resources at its disposal, we get a jumbled, flat, kind of boring mess.