Shoot­ing blanks

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Stephen King’s Gun­slinger hits the big screen. We shoot him like a varmint.

re­leased OUT NOW! 12a | 95 min­utes Di­rec­tor Niko­laj ar­cel Cast Idris elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Tay­lor, Clau­dia Kim, abbey lee, Jackie earle Ha­ley

The Gun­slinger be­gins with Stephen King’s most evoca­tive line: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gun­slinger fol­lowed.” One line that splits into two tan­ta­lis­ing ques­tions – who is the man in black, and why is this gun­slinger fol­low­ing him?

In con­trast, there is noth­ing tan­ta­lis­ing about this adap­ta­tion. To call it a mess would be un­der­selling its catas­tro­phe. Tak­ing its gun-tot­ing an­ti­hero to heart, The Dark Tower shoots its source ma­te­rial to pulp, leav­ing be­hind a limp adap­ta­tion that quickly bleeds out. Part of the prob­lem is shift­ing the genre from a slow su­per­nat­u­ral Western to a bul­let-spew­ing ac­tion film, and part of it is mis­un­der­stand­ing the power of King’s orig­i­nal text.

Idris Elba stars as Roland Deschain, a cow­boy in a par­al­lel uni­verse who is haunted by the death of his fam­ily. Elba has built a ca­reer on the foun­da­tions of the gun­slinger: he is of­ten gruff and takes no shit. His Deschain is lit­tle more than th­ese at­tributes, how­ever. A sil­hou­ette of a char­ac­ter, he grunts and de­liv­ers jaded one-lin­ers, but there is no chill to his per­for­mance, and the madness that tinges his book coun­ter­part is left on the page.

Matthew McConaughey is bet­ter suited to the role of Deschain’s ad­ver­sary, and he has some slinky, ser­pen­tine fun as evil sor­cerer the Man in Black. But even McConaughey strug­gles with the script, stuck with bland di­a­logue and one-di­men­sional mo­ti­va­tions. The only truly im­pres­sive thing about this char­ac­ter is his cheek­bones.

The film also suf­fers from the kind of leaden sto­ry­telling that un­der­mines any nu­ance. The heart of the novel is the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Roland and Jake, a boy from our world who joins Roland on his quest. In the movie, the chem­istry be­tween the two amounts to zero; there is no bud­ding bond, no prickly af­fec­tion. And while there are some gen­uinely funny mo­ments where Jake shows Roland around New York City (“I haven’t felt this good in years,” Roland dead­pans af­ter down­ing a hand­ful of painkillers), there is no pathos for them to ping against.

Nei­ther is there any­thing in­ter­est­ing to say, as if the word sub­text had never been in­vented. Chil­dren with psy­chic abil­i­ties called the Shine (a nice lit­tle tie-in with The Shin­ing) are be­ing taken by the Man in Black to de­stroy the Dark Tower. Does this ex­plore the ex­ploita­tion and fetishi­sa­tion of in­no­cence? No. The Man in Black’s rat-faced lack­eys also steal peo­ple’s skin to look hu­man. Does this chal­lenge the no­tion that only beau­ti­ful peo­ple are val­ued? Nope.

Plus, by mak­ing the film a 12A, all of the book’s dark and de­mented im­agery has been stripped. The crea­tures, for ex­am­ple, are a horde

This had the po­ten­tial to be a ghostly and haunt­ing Western

of in­dis­tin­guish­able mush. There are no Slow Mu­tants and no en­counter with a suc­cubus in the woods. The book’s most strik­ing sec­tion, where Roland is forced to kill an en­tire vil­lage af­ter they turn on him, has also been omit­ted. Even the land­scape in­spires a yawn. In the book Roland chases the Man in Black through a scarred vi­sion of the Old West, punc­tu­ated with moun­tains and pock­ets of civil­i­sa­tion. Here it looks like a Star Trek back­lot; an end­less vista of sand and dust.

Many of th­ese in­fu­ri­at­ing mis­steps are down to the script’s ap­proach. Rather than di­rectly adapt­ing The Gun­slinger – the first in­stal­ment of The Dark Tower – di­rec­tor Niko­laj Ar­cel has plucked el­e­ments from all seven books, call­ing it a remix and a canon­i­cal se­quel. What this does is zap all of the mys­tery from the story. In­stead of dis­cov­er­ing what the Dark Tower is across mul­ti­ple films, we have scenes that ef­fec­tively be­come seminars, telling us what the Dark Tower is and why the Man in Black is try­ing to de­stroy it. The beauty of the novel is that we knew hardly any­thing about Roland’s quest and were hooked into read­ing more. We weren’t served it all on a plate.

So here we are, drenched in dis­ap­point­ment. This could have been a ghostly, haunt­ing Western and the first stage of a deathly dark Lord Of The Rings. In­stead, the film­mak­ers have soft­ened ev­ery­thing. There is no bite. No brav­ery or vi­sion. And while the film will be dis­heart­en­ing for fans of the books, the real tragedy is that it may have killed off any fu­ture adap­ta­tions. Kim­ber­ley Bal­lard

The Dark Tower has a com­pli­cated pro­duc­tion his­tory. From 2007 to 2013, it was al­most adapted three times!

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