Tower: The good, the bad and the aw­ful

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - GIL­BERT CRUZ

On one level, The Dark Tower, the big-screen Stephen King adap­ta­tion re­leased last week, should have been a gimme. It is based on a seven-book se­ries by one of the world’s most pop­u­lar writ­ers. A fan­tasy-sci-fi-Western-ac­tion-ad­ven­ture, it’s full of enough genre el­e­ments to please most movie­go­ers. The story’s de­tailed mythol­ogy is seem­ingly tai­lor-made for these fran­chise-ob­sessed times.

The film de­buted atop the weekend box of­fice, but it was sav­aged by crit­ics and was the weak­est No. 1 pre­miere of the sea­son. And while its pro­duc­ers are de­vel­op­ing a TV se­ries that will de­pict the main char­ac­ter in his youth, it’s hard to imag­ine fu­ture film in­stall­ments in the se­ries. It’s easy, how­ever, to do a post-mortem and as­sess the el­e­ments of the film that did and did not work.


The film is de­railed by two foun­da­tional is­sues. The first is that the movie is essen­tially a se­quel to the books. (With­out ru­in­ing the nov­els too much, they end af­ter thousands of pages in a man­ner that sug­gests the story can and will con­tinue.) This is a prob­lem. The Dark Tower is full of images, tossed-off phrases and con­cepts that make sense only to book read­ers and are never ex­plained to view­ers new to the se­ries. Want to know what a “house de­mon” is? Curious about what a “beam-quake” refers to? Con­fused by all the graf­fiti re­fer­ring to the “Crim­son King”? Sorry, go read Wikipedia. (Or, you know, the books.)

The sec­ond prob­lem is the de­ci­sion to essen­tially make the movie into a fa­mil­iar-feel­ing young adult film, fo­cused on a teenager, Jake Cham­bers (Tom Tay­lor), who dis­cov­ers that he has special pow­ers. The story be­comes more about him than the gun­slinger Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) or his eter­nal en­emy the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey). It’s a com­monly stated maxim in Hollywood that au­di­ences need a sur­ro­gate to serve as their guide through con­fus­ing genre worlds. But Jake, with his pre­dictable teen out­sider angst, feels more like an au­di­ence barrier.


Based in part on Clint East­wood’s Man With No Name in the Ser­gio Leone tril­ogy, Roland Deschain is the last sur­viv­ing mem­ber of what is essen­tially an or­der of me­dieval knights. He is tac­i­turn, fo­cused and preter­nat­u­rally good at shoot­ing guns. Elba is sim­ply fan­tas­tic in the role — he sells the bur­den of be­ing the last gun­slinger, plays his mo­ments of hu­mor­ous dis­lo­ca­tion well and looks smash­ing in a neck­er­chief, vest and leather duster.


As a wiz­ard who can kill peo­ple by say­ing “stop breath­ing,” or make lit­tle girls an­gry by whis­per­ing “hate” to them, McConaughey some­how man­ages to go big and small at the same time, both all pow­er­ful and in­cred­i­bly bor­ing. It doesn’t help that he’s sad­dled with di­a­logue like “Have a great apoc­a­lypse” and “You ain’t seen noth­ing yet.”


Sharp-eyed fans might have spot­ted the fol­low­ing nods to other King sto­ries — Jake’s “shine” and a pic­ture of the Over­look Ho­tel from “The Shin­ing” come up sev­eral times; a quickly glanced rusted car­ni­val sign ref­er­ences Pen­ny­wise, the clown from It; there’s a toy ver­sion of the 1958 red Ply­mouth Fury from Chris­tine; the same Rita Hay­worth poster from The Shaw­shank Redemp­tion ap­pears here; the co­or­di­nates of one por­tal are “14-08,” which is the ti­tle of a short story and film about a haunted ho­tel room.


It’s telling that the film’s ti­tle struc­ture ap­pears only briefly, maybe four times. If you name your movie The Dark Tower and as­sert that it stands at the cen­ter of the uni­verse, maybe make it more of a pres­ence? It’s of a piece with the film’s min­i­mal ap­proach to set­ting. The first time we re­ally see Mid-World, which runs par­al­lel to our own, it’s a desert with mag­i­cal, mys­ti­cal, won­drous … tor­na­does. Far­ther along, we see a for­est, what looks like a De­pres­sion-era shan­ty­town and the Man in Black’s com­puter-gen­er­ated im­agery moun­tain fortress. There are ref­er­ences to Earth­like amuse­ment parks and ra­di­a­tion poi­son­ing, hints of a full world with his­tory and con­flict — but the offhanded way in which every­thing is han­dled un­der­cuts any at­tempt to in­spire au­di­ence cu­rios­ity.


At the end of the film, Roland in­vites Jake back to MidWorld, ar­gu­ing that since the boy’s en­tire fam­ily is dead, he should join the gun­slinger back in his hellscape of a waste­land and go on ad­ven­tures. Given that they’ve just de­feated the one per­son who is ever es­tab­lished as a vil­lain and saved the Dark Tower from de­struc­tion, it’s a mys­tery as to what those ad­ven­tures could be. And at this rate, at least on the big screen, it’s doubt­ful we’ll ever know.

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