Mark Reviews Movies

The Dark Tower (2017)


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Nikolaj Arcel

Cast: Tom Taylor, Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Katheryn Winnick, Claudia Kim, Jackie Earle Haley, Abbey Lee, Michael Barbieri, Karl Thaning, Dennis Haysbert

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material including sequences of gun violence and action)

Running Time: 1:35

Release Date: 8/4/17

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 4, 2017

The Dark Tower never seems quite sure of itself, which is odd, considering that it has a now–complete, seven-book series of epic fantasy by Stephen King from which to cull its story. Part of the problem is that it wants to simultaneously be the first installment of a series and a standalone tale, just in case the whole multi-part series thing doesn't work out financially for the people making it. There is so much of a strange, new world here—an entire universe, really, with what could be infinite worlds and possibilities. By the end, though, we feel as if the movie, in its quest to tell a satisfying story with a beginning and an end (and maybe something of a middle), has only scratched the surface of it.

Take the movie's opening beats, which give us abducted children, harnessed into chairs with devices that appear to pull energy from the kids' minds. The operation is run by human-looking beings, who only look human, apparently, because the skin on their faces has been plastered there. The telling scars along their necks bristle and bulge, as whatever flesh is under that skin seems to be rejecting the unnatural faces.

From there, we see that this entire facility, which looks like an ordinary town, is sitting atop a flat hill, surrounded by some wasteland in who-knows-where. A beam of yellow light pulses from the wide, conical shape of the laboratory and streams into the sky, before striking a tall, black tower that rises high above an endless formation of clouds.

It's all a dream, of course, except that it also isn't one. We get something strange, enigmatic, and unique in this opening sequence, raising questions about the natures of this place, these creatures, and that tower, even while it at least makes some sort of sense. These are the bad guys, obviously, and the destruction of the tower is their goal.

It's simple, right? Yes, it is, and it remains that way throughout the movie, which gradually becomes less mysterious and more straightforward—just as we want it to stretch its legs and maybe show us a bit more of this hodgepodge world of King's creation. This is a world of magical villains and structures, props and set decorations that look like things out of science-fiction, and a hero who might as well have wandered over from the nearby set of a Western. How could such a medley turn out to be so bland?

The dream is had by Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a teenager living in New York City. Since the death of his father, Jake has been having the same dreams—of the kidnapped children, the facility, the tower, and a man dressed in black who oversees all of this maleficent oddness.

Soon enough, the other world comes for him, because Jake's dreams point to some strong psychic abilities that could destroy the tower, which keeps the darkness and the monsters outside the universe at bay (Even King's casual fans will immediately know the term for such abilities). The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), whose actual name is the far-less-threatening Walter, wants the darkness to spread. Roland (Idris Elba), the last in a line of Gunslingers (complete with a pair of six-shooters and lots of fancy ways of reloading them), wants to kill Walter for unrelated personal reasons.

Most of this takes place in a realm called Mid-World, which looks pretty much like Earth but after some kind of cataclysm (Roland refers to an abandoned theme park as ancient ruins without a discernible purpose). That's about it, and the screenplay, written by a quartet (Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and director Nikolaj Arcel), leaves it at that. The world is populated by survivors, who live in a small village and hint at some old way of life that has vanished, and the occasional monster, since Roland has to show off his dynamic sharpshooting abilities somehow.

Most of the plot is about, well, the existence of a plot. Roland is the hero. Walter is the villain. Jake is the special entity who could bring destruction or triumph, depending on who has him at the appropriate time. No detail is extraneous in a way that makes us curious about this far-reaching universe. The characters talk exclusively about the tower, Jake's psychic abilities, Walter's plan, Roland's role in stopping that evil, and pretty much nothing else.

The movie hints and teases at something special, but it only provides the routine, generic story about a battle between good and evil. The dialogue is expository, save for Walter's occasional one-liners ("Have a great apocalypse," springs to mind). The one turn toward something inspired, in which Roland finds himself in the streets of the New York of "Keystone Earth," inevitability turns into—of all the infinite possibilities available here—a regular, old shootout.

Was something lost in translation (a hallmark of King adaptations), or were the filmmakers too timid to open up this world in this market of contemporary cinema? If we get more of these movies, maybe we'll know the answer, but as it stands, The Dark Tower is a shrine to nothing-special, formulaic storytelling.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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