“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed…”
Stephen King’s novel The Gunslinger was released back in 1982, the first of seven novels that would make up The Dark Tower saga. Fans of the series have been of two minds regarding potential onscreen adventures for Roland and the gang. Some believe the work to be unfilmable, with its massive world-building and complicated interconnectivity with other King stories. Others want to see Mid-World in all its dilapidated glory no matter what, with vast visuals spread out across a giant screen to capture all of its complicated beauty. After years of dread/patience, King’s magnum opus has finally been brought to life with Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower. It wasn’t worth the wait.
We’re introduced early on to Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), who has recurring nightmares of a Dark Tower crumbling, leading to the end of the world. In these dreams, he also sees Walter, the evil “Man in Black” (Matthew McConaughey), and a gunslinger named Roland (Idris Elba). After discovering Walter and his evil subordinates are after him for his psychic abilities, Jake escapes and finds himself in Roland’s world. With Roland as his guide, they try to evade Walter at all costs while Roland tries to … encounter him at all costs?
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There is a lot of miscommunication in this adaptation, both from storyteller-to-audience and producers-to-director. Recent news of reshoots and unhappy studio heads are obvious no matter how much Sony and Arcel deny the claims. If Roland’s sole mission on Earth is to locate Walter, then why is he stopping Jake from allowing Walter to track them? Why is Exposition Walter talking about the history of Roland’s guns and how powerful they are during an “intense” fight sequence? Why are we constantly ripped away from the compelling Jake/Roland narrative to Exposition Walter asking why Jake got away to begin with? It’s as though the producers didn’t trust the story of its protagonists enough to leave us alone with them for stretches longer than three minutes.
To be fair, it’s important for Dark Tower aficionados to understand that this film acts as a kind-of sequel to the books (a certain horn is found on Roland’s person early on), so going in with an open mind is important. Character decisions are different here. Characters’ outcomes even more so. This isn’t the issue. Many adaptations that are slavishly faithful to their source material turn out less-than satisfactory (Chamber of Secrets, Watchmen, etc.). The problem is that Akiva Goldsman, the worst living major-studio screenwriter (Batman & Robin, A Winter’s Tale), piles in way too much information for so short a runtime (95 minutes including credits). Bringing the action of future Dark Tower novels forward isn’t a sin. The sin is not having nearly enough space for it. The film is breathless in all the worst ways as a result.
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In addition to the wonky writing, I was rather stunned to discover the cinematographer on The Dark Tower was Rasmus Videbæk. Until I saw Videbæk’s name in the credits, I was convinced the fictional character of Darkness from 1985’s Legend was responsible for the poorly-lit action. The first and most egregious case takes place at night atop a long-abandoned amusement park ride featuring Jake, Roland, and some strange creature on the attack. There hasn’t been a scene this unintentionally impossible to make out since Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, but at least those filmmakers had the courtesy of throwing in a flashlight every once in a while. It’s uncertain whether or not these scenes were the result of poor direction or panic over shoddy effects. Either way, they’re a black mark on the overall experience.
Despite all of that, there are some positives to take out of The Dark Tower. McConaughey’s performance as Walter is sure to polarize, but he has his moments of intimidating, seductive evil when Goldsman isn’t littering him with expository garbage. A climactic shootout between Roland and the bad guys works incredibly well. You can even see it as it happens! There is efficient lighting! Moments of levity land much more often than not, particularly scenes at both a hospital (“Bring my guns!”) and on a bus (“You have forgotten the face of your fathers.”) in our world. Elba’s timing is terrific.
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Much was made by a certain sect of Dark Tower fans over a black man playing a role that was written as white, but Elba does plenty with Roland to hopefully silence those critics once and for all. His humanity, stern demeanor, and aforementioned “man out of time” persona are big selling points for the series should it go forward. However, it’s the chemistry between Elba and Taylor that is the best part of the film. The pair is reason enough for the series to continue.
A soft reboot would probably be the way for the franchise to go. Don’t dismiss everything that happens in the first film, but build away from it. As it stands, The Dark Tower is falling, but all hope is not lost. King’s universe is insane in often fascinating ways. There are other stories than this, and there are other worlds than these. Ditch the writer, bring in a more experienced director, and most importantly, ditch Walter’s evil lair straight from Star Trek: Nemesis, and let’s see what happens next.
P.S. There is definitely an Oy reference in there for you Tower-heads. Oy!