Between 1982 and 2012, notable horror writer Stephen King produced a series of seven novels (and one spin-off) that made up what he referred to as his magnum opus. Over the years, numerous writers and directors have attempted to launch a film series base don King’s Dark Tower books, only to run into various issues at every turn. Finally, after nearly ten years in development hell, 2017 sees the release of Nikolaj Arcel’s adaptation of King’s work.
The Dark Tower tells the story of a young boy named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), who suffers from regular nightmares and visions of a mysterious Dark Tower, a malevolent Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), and a grizzled Gunslinger named Roland Deschain (Idris Elba). Jake’s dreams also involves the Man in Black and his henchmen, who wear false faces, strapping children to a device that draws their life-force out to attack the Dark Tower
Given that Jake is clearly struggling to cope with the loss of his father, his mother, Katheryn (Laurie Chambers), tries to help Jake by sending him to a psychiatrist (José Zúñiga), to no avail. However, when he suspects that two representatives of a mental institute are emissaries of the Man in Black, he runs away from home and tracks down a dilapidated house he saw in his dreams.
Inside, he finds a control console that opens a doorway to another dimension, Mid-World, and, after being attacked by the house itself, he enters to find himself stranded in the vast alien desert from his nightmares. Eventually, he runs into Roland, who is on his own quest for revenge against the Man in Black after the sorcerer killed not only his entire people but also his father (Dennis Haysbert). After learning that Jake’s dreams can lead him to the Man in Black, Roland reluctantly allows Jake to tag along with him through the desolate remains of times and worlds long gone in order to get his revenge.
The first thing you really need to know about this film, if you’ve read the Dark Tower books, is that this is not a page-for-page adaptation of the series. It’s not even a direct adaptation of the first book; instead, the film draws influences from many of the different books and, if Arcel is to be believed, is actually a canonical sequel to the final book in the series.
Therefore, if you were hoping to come into this to see the events of The Gunslinger (King, 1982) play out, you’ll be disappointed. To be fair, The Gunslinger is probably too short to be its own film, much less the first part in a seven film series. Additionally, Roland’s famous Ka-tet do not feature at all, although many events from the books in which they appear are represented: Roland is injured and poisoned after an attack and must get treatment on Jake’s world (“Keystone Earth”). There, he visits a gun shop and stocks up on bullets; he also briefly teaches Jake how to shoot like a Gunslinger and takes part in a shoot-out at the Dixie Pig, similar to The Song of Susannah (King, 2004).
Apparently, The Dark Tower is supposed to launch an ongoing television series, with the main characters all reprising their roles, and even a sequel that will involve more content from The Drawing of the Three (King, 1987). However, the film feels more like a stand-alone, condensed version of the books and it does not conclude on an obvious cliffhanger or with explicit sequel-bait.
To veer into spoiler territory, Jake is apprehended by the Man in Black due to his incredibly powerful psychic powers and strapped into the chair from his nightmares. However, having had his true calling to protect the Dark Tower awoken by Jake’s influence, Roland blasts his way through the Dixie Pig and confronts the Man in Black, putting a bullet through his head. Roland then destroys the machine, and the base in which it was housed, and ends the Man in Black’s assault against the Dark Tower. After, he and Jake return to Mid-World together and the film ends with basically everything wrapped up: Jake has realised that he’s not crazy and achieved closure over the loss of his father and Roland has realised his revenge and rediscovered his calling. Although the theme throughout is that darkness will continually attempt to destroy the Dark Tower (I guess I should say at some point that this would result in horrific monsters entering the multiverse and destroying all life) and there are some hints towards a larger, looming evil (the Crimson King), watching the film you get the real sense that everyone was aiming to make only one movie.
Having read all of the books and only found maybe a third of them to be enjoyable, I actually really liked The Dark Tower. It drew the most interesting aspects from the books and paid homage to the larger world that King created (in addition to numerous references to his other stories) without being bogged down by some of the more convoluted and cringe-worthy moments from the books (such as King including himself as a character, the pointlessness of The Waste Lands (King, 1991), or the weirdness of Blaine the psychopathic train).
The Dark Tower is Jake’s story; you follow him as the main character and Roland, while being the more enigmatic, bad-ass, and mysterious of the two, is really more of a side character until Jake ends up on Mid-World. Because of this, we only really learn about Roland’s past and the mechanics of King’s multiverse through Jake’s conversations with Roland, in which we are told just enough to know the stakes but not be overwhelmed by the complexities of King’s multi-layered worlds.
The downside to this is that we don’t get much exposition into the Man in Black. McConaughey plays the role with a nuanced relish, clearly revelling in being the personification of evil, and while kills without remorse and clearly desires the destruction of the Dark Tower and the prospect of ruling the darkness that would follow, we never find out what is exact motivations are except that he is pure evil. There is no mention of him serving the higher power of the Crimson King, no explanation regarding his henchmen, and no real tangible motivation behind any of the antagonists except that they’re clearly evil because they want to destroy the multiverse.
The only reason this works in the film is due to the fact that The Dark Tower is disappointingly short; at a mere 95 minutes, the film moves at a brisk pace, emphasising action and fast-paced shoot-outs when it can. While it never feels rushed or suffers from jump cuts or even massive plot holes, it is disappointing that the film was not afforded a longer run time; I honestly feel that, if this is the only Dark Tower film to be made, they could have done the books (and the unique narrative of the film) more justice by affording it a two-and-a-half-hour runtime instead.
Fans of the books will probably be disappointed with The Dark Tower; unlike another films based on a long-running book series, The Dark Tower is not a straight-up adaptation of its source material. If it is to be the first in a film series or launch a multi-media franchise, it doesn’t appear to have done a great job of doing so. I feel as though, if there are more films made, this film will be looked at as being like The Matrix (Wachowski Brothers, 1999) in that it feels more like a stand-alone film that wasn’t meant to have a sequel. However, there is plenty of material to still draw from and plenty of potential in the ideas raised in the film to warrant at least two more movies; the disappointment comes from The Dark Tower’s inefficiency at setting these up (but, at the same time, the fact that it is not massively concerned with setting up future films makes it much easier to watch than, say, The Mummy (Kurtzman, 2017), which was criticised for being more concerned with setting up future films in the “Dark Universe” tan telling a good stand-alone story).
In the end, though, I enjoyed The Dark Tower for what it was: a fantasy/action film with a compelling protagonist (Elba plays the grizzled, war-weary Roland to perfection, proving that race can have no baring on an actor’s ability to effectively portray a role), engaging set-pieces (Roland’s efficiency at dispatching his foes is unmatched; every shot is an instant kill, even when he’s poisoned to the point where he can barely stand), a charismatic antagonist (McConaughey lives his role, exuding a barely-contained hate and malice beneath an ice-cold exterior), and some extremely enjoyable allusions to other King works buried within the expansive war-torn dimension of Mid-World.
It was very enjoyable while it lasted; my only real gripe is that it should’ve easily been a longer film. However, if you go into it expecting slavish fidelity to King’s magnum opus you will be disappointed, so I’d recommend putting your expectations for that aside and enjoying it as a stand-alone fantasy/action piece instead.
Recommended: Sure, I would say give it a watch. If you’re a die-hard Dark Tower fan though, expect to be a little disappointed.
Best moment: Roland’s battle against the Taheen that come to kidnap Jake is pretty great, with his proficiency and aim being top-notch despite his weakened condition,
Worst moment: The run-time; for a film with such potential and the expansive nature of King’s work, 95 minutes just doesn’t cut it.