Magic, the Smattering: Arcel’s Alchemy Proves Pointless in Pedestrian Adaptation
Arguably, expectations may have been set a bit too high for The Dark Tower, the first cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s celebrated series, a self-proclaimed magnum opus which began with 1982’s The Gunslinger and ended with an eighth novel in 2012. A project which was taken years to reach realization, the distinction would eventually fall to Swedish screenwriter Nikolaj Arcel, who famously adapted the 2009 version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, along with the Nordic Noir Department Q trilogy.
Having broken out into international acclaim as a director with 2012 period piece A Royal Affair, Arcel (who studiously learned English before filming commenced) seemed an inspired choice to helm such monolithic material, which professes to condense ideas from King’s series and meld them into a boiled down sequel of sorts to the whole endeavor. Never fear, those who haven’t taken the opportunity to wade through King’s lynchpin of a multiverse (which bleeds into his expansive and illustrious bibliography) shouldn’t have a hard time keeping up with this somber palette.
Unfortunately, what Arcel and contributing screenwriters Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, and the lauded Anders Thomas Jensen have come up with plays like a muddled YA cross section of The Matrix and Doctor Strange. What could have been a unique franchise to be shouldered by an effective Idris Elba crashes and burns all around in him in this rendering, which falls significantly short of the epic scope King conceived.
Troubled New York youth Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is having terrifying visions of the apocalypse, which are usually accompanied by major earthquakes. His mother (a tear-streaked Katheryn Winnick) is convinced, along with his unsympathetic stepdad, her son needs psychiatric attention. But they soon find out his visions of The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) and Roland the Gunslinger (Elba) are real, as these representatives of good and evil spill over into their world. The Man in Black, also known as Walter O’Dim, seeks to destroy the Dark Tower, a building protecting not only Earth, but every other parallel world in the multiverse. Convinced he can harness Jake’s psychic powers as a way to topple the tower, only Roland’s intervention might save the day.
McConaughey, with his jet-black John Cusack styled hair, borrowing a moniker once belonging exclusively to the inimitable Johnny Cash, plays his devilish villain as a sort of bemused rogue, who can perhaps be credited with the script’s minimal flights of fancy as well as the most blatant exposition (“I believe the keystoners call it Excalibur,” he cries to his minions in one nonsensical moment”). But he can’t be blamed for lack of effort here, tying up gifted children to some brain sucking mechanism, which seems a nod to The Dark Crystal, as he splooges their brain waves across galaxies as a way to strike down the titular tower and therefore allow a whole host of demons to plague existence as we know it. Neither can Idris Elba, who dons the identity of Roland the Last Gunslinger as if he stepped out of an honorable B-Western grimly determined to save the day, but is forced to engage in comedic asides with relative newcomer Jake Chambers when they haul ass back to New York City in a tangent similar to the Furlong/Schwarzenegger relationship in Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992).
Special effects light up the screen like gloopy video game flourishes, while a handful of action sequences fail to contribute to the epic scope of what’s meant to be a staggering palette, but instead each tableau looks like just some other place on Earth or, in the case of The Man in Black’s lair, a bargain basement space station (populated with his vaguely ascribed underlings, played by Fran Kranz and Abbey Lee, who are awkward caricatures).
Across the board, the energy level seems absent from the narrative, even as it tosses its main players into haphazard introductions (such as Elba with his father, played by the superb character actor Dennis Haysbert, who looks like he’s in a Civil War reenactment), sabotaging its adult characters with its dependence on Tom Taylor’s troubled youth (an appearance from Little Men actor Michael Barbieri as Jake’s friend/neighbor is a brief, if perhaps tonally diffident accent).
Although not the misfire it could have been, Arcel’s treatment of The Dark Tower is perhaps more sacrilegious than an utterly tone-deaf train wreck because, to be blunt, it’s boring.