The Dark Tower Is … *sigh … Solidly Okay

I just got back from seeing The Dark Tower. I’m a stewer. When I see a film, I generally can’t talk about it immediately afterward. I have to let it stew in my mind awhile. When my wife asked me what I thought about it, I found I had fairly instant thoughts on where the film succeeds and where it fails.

[This review is spoiler-free, by the way.]

It’s been years since I read the books, and to be honest, I have a love-hate relationship with them. I love the core story, what Stephen King was trying to do, but ultimately, I think the series is flawed in several major ways. So I was eager to see a reimagining that wasn’t a strict adaptation. I was excited to see a story using those core elements without having to conform to the original narrative.

That’s what we have with the film, and if you want to read more about my thoughts on all of that, click here.

The reason I bring this up is to give you a point of reference on my expectations. I take no issue with the film deviating from the source material. In fact, I welcome it. And all of that stuff, the faithfulness, the adherence to the original story, let’s pack that up and set it aside for now. Let’s just talk about The Dark Tower film as a film on its own.

I enjoyed it. Ultimately, though, I’m disappointed.

I’ll start with story. I think we can identify the story as a four-act structure, if we’re being generous (details on why below).

Act one of the film is synthetic and soulless. The biggest violation here is the writing. It’s patronizing. Look, I understand a blockbuster film needs to pander to its audience a bit, but the first act of The Dark Tower borders on violating the fourth wall far too often. On its own, the narrative isn’t bad, but it’s apparent someone somewhere made strict demands about the information and exposition that the first act would have to convey, and it’s clumsy and stilted. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the laziness of the writing here was fairly astounding and set a negative tone up front.

For a film that hopes to set up a trilogy, it gets off to a bad start because of this alone. I understand that The Dark Tower needs to appeal to a wide audience if the film is to succeed. The filmmakers really overcompensated here.

If act one disappoints, acts two and three demonstrate the film’s potential. They’re solid, solid, solid. In my opinion, the film’s writing nails Roland and Jake in the middle half, and if the whole film had been made to this caliber, I think it would have been an ultimate triumph. There are fantastic landscapes, intimate moments between the gunslinger and Jake, jaw-dropping action, tension-relieving comedy, and virtually all of the heart of the core story line that the books have to offer

Frankly, most of the film is really good if not great.

Act four … the film kind of falls apart here, and it’s easy to see why. Fans and critics have generally criticized the film for its short running time of 94 minutes, and after seeing it, yes, it’s short. It’s far too short. I had cast these criticisms aside because, look, some of the books in the series are really fat, but the first one, The Gunslinger, it’s one of King’s shortest novels. It’s a simple story about Roland, Jake, and the Man in Black. That’s what this film needed to portray. Unfortunately, they stuffed a lot of the grander stuff into it, and it really comes to bear in act four.

It’s almost as if Nikolaj Arcel, the director, looked at his first three acts, stepped back, and said, “Yes! This is going really well!” And then someone tapped him on the shoulder, tapped their wrist to signify an imaginary watch, and then cocked their head in disapproval.

What I’m saying is there’s a bizarre rush to wrap up the film in act four. After the turning point that caps act three, there’s barely any time before we’re at the climax. So that’s why it’s generous to say The Dark Tower is a four-act film.

I’m guessing someone making decisions (it’s always someone making decisions who ruins great films) decided to require a sub-100-minute run time or a run time that would be as close to 90 minutes as possible. As a result, almost the entirety of act four is (very noticeably) missing.

But the editors didn’t stop cutting there. Toward the end of the film, it’s apparent they cut seconds here and there out of action sequences. Characters instantaneously traverse set pieces filled with enemies. They conveniently navigate alien worlds and find hidden lairs with no help. They conveniently develop super powers to overcome their challenges.

That last one was especially odd.

Then, the resolution. This film needed to resolve its central conflicts and themes while leaving the door open for the trilogy. It does that in a not-so-graceful way. The final scene is bad, really bad, and it’s a shame because that’s the taste people are going to leave with.

I have a suspicion it isn’t the original ending. I think it’s a reshoot. My reasoning? Tom Taylor, the actor who plays Jake, appears noticeably older, and it just has the air of being an afterthought.

Recalling the film, however, there’s one image that sticks in my mind. It is a moment in which Jake runs to Roland, and the gunslinger picks up the child and holds him in a warm embrace. It’s a great moment, but it’s sullied by the film’s missteps.

Now, I know little about acting, but it’s worth mentioning the performances of Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba. McConaughey’s Walter gets the best lines, but Idris Elba … man, he didn’t have to speak at all to bring Roland Deschain to life. There is something about Elba’s work with his expressions in this film that made him utterly believable. If someone were to ask me to portray someone seeking vengeance, someone exacting his wrath, someone finding compassion, and someone learning love, I wouldn’t know how to do that, but I would point to Idris Elba in this film.

Frankly, it’s amazing. It’s genuine. And I think anyone who resisted him as Roland should watch the film and reflect honestly. As Hugh Jackman became Wolverine, Idris Elba is Roland of Gilead.

Aside from acting, I know a little something about music, and unfortunately, The Dark Tower is missing a solid musical theme. Fantasy films live or die on their atmosphere, and soundtracks are vital to that. The Dark Tower’s music needs to evoke feelings to build out its world, and it doesn’t really do that. There’s some great set design and effects work, but without the audio component to sell those things, it feels like it’s missing some authenticity.

But none of this changes the fact that The Dark Tower, for about 50 minutes, is a really solid film that amazingly captures the core story of the books. On its own, the film is fun and enjoyable, but for fans of the books, there are these flashes of heart and soul that give us hope that somewhere, under the muck of producer and studio interference, there’s a great film, and that maybe some day, we’ll get to see that cut on a special edition Blu-ray.

But it isn’t this film. Despite containing great elements in brief flashes of brilliance, The Dark Tower is not great in its current form, and my guess is the ultimate tragedy is it isn’t even good enough to continue.

That’s such a shame, too. If Stephen King is the king of horror and he’s a cornerstone of literature in the latter half of the twentieth century, The Dark Tower isn’t just his magnum opus; it’s a guide book for the landscape of his work. The whole point of The Dark Tower is it’s the axis upon which all of Stephen King’s stories turn because it is the axis upon which his imagination turns.

Intrinsically, The Dark Tower is the heart and soul of Stephen King’s work. That doesn’t mean a film that’s just okay isn’t worthy. In some sense, it’s actually appropriate since, and I write this as a big fan, a lot of his work is hit-or-miss.

Maybe it’s appropriate that this film embodies that nature of King’s work. It’s just a problem that, considering the realities of filmmaking and Hollywood, a potential trilogy started out on a mediocre note. King’s career needed several classics to establish him as a master. Yes, he wrote some stinkers. But if Carrie had been at the level of this film, Stephen King would likely still be teaching English in Maine, and we’d never had heard of Roland or The Dark Tower to begin with.

In another sense, though, maybe it’s fitting that I loved some things about this film and didn’t like some others. As I wrote at the beginning of this post, that’s my relationship with the books. Maybe it was unfair of me to expect that, if the film did as I hoped and cast aside the baggage of the books to tell its own story, it would be a perfect representation of the books’ strengths.

I liked this film a lot. I just don’t know if that’s enough. For me to love it or, more important, for others to prop up a trilogy with their wallets.