No one would ever accuse Stephen King of lacking ambition — particularly when it comes to his self-professed magnum opus, “The Dark Tower,” an eight-book series that chronicles an epic battle where the fate of the entire universe (known and unknown) hangs in the balance as the powers of good and evil duke it out for ultimate supremacy. King’s vision is essentially a western sci-fi in which a sullen gunslinger battles through a fantastical land to reach the titular dark tower that holds together multiple universes on the verge of collapse. It’s a series that has everything, including a cameo by none other than King himself, who writes the stories as they’re playing out on the page.
That’s only part of the reason why the books have mostly been considered “unadaptable,” though plenty of filmmakers — from J.J. Abrams to Ron Howard — have tried. Now the movie’s finally been made, and while “The Dark Tower” may not be unadaptable, this first attempt at bringing the beloved material to the big screen does little to dispel the notion that it’s still a mostly unwinnable proposition.
Saddled with a staggering amount of material (over 4,000 pages from the novels alone), Nikolaj Arcel’s film attempts the unenviable task of wrangling the material through a double-barreled approach to screenwriting, including a streamlined script from Arcel, producer Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, and Anders Thomas Jensen that results in the rare studio tentpole feature that clocks in under 100 minutes. That’s the first sign of trouble: This unwieldy premise was never readymade to be stuffed into a nimble feature-length running time, and now we know why.
Goldsman is credited with the script’s other big idea, which reorients the narrative through the experience of surly middle-schooler Jake Chambers (newcomer Tom Taylor). While King’s books begin and end with Roland Deschain, aka The Gunslinger, the film’s script imagines the epic as an outsider’s story that unspools through Jake’s narrow perspective. It’s one way to introduce such a sprawling, imaginative world — or, as is the case with “The Dark Tower,” multiple worlds — and Taylor is engaging as the troubled Jake, but his wide-eyed confusion never transitions into much in the way of larger understanding, thus diminishing the scope of the story into whatever it is that Jake can digest. And that’s not much.
Consumed by nightmares (which are not at all helped by near-constant earthquakes shaking his native New York City) and his desire to sketch fantastical people and places (including Roland, his nemesis The Man in Black, and the tower itself), Jake’s fragile psyche isn’t winning him any fans at home or at school. While his mother (an underutilized Katheryn Winnick) is doing her best to support him emotionally, his thinly drawn step-father Lon (Nicholas Pauling) is eager to get the kid out of the house any way he can. When a seemingly perfect opportunity emerges, care of a special retreat for troubled kids that’s highly interested in Jake, the kid cuts and runs.
As it turns out, those creepy creatures — the monsters wearing human faces with very visible seams that are haunting his dreams — they’re the people who’ve come to take him away, and only Jake can see them. Perhaps he’s in possession of something special? Some kind of…shine, for lack of a better word? This is familiar King turf, of course, but Jake’s psychic abilities are so vaguely defined they may as well be an homage to “The Shining” rather than a continuation of the concept from the person who dreamed it up.
At least Jake’s visions and abject terror lead him to a suspiciously creepy house in far Brooklyn, where he discovers a portal to another world, one he’s only dreamed about (and one the audience has glimpsed in a series of confounding visions that do little in the way of explaining how they relate to the story at hand). The portal carries Jake to a foreign land — a dimension known as Mid-World — where he soon hooks up with Roland, who isn’t eager to have a tagalong pal on his quest to wreck holy havoc on The Man in Black. That would be his fated enemy and all-around mega-bad guy, a stern villain driven by the desire to destroy the entire universe. The Man in Black is already making solid progress, too, harnessing the brains of kids like Jake as a means to fell the tower, and if he finds his way to Jake and his shine, he’ll likely have his greatest weapon ever.
And while this all sounds fantastical and mind-bending, “The Dark Tower” is startlingly low on both energy or any larger sense of magic or a wider world beyond whatever Jake is able to experience. While Elba and Taylor make a fine match, and the film picks up tremendous steam once they’re paired together, the script’s aim to keep things as lean and tight as possible mean they’re forced to rush through a complex story that deserves much more than a time-strapped take that gets significantly less interesting as it goes along.
Fans of King’s books will likely be disappointed by the way this long-awaited film adaptation speeds through essential plot points and frantically introduces characters with little in the way of rhythm or care, all in service of a rushed finale that will leave plenty scratching their heads. A tight story is one thing, but a 95-minute feature that is unable to give even the slightest inkling that it’s based on a grand-scale epic masterpiece is something else entirely. The whole universe is at stake here, but “The Dark Tower” wastes precious time before it delivers any big moments, which then only arrive care of listless and muddled action sequences.
Even newbies will likely be left in the dust as Jake and Roland bounce through locations and plot movements with jarring irregularity, as they’re forced to judge for themselves just how important each person and place really is to the larger story. Jake never really comprehends the scope of the mess he’s landed in, and “The Dark Tower” attempts to remedy that with choppy glimpses of Roland’s early life and frequent visits to The Man in Black’s lair that are as flat and uninspiring as anything put on the big screen this year.
The Man in Black may, in fact, be the biggest thorn in the film’s side; in King’s novels, the character is intended to personify pure evil, but he’s rendered here by McConaughey as a preening foot soldier who delights in incinerating people and wearing kicky coats. He’s all style and no substance, and McConaughey is unable to exhibit anything approaching nefariousness or real villainy. His primary power appears to be his ability to control debris — large and small — that he slings at Roland during the film’s big, final battle. It’s as baffling and boring as that sounds, and brief flashes of Roland’s long-heralded gun-slinging skills can’t save it.
That’s right, even The Gunslinger can’t get this thing moving, a problem that’s emblematic of everything else bogging down the film. King’s Dark Tower universe is rich with cultural reference points and is always totally unpredictable, but in cutting it down to consolidate its highlights, “The Dark Tower” can’t even shoot the most necessary bullets straight.
“The Dark Tower” will be released on Friday, August 4.