On dreams without psychology, places without presence, and The Dark Tower's bizarre absence of ambition
The Dark Tower Columbia Pictures
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen and Nikolaj Arcel, based on the novel series by Stephen King
Starring: Idris Elba, Tom Taylor, Matthew McConaughey, Katheryn Winnick, Abbey Lee, Nicholas Pauling, Fran Kranz, Dennis Haysbert and Jackie Earle Haley
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 35 minutes / 2.39:1
August 4, 2017
(out of four)
The Dark Tower unfavorably calls to mind so many pop-culture darlings - of both historically significant and present-day varieties - that I'm not sure whether the filmmakers and studio had specific reference points in mind, or if they simply couldn't figure out how to wrangle the expansive, genre-hopping source material they were dealing with.
It starts as a sort of adolescent Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but abandons the idea before it's able to take hold. It portals into Stranger Things territory (or, if you prefer, any of its '80s progenitors), but without its youthful sincerity or loopy paranormal horrors. It inherits the DNA of a Western - pick a Western, any Western - and has no idea what to do with it; the milieu just hangs there like a vestigial organ. That Western turns into a fish-out-of-water comedy (gunslinger from a distant, postapocalyptic world transports to modern-day New York) along the lines of Last Action Hero or Thor or Elf - or even, dare I say, the forgotten early 1990s cryo-sleep double feature of Forever Young and Late for Dinner. But that culture-shock comedy dies, too - and quickly. And that's to say nothing of our villain, who's basically what David Tennant's Kilgrave from Jessica Jones would be like if he had no sense of wit or enjoyment and took no pride in his work.
Eleven-year-old Jake (Tom Taylor) is haunted by powerful recurring imagery, which he obsessively transfers to paper - sketching and drawing and re-drawing, zooming in on specific details - immortalizing his dream memories on his bedroom wall, certain they add up to something but unsure exactly what. A towering edifice shooting beams of light in all directions, electrifying a sky with two suns. A man in black; his piercing, malevolent eyes. A gunslinger ... what's his name ... Roland? ... wandering across the desert in pursuit. Nefarious beasts wearing human faces, human skins. A crumbling, forsaken house that somehow connects it all. But the kid's Roy Neary act is a disingenuous front, a convenient lead-in to a bigger, yet somehow much more slight, narrative. The early focus on Jake's visions is just enough to establish that Mom and Mom's New Boyfriend see him as a Very Troubled Child, but not nearly enough for those thoughts and images to take hold as the psychological obsession they are, or should be. The Dark Tower cares about Jake only to the extent that he is a liaison between his world and the worlds around him, the worlds he's been dreaming about. And those dreams matter only inasmuch as they set up other chapters of a story that the film doesn't seem very interested in telling in the first place. Or at least isn't confident in its ability to tell.
The character's profound receptiveness to imagery itself exposes director Nikolaj Arcel's comparative apathy. For Jake, those images make such an impression that he becomes consumed by the act of recreating them. He can't stop. Yet in Arcel's hands, they're less like cinematic images - god forbid dreams or memories - and more like themed backdrops from a shopping-mall photo studio. His production-design team and location scouts created something that more or less looks like what a lawless postapocalyptic frontier is expected to look like, but Arcel is bored with it. It's a background to him, not a place or an existence. For Jake these are dreams literally coming true; for his director they're afterthoughts. And that's to say nothing of Arcel's New York, which has all the personality of a Visa commercial.
An adaptation of Stephen King's eight-volume Dark Tower series has been in various stages of development for years now, and this 90-minute pseudo-sequel is the result of all that development. Scorched deserts, gateways to decaying parallel worlds, enigmatic forces of evil and control, monsters, nightmares, mind control, gunplay ... all of that, and the film plays like a generic cheapo YA flick. The Divergent Series: Dark Tower. Much of the anticipation, aside from the source material itself, surrounded the casting - with Idris Elba getting a long-overdue shot at a tentpole starring role and Matthew McConaughey going back to the dark side he's embraced, to one degree or another, so memorably in recent years in the likes of Killer Joe, Magic Mike and - briefly but gloriously - The Wolf of Wall Street. But here, his Man in Black is a conspicuous lightweight. His latent symbolic value - chaos, darkness, destruction, tyranny - never comes across. The film sees him only as a bad guy who wants a Thing, up against good guys who want to stop him from getting that Thing. The aforementioned monsters camouflaged as human are his toadies, traveling across worlds abducting children with psychic powers in search of the one - Jake, natch - who is powerful enough to destroy the eponymous tower, which keeps the forces of the known universe in balance and, thus, limits the Man in Black's control.
The faux-humans can be identified by their unstable skins, which have a habit of slipping out of place from time to time, the seams coming undone and loosening chunks of flapping flesh. Thanks to Jake's visions, he can easily pick them out and avoid them, whether they're masquerading as common street thieves or doctors from psychiatric hospitals. But this whole corner of the narrative proves just how aggressively the filmmakers are trying to get through King's ideas instead of exploring them. The seams on their necks and faces are all too visible - they would be noticeable to anyone, let alone someone who's been having nightly visions about these creatures for months now. So their presence doesn't act on Jake psychologically at all ... which basically defeats the purpose. The movie doesn't want us to wonder about anyone - whether this person or that person might be one of them - or to wonder about the state of mind of our protagonist. Arcel just wants to quickly identify them, so that Jake has something to run from. They are, in execution, a monumental waste of time in a movie with barely enough time to waste.
Elba has the gravitas and quiet dignity to make even an under-written role work, so the fact that Roland is so forgettable is a damning indictment of the screenplay, whose four credited writers include - you guessed it - Akiva Goldsman. He gets some fun moments to play once he and Jake reach Earth - mostly his delighted discovery of sugar and his humorless reaction to modern medicine - but the film as a whole either had no idea who this character was from the beginning, or edited it out of the final cut. That he is meant to form a sort of paternal bond with Jake over the course of a single hour (he doesn't show up until about a half-hour in), in a story that frivolously darts through locations and story points and rarely uses them to reveal character, doesn't come across like a missed opportunity but like a disingenuous, obligatory gesture. That the whole of The Dark Tower feels so obligatory is the most curious thing of all. Attempts to bring it to the screen have long been defined by their grandiose ambition, which is the very thing that put the kibosh on previous incarnations. Universal famously pulled the plug on a bold big-screen/small-screen hybrid attempt, with a Ron Howard-directed trilogy encompassing multiple seasons of a big-budget series. A summer blockbuster as Prestige TV.
Uninspiring as Ron Howard's idea of ambition might seem - and as limited as its ceiling might be - at least an incarnation like that may have given us something to really dive into. That approach, at least, openly invites scope and ambition. What we got instead is a hastily told and barely conceived banality, the whimpering demise of one of Hollywood's long-awaited prized properties. For years there were perpetual rumors and rumblings and hopes and dreams for The Dark Tower. From now on it'll get the silent treatment.