Dumbing down story complexities isn’t always the best idea… especially with your target audience in mind.
Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) has been having nightmares since the death of his father… but he knows they’re not nightmares. No one believes in what he sees when he shows others the drawings he makes of Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), a gunslinger tasked to destroy Walter O’Dim (Matthew McConaughey), a sorcerer some call the Man in Black. Jake also sees what Walter is doing: strapping kidnapped children into a great machine, using their minds to attack a massive structure at the center of their world… and of all worlds. As Jake fails to convince people the escalating earthquakes in NYC are the results of these otherworldly attacks, he escapes the clutches of Walter’s skin-wearing minions through a portal into his nightmare world…
Fans of writer Stephen King know the words: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Similar to The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, the massive saga linking parts of every story King has ever told has spanned eight books and was considered unfilmable. A reportedly troubled production from the first day of shooting, starring a presumed perfect cast for the leads but only rating an August release, Sony studios didn’t seem entirely sold on the prospects for the finished film… waiting until just before release before giving critics and audiences their first taste. Supposedly not a rehash but explained as companion sequel following King’s books, can The Dark Tower stand tall or will it come crashing to the ground?
The visuals manage to serve the story as do the cast, but there is a pervasive feeling that we’re missing something. Were audiences expected to read all of the books first? Did they know there’d be a test later? The first and biggest issue is that the narrative isn’t here: it feels less like a continuation than a complete reboot, and that likely won’t set well with the fan base. If you know nothing about the series, what we get is a simple. almost YA story that feels rushed toward its inevitable conclusion, one that, while epic and heroic and all that stuff, comes off as emotionless and forgettable… and all the Easter eggs in the world can’t fix that.
That’s unfortunate, too, because there is plenty of potential stuffed onto the screen. The production has a Myst-like feel where magic and science compliment each other in an entirely realistic way; that happens less often than you’d think in these kinds of stories. Mid-World is the Amber of the book series where the Gunslinger and Man in Black reside, not to mention the source of echoes across the worlds including Keystone Earth — our Earth, as it were. Even Walter’s seeing stones — one more another reason why The Dark Tower feels too much like The Lord of the Rings at times — have so much potential, allowing him to project himself and taunt victims while remaining perfectly safe. But the real question is this: why does Walter let Roland live having the potential to be such a thorn in his side? Like many Harry Potter films; if you never say why some things are, that omission feels like a story mistake, especially in terms of a resolution.
Overall, The Dark Tower is not unwatchable — just underwhelming. It took Men in Black three tries to make a great film, and by then no one was asking for one. The first MiB, however, suffered a similar problem: it hinted at so much more before ending abruptly, but it managed to do it in a good way; Tower isn’t so lucky. Treating a big conclusion as an afterthought not only undermines your story but reduces the importance of the entire series, and that’s decidedly neither what King fans want nor summer audiences are looking for: an almost-ran. No one wants their favorite intellectual property rushing past “the old stuff” just to get to telling new stories, and that’s what this feels like.
The Dark Tower is rated PG-13 for thematic material including sequences of gun violence, action, and a throwaway ending.
Two Skull Recommendation Out of Four