After Years of Development Turmoil, 'The Dark Tower' Arrives
This film has definitely forgotten the face of its father.
The Dark Tower has spent more than a decade kicking around Hollywood’s dreaded development pipeline, and it’s easy to see why. Since the debut entry of Stephen King’s magnum opus in 1982, the franchise has racked up eight total books and a legion of fans all over the world. As such, certainly from a pure dollars and sense perspective, this is exactly the kind of thing that franchise-hungry studios are looking for in the ever-expanding hunt for sequel-friendly intellectual property to exploit.
It’s hard to fault Sony for thinking there was a movie worth making here. After all, they weren’t the only ones: Universal, Paramount, and Lionsgate all took stabs at producing the film over the years. The current cycle started back in 2007 with J.J. Abrams—a longtime fan who spent three years in development with his Lost co-creators Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof before an option lapsed and everyone moved on. From there, Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment picked up the rights and outlined an ambitious plan to alternate movies with a TV series. The Dark Tower was going to be big business!
That version was eventually scuppered by a combination of budgetary and logistical concerns, as well as the omnipresent problems of trying to boil King’s complex Tower-verse into something that would play to a big enough audience to justify the expense. That ultimately proved a bridge too far for Universal, leaving room for Sony to swoop in and pick up the right, leading to this version finally making it into production. After all of that development intrigue, it’s hard to imagine how this iteration of the film was the one that made it to theaters.
My own experience with the Dark Tower series is almost entirely at arms’ length. It’d be difficult to have any familiarity with pop culture and not have some knowledge of it. But while I knew how passionate the fans were for it, I wasn’t particularly familiar with any of the details. I followed the movie’s journey through development hell with a degree of clinical interest, and once it became clear a film version was going to happen eventually, I consciously chose to stay away from any information about the series and experience the movie as its own thing.
With that in mind, while I have no idea how The Dark Tower film, finally on the screen after an interminable slog, will play for fans of the books—as someone who hasn't read word one, it manages to be both borderline impenetrable and thuddingly predictable at the same time. Directed by Nikolaj Arcel (with Howard still onboard as producer), the film positions itself as both sequel and reboot to the books (longtime fans will understand this, I’m told), while also serving as a launching pad of sorts into a whole new series that I find difficult to believe will ever actualize. (Editor’s note: There’s apparently going to be a television series run by former The Walking Dead showrunner Glen Mazzara, but it has yet to find a studio to greenlight it, so don’t hold your breath for a premiere date.)
The Dark Tower stars Idris Elba in the iconic role of the Gunslinger, Roland Deschain, and Matthew McConaughey as his eternal nemesis, the Man in Black. Positing a linked multiverse of realities (with names like In-World, Mid-World, and our own Keystone Earth), the film follows Roland attempting to prevent the destruction of the titular Tower, which lies at the center of these alternate realities, and whose destruction will allow various dark and monstrous creatures to overtake it all. Or something.
Rather than following Roland’s journey from the start, the film eventually intersects with his quest for vengeance via teenager Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor). Living in New York City with his mother and stepfather, Jake is haunted by visions of the Tower and Roland, and unknowingly possesses a nebulous psychic ability called “the Shine” (get it, King fans?) which makes him valuable to the Man in Black (who also goes by the name Walter, but is also the “devil” figure King has ultilized in a variety of his words, including The Stand). Why is Walter trying to destory the Tower? It’s never clear. Why is the Tower itself so important? Again, never explained.
There is a labyrinthine and elaborate mythology lovingly constructed by King over his decades presiding over the prose version of this universe. But the script, by Akiva Goldsman and Jeff Pinkner, papers over much of that mythology except for tiny snippets of expositional dialogue. Random references to Roland’s gun being constructed from the same steel as King Arthur’s sword Excalibur seem designed to make fans giddy and leave newbies confused. That’s no way to cultivate a wide fanbase for franchise loyalty.
It bears noting that Elba is nothing short of terrific. He does everything asked of him and more, creating a version of Roland who deserves a much better movie wrapped around him. Even McConaughey seems to be having a grand time with a showier role, reveling in Walter’s seemingly boundless evil powers. Unfortunately, that central conflict never achieves the depths it needs. Perhaps that’s just something that can really only happen over, after literally decades of development on the printed page.
Still, while the storytelling utility of a character like Jake (a mainstay in the books) makes sense—he’s the conduit by which we’re introduced to the Gunslinger—that choice manages to shift the focus of the film away from the series’ ostensible protagonist, to the film’s detriment. The audience is less a party to his motivations than to Jake’s impressions of his motivations. Roland’s central quest for vengeance against the Man in Black, and his eventual turn toward something higher than merely exacting that revenge, feels perfunctory and arbitrary, forced into a paltry 95-minute arc.
That runtime does feel like short shrift given how much content and context predates it, and the film itself bears all the hallmarks of being edited to within an inch of its life. By the time the story wraps up, we’re ready to move on -- not to the next installment, but with our lives. This is an unfortunate turn for the studio, no doubt dreaming of “The Complete Dark Tower” box sets decades down the line. But it’s an immense disappointment for the legions of fans who made King’s epic such a mainstay for so long. There’s no future here. And that’s dark.