'The Dark Tower' Review: Stephen King's Magnum Opus Crashes And Burns On The Big Screen

The Dark Tower is the most sprawling series of stories that America's great modern horror storyteller, Stephen King, has ever told. This is, unfortunately, a difficult thought to shake while watching the 95-minute film of the same name that serves as the hopeful beginning of a film and TV franchise, because there's far too much left on the sidelines. The Dark Tower, at its core, is a quintessential story of good and evil, but the way the conflict is represented in this film is staggeringly messy and dull. The ingredients for a great movie exist, but they never truly cohere in a satisfying manner.

This version – credited to four writers, including Akiva Goldsman and the film's director, Nikolaj Arcel – opens with young Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), an introverted boy in New York City plagued by disturbing apocalyptic visions fronted by a mysterious Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) and a heroic gunslinger named Roland (Idris Elba). Jake is convinced that there are nefarious forces out to get him, and is soon proven correct. In his attempt to evade capture from the Man in Black's minions, he stumbles upon a portal to the dimension where Roland and the Man in Black reside. Once there, Jake finds himself as a key figure in the battle over the eponymous tower, which stands at the center of all things and is meant to keep out the darkness at the edge of the universe.

There's a lot going on in The Dark Tower, and it's brought to life in mostly plodding fashion by Arcel. The setpieces in the film – some focused on Roland's prodigious talent with guns – are an immense letdown, especially in the wake of slicker and smoother action choreography in summer movies like Atomic Blonde. The image of Idris Elba laying waste to countless bad guys, calmly firing and reloading his weapons, should be easy enough to translate into an exciting scene, but the climactic face-off where this occurs is lifeless. The only reason that's not shocking? Everything leading up to that scene feels lifeless; why would the end be any different?

In recent days, there have been rumors (shouts, not whispers) that The Dark Tower was haunted by post-production problems, after years spent in development hell. Whether or not that's true, it's far too easy to spot quick fixes in the film from scene to scene, ways that the filmmakers tried to paper things over. McConaughey, typically a transfixing presence, comes off as if he's sleepwalking through a part that could easily have been flamboyant and wild; roughly half of his line readings come off screen, as if he delivered them in an ADR recording booth after the actual shoot was over. The final fight, too, suggests reshoots, at least based on how McConaughey's black hairdo, previously waving around a bit, looks like a poorly grafted-on wig. Generally, there's an uncomfortable distance between how menacing the Man in Black should be, and how uninspired McConaughey's performance is. At one point, his character is able to look at Jake's past, the child walking into his room like a shadowy ghost; in reality, McConaughey's the one who feels like a shadow of himself.

His lackluster work is even more maddening when you consider how good Idris Elba is as the last of the Gunslingers, Roland. Elba is a force to be reckoned with in general, and if this were a just world, he'd already be a movie star. The character of Roland is a perfect way to utilize Elba's talents, balancing his innate charisma with a complexity and gruffness that suggests enough about the character's grim past far more than the brief flashbacks do. He has a decent, standoffish chemistry with Taylor as Jake, but the framework of the adaptation is where the film falters. Intellectually, it's easy to understand why this film turns Jake into the main character: enough people who may pay to see the film won't know the books, so they need an audience surrogate. Unfortunately, the main character of the books is Roland; he's a supporting character here, one who doesn't really make an entrance for 30 minutes of a 95-minute movie. If Taylor was compelling enough, perhaps that would salve the wound of Roland being in too little of the film, but it's not the case.

This week, a showrunner was announced for the Dark Tower TV show meant to exist after this film (which certainly ends in a way to suggest future stories). Therein lies the problem: in an age of shows like Game of Thrones, Westworld, and The Walking Dead, it's safe to assume that a Dark Tower TV show, a genuine adaptation of the massive series of books Stephen King wrote over multiple decades, would be a huge hit. Creatively, at least, a truncated reboot/sequel of sorts to the book series, one that doesn't even last 90 minutes before the end credits start rolling, is a misfire. What a shame.

/Film Rating: 3 out of 10