Published Aug 04, 2017In paring down the epic scope of Stephen King's sprawling, beloved fantasy series The Dark Tower to but a cinematic sliver of their essence, any emotional impact or coherence that may have once existed within their pages has been lost. You can feel the weight of what's missing in the vaguely referenced back-stories and sketchy world building in Nikolaj Arcel's adaptation; there are ten pounds of story here, stuffed into a one-pound bag.
Our entry point into this fantastical world is young Jake (Tom Taylor), who has been plagued by visions and nightmares of a distant land where abducted children's brainwaves are somehow used to assail the titular dark tower in an effort to one day topple it. His concerned mother, callous stepfather and increasingly impatient school think he's crazy, but when New York begins to be plagued by mysterious earthquakes, and Jake recognizes the supposed employees of a special clinic he is being shipped off to against his will as the same evil minions from his troubled visions, it's clear something very real is afoot. Understandably, Jake flees.
His premonitions lead him to an abandoned house that holds a portal to the mid-world of his fantasies, where he finds two figures that have been recurring in the drawings he's compelled to make. The first is Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), or "The Gunslinger," who finds Jake wandering about and reluctantly takes him under his wing. The second is Roland's nemesis, "The Man in Black" (Matthew McConaughey), a nefarious sorcerer also known as Walter (at least the movie knows this is funny). Walter killed Roland's father (Dennis Haysbert) and now Roland, who's impervious to Walter's magic for reasons that remain unclear, is forever trying to stop Walter from executing his plan to take down the Dark Tower.
If that all sounds rather confusing or, at the very least, kind of silly, rest assured that it's only the tip of the iceberg. There's also some business about the Dark Tower holding monsters from another realm, Jake having a powerful psychic "shining" that has been shamelessly lifted from another King story and the ceremonial recital of a Gunslinger credo that emphasizes not "forgetting the face of your father." It's all too often like listening to a bad storyteller who keeps doubling back because he neglected to explain something integral to the story, until it's all grown so convoluted that you've pretty much tuned out and are just waiting for them to finish up already.
It would have been quite a chore for nearly any actor to bring the underwritten Walter to life, but McConaughey seems especially ill-suited to the villainous role. He plays him as impossibly cool and detached, disposing of those who stand in his way with the simple wave of a hand and a command to "Stop breathing."
Comparatively, you mostly just feel bad for Elba. He has a plum role as a taciturn hero at the head of a would-be franchise (a Dark Tower TV show is slated to follow in the footsteps of the film), but has been given nothing more to do than shoot guns and mumble nonsense exposition about Walter and the murky mythology surrounding the Dark Tower.
His best scenes occur when he is transported to New York and plays an amusingly deadpan fish-out-of-water when faced with modern medicine and weapons. Up to that point, it's easy to feel like fish out of water yourself; maybe these scenes resonate so well because, as viewer, it's nice just to be out of his clumsily imagined world and back in a place that makes at least a little bit of sense again.