I have no personal stake in The Dark Tower, I should say. After trying numerous attempts to read The Gunslinger, book 1 of Stephen King’s magnum opus, I finally threw my hands up in defeat and gave up. Not that I didn’t like King’s work at the time – quite the opposite, in fact. In the mid to late 80s, I was a yuge fan of his work, and read his stuff voraciously, sometimes palpably impatient waiting for the books to finally be released in Scotland. I still consider Pet Sematary one of my all time favourite books. But when I tried to read The Dark Tower, it just didn’t feel like a Stephen King book. A little later, me and Uncle Stevie just kind of drifted apart. His work in the early 90s left me feeling unimpressed, so I stopped reading., and never got around to thinking of picking up the series again.
I was even more turned off by King’s later compulsion to retrofit almost all of his fiction into the world of The Dark Tower, a decision I felt cheapened his best work a little. I picked up a few issues of the Marvel Comics adaptation from a few years ago, but only for the terrific Jae Lee artwork, but the story, again, did nothing. So when I heard of an impending movie adaptation, I wasn’t thrilled, thought I figured I’d watch it just to review it for this here blog. Well, that time came last night, friends and neighbours.
King’s adaptations have a famously patchy record, with most of them being crap. The moviemakers either had no budget, little talent, or flat out just didn’t have enough faith in the work to do a straight adaptation. This year’s version of It is a strong adaptation, mostly because of the direction of Andy Muschietti I think, but it has a lot of good elements to it. The Dark Tower, and not even in comparison, is flat out horrendous, to the point where King himself surely must feel hard done by, and pretty relieved that It was so good.
In the movie, which is yet another version of “The One” trope, Jake Chambers (played well enough, I suppose, by Tom Taylor), compulsively sketches images that come from dreams where children are strapped into a device that looks like an electric chair, by creatures wearing human skins, under the direction of an ominous looking man in black, played in a potentially career-destroying performance by Matthew McConaughey. To balance things out, he also has dreams of a heroic gun-wielding figure that turns out to be Roland, played here by Idris Elba. Jake soon becomes the target of interdimensional bad guys out to capture him, but in escaping, Jake is transported to the world of his dreams, meets up with The Gunslinger, Roland, and an inevitable confrontation with the man in black, Walter.
Now, I haven’t read the books, but I have read The Talisman, the first collaboration between King and Peter Straub, and watching The Dark Tower reminded me a lot of that book, to the point where I wondered just what the hell I was watching. Time for another confession: I went into the movie knowing it had been co-written by Akiva Goldsman, whom I consider as much of a hack as Damon Lindelof and Simon Kinberg. Goldsman is the guy who killed off the 80s/90s Batman franchise by writing 1997’s Batman and Robin. People slate Joel Schumacher, but he didn’t write that piece of abhorrent shite, Goldsman did. He also wrote the “adaptations” of two of genre literature’s greatest works (I am Legend, and I, Robot), completely stripping away everything about them that made them classics in the first place in order to turn them into dumb Will Smith “action” movies. It was no surprise to me that The Dark Tower was as amateurishly written as it was. Two examples: after Jake and Roland jaunt over to our Earth, Roland goes to a hospital to be treated for a pretty strange and ominous wound. The script conveniently bypasses what would actually happen in a hospital upon being admitted, moving quickly to a scene surely meant to be humourous, but which plays out as beyond stupid, as though written by a child. At no point does the doctor even remark on how awful the wound looks. Nothing. It might as well have been a broken finger. Another scene shows Roland and Jake sticking up the least secure gun shop you could ever find. It’s like something that would have been written in the 80s, for a direct-to-VHS knockoff of a much better movie.
I mentioned the word convenient before, and this goes all the way through Goldsman’s script. The story skips from plot point to plot point with only the mildest smattering of conflict. Symptomatic of a script this bad, Jake is saddled with a stereotypically mean, zero-depth stepdad with which Goldsman paints by numbers in big, simple-minded chunks of motive-less behaviour. When Jake crosses over to the Wastelands, he barely has to say or do anything in order to gain the credibility he’d surely need to get people on his side. Nope, just a few words and jaded gunslinger Roland is suddenly falling in step. It’s here that The One subplot is at its most egregiously sloppy. Jake doesn’t have to do much, because he has “The Shine”. In short, Goldsman has created a passive hero, able to get through the plot because of a power he doesn’t even know he possesses, and has no knowledge of how to access it until the climactic plot point demands it when it just kind of … happens.
So all these are bad enough, but in terms of performances Idris Elba, an actor I feel is grossly overrated at the best of times, but only mediocre at the worst, goes through the entire production with one expression and one tone of voice, as if he just can’t be bothered. It’s a poor performance, but not nearly as bad as that of McConaughey. I’ll say right now that I firmly believe that this performance is by far his worst, and would destroy any young actor’s fledgling career. I was actually insulted by it. The complete lack of effort on display every time he appears onscreen is not only shockingly bad, it’s a absolute disgrace to the acting profession. It makes his Lincoln ads seem like Olivier at his peak, in comparison. It took John Travolta 6 years to return to the swamp Tarantino pulled him from – the McConaughaissence of True Detective and Dallas Buyers Club is two years old, but already feels much longer.
I truly hated this movie, in the same way I hated Cell and Harbinger Down. It doesn’t happen a lot, but sometimes a movie comes along that pushes all the wrong buttons for me. I give a lot of leeway to indie horror, and moviemakers like Mickey Keating (Darling, Carnage Park) and Chad Crawford Kinkle (Jug Face) because they make honest attempts to make good, budget-defying movies. The Dark Tower is a awful movie. It fails as an adaptation, it fails as a PG-13 YA adventure movie, but above all else it fails to perform the most basic task that all movies, regardless of genre, need to do: entertain.
© Andrew Hope, 2017