Stephen King’s The Dark Tower is an eight novel, 4000+ page saga written over the course of 30 years and beloved by a sizable and passionate fandom. In other words, it’s the perfect basis for the type of shared-universe franchise that Sony has tried to pull off with their Spider-Man license for the past half-decade; which really makes you wonder what went on behind the scenes to result in The Dark Tower we have in theaters now – a ninety minute slog through an undefined and uninteresting desert of wasted potential.
Instead of Roland Deschain, the last of the Gunslingers on a single-minded quest to reach the Dark Tower at the center of all things; the movie follows Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), an ambiguously pre-pubescent boy in New York who has dreams of a Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) using children kidnapped by people using fake skins to power lasers he fires at the Dark Tower at the center of all things.
Jake also dreams of a clearly-haunted house in Brooklyn that he manages to escape to, finding a portal to the world he’s dreamt of, where he meets Roland (Idris Elba), a disgraced Gunslinger on a quest for vengeance against the Man in Black. Jake decides to help Roland get his vengeance if it also would prevent the end of all worlds, and along the way discovers his own power as a wielder of the for- shine – a psychic power responsible for his visions.
Despite having King’s rich tapestry of worlds, magics, demons, and eldritch horrors; The Dark Tower sticks to the exotic locals of New York City and a random desert, and brings to life one demon made out of old floorboards and another that looks like a non-trademark infringing xenomorph. The Man in Black’s vast magical powers translate to telling people what to do, creating a palm-sized fireball, and telekinetically moving debris; while Jake’s immense psychic powers allow him to hear voice-over.
More than anything, The Dark Tower is just boring. Despite being made up of supposedly limitless worlds and evils; the film gives us a single villain responsible for everything bad, and two good guys with guns. We’re given that the Dark Tower exists and is important, and that’s about all of the world-building we get there. There are hints to what sort of world Roland inhabits before we visit it with Jake, but none of the characters, or the movie itself, seems interested in exploring it. The Dark Tower is irritatingly matter-of-fact; and where some movies will leave corners of their world’s unexplored as a tease for viewers, this one clearly just doesn’t care about what lies beyond the immediate plot.
Heck, even characters and events of the immediate plot are rarely sufficiently explained. One character’s mother is fridged off-screen, while other things are explained in ADR clearly made because someone noticed in the editing room that oh, it doesn’t really make sense for that one monster to just implode for no reason.
At least the actors seemed to care, or at least have more fun with their roles. McConaughey hams it up, swishing his long black coat and voguing when using his powers, while Elba demonstrates his comedic timing during the brief fish-out-of-water sequence he gets, which is also the most likable five minute stretch of the movie. Taylor is able to hold his own against Elba for a majority of the film, but like everyone else, doesn’t have much to work with, acting mainly through surprised expressions and running from things.
Unsurprisingly, the action is underwhelming, too. One of our first introductions to what a gunslinger can do shows us Idris Elba standing still, emptying his six-shooters into a wall of mist; and even in following scenes where we’re able to see what he’s supposed to be shooting at, things never get more exciting than watching the “Play of the Game” made by a McCree who managed to get off a pretty good “High Noon” in Overwatch. The coolest little bits of action in the entire move are the four-seconds in total where we see Roland reloading by either pouring bullets into his revolver, or catching an entire round of ammo in his gun out of the air. And when the most exciting things your hero does is reload, that’s not a great sign.
Even if nobody making this movie had intentions for a franchise, or even a sequel, I can’t imagine any reason to make it feel so bland and lifeless? It makes you wonder if anyone really cared, not just about making a good adaptation of a much loved piece of fiction, but about making a movie at all. The Dark Tower is a movie where not much happens, even that little bit doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts.