In the next eighteen months, a child aged ten or eleven will see The Dark Tower and fall in love with fantasy. The film will become a cherished rite of passage like Time Bandits, Labyrinth and The Neverending Story were for a previous generation. But for those who grew up with those films — or grew up without any fantasy in their life — The Dark Tower will feel like a non-starter.
Based on the epic fantasy series by Stephen King, The Dark Tower introduces us to a spent multiverse of fantastical corpses and Walter Padick, a Lincoln-shilling sorcerer attempting to destroy the pillars of reality. It also introduces us to Jake Chambers, a boy from New York who can sense the collapse of all things thanks to his Shining. Also, it begrudgingly introduces us to Roland of Eld, the last Gunslinger sworn to protect the Dark Tower from Walter. As we know from the descriptions on the back of Dark Tower novels, all three will be engaged in conflict for a very long time.
And while the description above makes the film sound interesting — indeed The Dark Tower novel series never stops sounding interesting — the film version, directed by Nikolaj Arcel, feels terribly uninterested in its own story. It wants to be a version of The Neverending Story in which Bastion is immediately taken to Fantasia without reading the book. But once he’s there, the fantasy world is lifeless. So many elements in the film, from Walter’s cadre of rat people to the Orcs (credited as vampires) raiding a village feel perfunctory. They exist merely because they must and this film must exists because a lot of people paid for its development.
Unfortunately, that sense of obligation extends to the most important relationship in the film: Jake and Roland. The whole point is to see them bond, but it only seems to form because the plot demands it. Idris Elba’s Gunslinger is an unwilling participant for much of the film. He has reasons to be broken and weary, but they’re presented as a flashback to a different unmade film. In fact, much of that story will be presented in an upcoming television series. Sadly, that leaves the Roland of the film as a hollow echo of a familiar character type.
Tom Taylor, meanwhile, has the right look for a fantasy film of this ilk. He even resembles Barret Oliver from The Neverending Story. He also carries the film successfully until he gets to Mid-World (Roland’s home reality). Once there, the actor feels more lost than the character. He also fails to make you believe that Roland would ever care about Jake, which is just about as ruinous as the destruction of the Tower itself.
The pair amble through Mid-World, encountering beautifully photographed landmarks that must have some sort of significance to the larger King universe, but lack any meaning for those new to The Dark Tower. Unlike landmarks in, say, The Fellowship of the Ring — which indicate the legacy of civilizations dead and gone — they just sit there unremarked upon despite the sense that they are supposed to mean something. This isn’t necessarily a bad idea. The notion that Walter has spent the energies of Mid-World to destroy the Tower is interesting. But because Roland lived through it and has no reason to tell Jake about it, it never becomes something for the uninitiated audience to care about.
People and creatures they meet in Mid-World also extend this sense of presumed-but-missing importance. Claudia Kim’s Arra feels like a character who should matter more. But in the finished film, she only exists to explain Shining to Jake. This extends to characters like Jackie Earle Hayley’s Sayre and Abbie Lee’s Tirana. If one wants to be charitable, the sense that they are somehow significant makes them all feel like something out of a dream. An echo of some key but lost meaning.
In the midst of that miasma, Matthew McConaughey and Katheryn Winnick (as Walter Padick and Laurie Chambers) stand out as two people who feel completely alive and real. Their scene together is the only one in which the clash of the mundane and fantastic feels palpable and presents anything approaching jeopardy.
Eventually Jake and Roland make their way back to Manhattan, which offers the film some charms as the Gunslinger discovers ordinary Earth pleasures like cola and gun stores. But even in that, you’ve seen the “now, they’re on our planet” trope a zillion times in movies with a fifth of The Dark Tower‘s budget. The result is often something which feels uninspired and overly familiar. Something similar occurs whenever the Manhattan scenes echo other King adaptations. A photo of the Overlook Hotel, a Cujo-esque dog, or a Rita Hayworth print elicit a chuckle before the creeping sensation kicks in that the film is trying to buy good will from positive memories of those other films.
And yet, for all these flaws, it’s very easy to see a child falling in love with the film. The amount of world and relationship building an adult’s mind requires is unimportant to a child. They get to discover Mid-World with fresh eyes. The plot itself will seem like a natural progression of events. Of course Roland and Jake bond. Of course the evil sorcerer can appear wherever he wants. Of course Roland is sad because of his father died. Much like a fantasy film from the 1980s, the logic gaps and errors of scripting will not matter to a child. Instead, they will love that the film suggests their imaginary worlds could be real.
Perhaps that’s the film’s biggest failing: it couldn’t extend that sense of wonder to much older people.