The best thing about the long delayed blockbuster adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower is that it’s a trim 85 minutes long. More blockbusters should be that long, serving up a giddy rush of effects and entertainment that’s over before you have time to consider how silly it all is. However, this might not have been the best material for that treatment. There are rumours that a much longer cut once existed, presumably more faithful to the fantasy mythology that King weaved into a series of novels. That got chopped down significantly and while you can’t argue with the pacing, there’s no denying that viewers don’t really get the time to appreciate this unique world and why we should get invested in it or the characters. That’s kind of important stuff in this genre, especially in a world-building first chapter.
Our hero is—at least theoretically—a young boy played by Tom Taylor. He’s a special kid with psychic powers (called “the shine” since this is a Stephen King joint) that give him visions of a noble Gunslinger and a dastardly man in black. That’s really all we learn about the protagonist over the course of the movie. Beyond that, he’s just there for the occasional wisecrack and to link the whole thing together. The role was pretty clearly cut down in favour of giving more screen time to the movie star duo of Idris Elba (playing that wary Gunslinger) and Matthew McConaughey (you guessed it, The Man In Black). They are at the center of an eternal battle over a Dark Tower that holds the universe together—or something. Apparently McConaughey needs psychic kids to make it happen—or whatever. He’s also probably a demon. It seems like Elba had a pretty tragic past that led him to being the final gunslinger. We don’t get many details on why or how. It’s either all on the cutting room floor (or hard drive) or left out for sequels. Either way, the movie feels like a brief glimpse into a larger world in ways that are more frustrating than enticing.
Not only has The Dark Tower been condensed to a point that makes it difficult to understand or even care about, it’s also been produced by Ron Howard’s filmmaking machine (he initially wanted to direct the movie for many years), ensuring that everything is bland and expensively unremarkable. All of the designs for these presumably wondrous worlds look minimal and bland. Danish director Nikolaj Arcel shoots it all with the underexposure and grimdark mumbling that suggests depth and darkness that never actually appears. This should be a crazy adventure with a richly designed world, deep backstory, and colourful characters. Instead, it’s like a particularly expensive TV-pilot designed to be bland enough to play for the lowest common denominator and with an easily repeatable aesthetic. Given all of the crazy unhinged Stephen King ideas in play, the approach should have been the exact opposite.
Still, it’s not all bad. Elba is perfectly cast as a cranky and wounded warrior who still has the power. He glowers in ways that suggests a deep inner pain and backstory that we’ll never know and commands the screen in his bullet bending action sequences. McConaughey clearly has a ball playing deadpan evil, even if he has to impose character and personality onto a role with very little (aka the McConaughey special). Other than that no one in the cast makes much of an impact, but at least the stars came out to play, huh? The effects are frequently impressive despite their generic designs and Nikolaj Arcel does deliver some pretty damn good action sequences (especially the climactic battle). The stars and spectacle certainly make those 85 minutes fly by. The trouble is how empty you’ll feel after.
Even without any previous exposure to the Stephen King source material, The Dark Tower feels like a missed opportunity. The hints of a larger world that we get suggest something fascinating that we never see. It’s a movie that constantly seems like it’s about to take off without ever actually delivering. Perhaps the studio is saving the good stuff for the sequel or maybe the initial longer cut filled in the gaps to deliver something more interesting and less commercial. Who knows? Either way there’s no denying the thudding mediocrity of the final product. The Dark Tower is very much a studio assembly line project. It’s assembled from elements that worked better in previous movies, comes with an established brand to sell, and has some stars to plop on the poster. What’s missing is meaning, purpose, and excitement. You know, the stuff that franchises are made of. So yeah, it’s unlikely there will be a sequel. But hey, at least this thing is done in 85 minutes. That’s just fast enough that most people won’t realize how dull and empty the flick was until it’s over. The Dark Tower isn’t a painful or even boring sit; it’s just a rather predictably pointless one.