A boy named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is struck by constant dreams of a dark tower under attack, a gunslinger named Roland, and a man dressed in black. When his visions turn out to be true, he finds himself hunted down by man-in-black Walter Padick (Matthew McConaughey) and on the run through parallel universes with the very-real Roland (Idris Elba).
Stephen King’s The Dark Tower is a hugely ambitious cycle of novels blending fantasy, westerns, science fiction, and horror. Starting with The Gunslinger in 1982 and culminating with The Dark Tower in 2004, it has long been targeted and developed by Hollywood Studios. In theory it seems a ‘holy grail’ of studio filmmaking, combining the popularity of Stephen King with the deep narrative of a science fiction or fantasy saga. In practice, there is Nikolaj Arcel’s 2017 feature film The Dark Tower.
The film’s approach to the source material is, if nothing else, inventive. Rather than directly adapt The Gunslinger it actually acts as a sequel to the books, set after King’s seventh volume. In theory it provides a must-see continuation for the novels’ fans while acting as a convenient entry point for moviegoers who have never read any of the books. It is a wonderfully intriguing proposition, and even features its own protagonist – unsuspecting psychic Jack Chambers – to act as a viewpoint to introduce Roland and the insidious Walter.
The theory is all well and good, but in practice The Dark Tower feels like a fifth season premiere of a TV series the viewer has never seen. It differs enough from the books to frustrate long-term fans while assuming a little too much for new viewers to get a proper hold on events. In between it boasts some great ideas, world-building, and design work, as well as strong lead performances – nothing is there, however, to hold it all together.
Idris Elba is a fantastic actor and demonstrates an easy ability to lead his own films. He is engaging, thoughtful, and shows off huge levels of depth in a glance or a line of dialogue. Likewise, Matthew McConaughey brings a lot of charisma to his villainous role, which comes with plenty of bleakly funny and frightening moments. Tom Taylor is good as young Jake Chambers, but he is saddled with an underwhelming character. For all the outstanding emotions Taylor displays, his character always feels just a little bit intrusive – like a studio-mandated addition designed solely to make the picture family-friendly.
These are, all in all, incredibly enjoyable characters to watch, and it makes one pine for them to appear in a stronger, less confusing movie. There is clearly enormous promise in The Dark Tower as a film series, and this promise does display itself in the numerous action scenes and plot developments on show. Combining sequel and reboot was an interesting idea, but in practice this experiment simply failed to succeed. Instead it has been left as one of the prettier bits of roadkill along the highway to Hollywood success. This is both a bold, enjoyable swing, and a commercial miss.