I'm not consciously bucking convention for your clicks. I'm not playing the role of self-styled trash iconoclast. I may, however, be a man with questionable taste as regards a certain strain of Hollywood filmmaking. That, and/or I have a pronounced tendency to enjoy weird, messy movies which few others seem to enjoy, at least at first blush. Or both! Probably I'm both! Either way, I am happy to report that I thoroughly enjoyed my first visit to The Dark Tower even though seemingly no one else did*. Also, I have no idea whether I will enjoy it a second time or if you will enjoy it at all. Judging by the reviews, you probably will not? Aren’t you glad you clicked this review?
*Technically me, plus four RT-approved critics: Owen Gleiberman, Victoria McNally, Dan Mecca, and Mike Reyes.
I've been a fan of King's epic magnum opus since the publication of the second book in the series in paperback, waaaaay back in the ancient era of 1989. I've read the series, the novella, the Concordances, the graphic novels, and every King book that connects to the Tower saga. But I never believed that The Dark Tower would actually be a movie. Moreover, I’ve never really believed that The Dark Tower would be a decent movie. The lead up to the film’s release, with its multiple date changes, lack of a strong marketing push and, for that matter, any trailers until two months before the film's release, not to mention the absence of buzz and the reports of disastrous early screenings, all but confirmed that I was right. The reviews, which were unleashed last night on hopeful fans of the books like plague rats on unwary babies, made things definitive: The Dark Tower is a bad movie. A flat balloon. A total disappointment. A banal wreck of the Hesperus that has managed to score more poorly than Batman v. Superman, formerly the poster child for Movies That No One In Their Right Mind Would Defend.
So of course I enjoyed it.
Mind you, the movie on screen isn't actually The Dark Tower - not as King wrote it. It's a weirdo amalgamation of Dark Tower elements that's remarkably out of step with current adaptation trends, far more reminiscent of past decades of film adaptations in how cavalierly it plunders the source material in order to craft a "Hollywood version." On a first viewing The Dark Tower is an appealing throwback to the kind of mid-budget, overly serious, semi-to-genuinely ambitious fantasy films made in the 1980s; the sort of films I tended to stumble over as a child via friends or cable and that I very much enjoyed for their feeling tactile and a bit dog-eared; as much because of as in spite of their flaws and absurdities. The ragged edges and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach are part of the appeal. So too the flirtations or outright dalliances with camp. I want to rewatch The Dark Tower on slightly degraded VHS. I want to do a double feature with, say, Highlander or Willow or something. THAT'S the vibe this movie gives off, and for some reason I'm okay with that on first viewing despite this movie in no real way resembling the books that made me fall in love with these stories.
As a book series The Dark Tower is very weird and messily constructed and sometimes very silly and embarrassing (This is a saga containing a bizarre and totally unneeded reconstruction of the Emerald City, as well as Doctor Doom robots which throw Harry Potter snitches at people, to name just two examples). Those qualities were and are part of the appeal. The Dark Tower as a movie feels similarly messy and silly and weird, and if it isn't 100% clear, I like messy and silly and weird. These things unironically appeal to me. I want Matthew McConaughey's Evil Villain to be in charge of a giant death-ray that's powered by unwilling psychic children who live in a totally unexplained compound on top of a mesa in another world. I want to see him use this death-ray right away, with as little explanation as possible. Yes, please. I want homeless people living in NYC who are secretly refugees from that unexplained compound, and I want inexplicable sci-fi portals leading into the kitchens of Chinese restaurants, and I want Dennis Haysbert intoning the Gunslinger's Creed very seriously, and I want battles with Todash monsters samidst rusting theme park equipment, and I want demons made of floorboards and an overweight guy from the Sombra organization leaping like a monkey over NYC rooftops and and and and and….
A lot of very smart, very cool people saw something crushingly mediocre and/or unforgivable when they watched The Dark Tower. They're not wrong. If you're a Tower junkie - a longtime Constant Reader - you're probably going to hate the movie. However, here is what I saw as a longtime fan of King's series: a purposefully stripped-down (far too stripped down), leanly propulsive introduction to Jake Chambers, Roland Deschain, Walter Padick (aka The Man in Black), as well as the concept of the Tower as the hub of the multiverse. It's not a good adaptation of the books, but it's an approach that functions as a quasi-sequel to the books I've dearly loved while also coming across as its own bizarre and wounded beast. A number of reviews have complained that the plot is incomprehensible. Very possibly my love for and knowledge of the source material has made it impossible for me to see that incomprehensibility, but it seemed fairly straightforward to me, collapsing an absurdly overstuffed mythology into a story that fits a single film: The Tower stands at the center of all worlds, keeping them safe. The Man in Black wants to bring the Tower down. Doing so will let a bunch of demons and darkness into the universe. He wants to use Jake to do it, since Jake’s strong in The Shine, a powerful psychic ability that can be harnessed to break the Tower. Roland, formerly a protector of the Tower, doesn’t care about any of that now, doesn’t see the point in battling a darkness he can’t individually conquer, and only wants vengeance for the life of his father. Jake meets him and helps him broaden his mind and open his heart a little.
That’s the film, easily understood to my mind, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong in concept with limiting the story's initial scope and making clear the stakes involved in order to welcome the 90% of people who have never read King’s Dark Tower books. Nor, for some reason, do I have any issue with their taking extensive liberties here despite my longstanding love of this series. I never felt like I couldn't understand what I was seeing. I didn’t feel like the film as a whole was hopelessly disjointed and broken. I didn’t feel as though the leads were sleepwalking through the film or betraying the source material.
McConaughey brings a grimly purposeful emptiness to the role of Walter, the Man in Black, Roland's ageless nemesis and the more he strutted around like a Nihilist Peacock who just does not give a fuck about anything, the more I bought into that emptiness. Walter’s casual sadism isn't showily Evil, it's bored. He’s bored, and he wants out; out of the universe, out of life, eager for an end to all things, and McConaughey’s emptiness sells that eagerness. Also, hearing an actor of McConaughey's caliber intone very seriously about his magic powers (or rather, his “magicks”) is deeply weird and dopey but also really satisfying? This is where the camp elements of the film – mostly centered around McConaughey and his band of sycophants – simply clicked for me. McConaughey casually cooking up some chicken while wearing an apron, right before he murders two people is just goofy as fuck, and (to my twisted mind) a total hoot. McConaughey rolling around multiple worlds, telling people in a Very Serious Voice to “stop breathing,” which they then promptly do, is blackly hilarious and campy as all get out. I can’t be the only one who enjoys that sort of thing, can I?
As for Roland himself Idris Elba goes minimalist, as he should, while bringing interesting flickers of emotion to the surface over the course of the film – like flecks of mica in granite. I particularly liked the flash of quiet madness across his face at the thought that Jake might be one of Walter’s tricks. As someone who has held Roland Deschain in my head for over a quarter of a century I thought Elba did solid work in introducing King’s most complicated creation. The movie's script lets him down by eliding entirely over the flashbacks that gave the character depth in the first Dark Tower book, but that's not Elba's fault. He's got charisma to burn, and he fits the role like a well-worn glove. There were outcries when Elba was cast, since Roland is very clearly a white man in the books (and that fact is an actual plot point for a good part of the second novel). I don't care. Elba embodies Roland's laconic stoicism and his wounded heart quite well, say thankee.
The big surprise is Tom Taylor, playing young Jake Chambers. He’s saddled with the most thankless and the most precarious role, and he does shockingly good work with what's on the page and more importantly with what is not on the page (which is, I presume, a lot). He’s gratifyingly authentic as Jake, and he elevates the film around him simply by feeling like a real kid from New York City, absorbing everything the film throws at him. Taylor and Elba have solid chemistry, and while I would be very surprised at this point if there’s ever a sequel I would genuinely enjoy seeing them play off of one another again.
Sure, yes, there are lots of problems. For one, the scenes with Fran Kranz fiddling around with portal technology and McConaughey’s death-ray feel like the most pedestrian scenes in the film. Then again, I sat through multiple, duller (and seemingly lengthier), scenes of The Red Skull and Arnim Zola standing around talking about developing death-ray technology without condemning Captain America: The First Avenger in the entirety. It wasn’t any harder to do that here. For another, the script is as mentioned a throwback to the way Hollywood USED to adapt genre properties - namely, however the hell they wanted, and damn the fans - and while I enjoyed the film for what it was (again, a throwback to 80s fantasy films ala Highlander or Krull) the script isn't great. More importantly, the elimination of the flashbacks contained in the first Dark Tower novel means that Roland himself isn't as complicated or as interesting as he would be if we saw more of his harsh and unforgiving, melancholy upbringing. The film's leanness lets Roland down in this respect and that's a bummer. Thirdly, the script as it appears on the screen leans too heavily on educating the audience via exposition as opposed to letting us puzzle things out. That's a shame, but there is - to my genuine surprise - ZERO prolonged voiceover explaining things to us. That's a plus.
Finally and relatedly, to those of us who may or may not have scrutinized every inch of trailer footage and who've noticed the film's running time, it’s fairly obvious that great big hunks of the film were excised. Despite feeling like I got a fast-paced, full story from the film and despite really liking the experience of a genre film that clocks in at under two hours (we could all do with more movies that last an hour and a half), I still wanted more. My biggest issue with The Dark Tower on first watch is that it simply isn't long enough. It isn't that I wanted more action. It's that I wanted the film to relax more, to breathe despite McConaughey’s commands to the contrary, to luxuriate in some longer conversations and some wordlessness and more weirdness. It is highly doubtful that we will ever see any sort of Deluxe Director’s Cut Edition of the film and that feels like a shame, because another 20 minutes of Jake and Roland making their way through Mid-World together would definitely enrich my experience.
|Where was this?|
|That looks like a door from Drawing of the Three! Where was this?|
|Oh, hey, a depiction of the Tower's beams! Where was this?|
|Say hey, where was this?|
The Dark Tower is not the movie I had in my head, at all, but then I honestly wonder whether it really could be. Not theoretically, in a Best of All Possible Worlds game, as a prestige HBO series (Lord, how I wish...) or a three-hour Lord of the Rings-style epic that's faithful to the first novel (Which would also be wonderful..), but as a film that is actually financed and filmed and put into theaters by the same companies currently trying to build out a hundred different cinematic universes. Maybe that makes me a cynic, but hey, I’m the one pointing to the positives in a movie currently sitting at 16% on Rotten Tomatoes*, so clearly I’ve got SOME optimism in me.
*This score positions The Dark Tower as “worse” than Baywatch in the eyes of those poor souls who think of RT’s aggregated “scores” as some kind of critical Final Word. It similarly positions The Dark Tower as more reviled than The Oogieloves and the Great Balloon Adventure, and that is fucking insane.
The Dark Tower is not the second coming of The Fellowship of the Ring. We're all bummed about that. It is, however, a perfectly serviceable and surprisingly enjoyable if unfortunately truncated and bizarrely loose introduction to a very weird, very complicated, very goofy, very niche property that I have loved unabashedly for over a quarter of a century. Much like the first book of King’s series it is functional, but not extraordinary.
It took King writing The Drawing of the Three for the world of the Dark Tower to come to full, satisfying, exciting life. That’s the book that made me and many others fall fully in love with Roland and Jake (and Eddie and Susannah, whom we will now likely never see). It’d be nice if the film made enough money to justify their at least attempting to make a second film incorporating the elements of that book, introducing the two characters who truly make the story whole, and giving the filmmakers an honest opportunity to learn from the choices and the mistakes made in their initial film. Whether they do or don’t learn would be up to them, but it’d be nice.
That’s how I feel today at any rate. I liked it, warts and all, despite the reservations and the problems that are very self-evident. I left the theater legitimately smiling even if I'm not especially clear on why. The thing of it is, I don’t know if I'm blind. I can't tell whether, as a longtime fan, being swept up in the excitement of seeing ANY Dark Tower movie led me to fall for a bad Dark Tower movie. All these poor reviews seem to say that's exactly what’s happened. By their measure I’m sufficiently intoxicated by the pure lizard-brained satisfaction of seeing a bunch of stuff I never thought I'd see on screen brought to life that I cannot distinguish between a fun, liberal mash-up of a series I love and drab mediocrity. That’s disturbing to me. I don’t want to be viewed as someone who defends “bad” movies. Nevertheless, a fun, liberal mash-up is what I saw last night.
I'm seeing the movie again this weekend, with all of this negative criticism now firmly in mind, and part of me kind of hopes that some kind of scales will fall from my eyes and I'll join the ranks of the 84% who just really, really do not like the film. That would be easier, yeah? I could laugh off my initial enjoyment as a product of my wishful thinking and my longstanding fandom, and pitch in on bashing this particular piñata. Better that outcome surely than to feel like some kind of bizarro Armond White, enthusiastically endorsing films that other smarter, better writers want to kill with fire. Once I see it again I’ll report back and let you know whether my opinion’s changed.
But, much as I think I'd like to be in the majority on this film, I don't think that'll happen. I might temper my opinion some, but I don't think I'll suddenly decide that the film is as mediocre or as irredeemably bad as many have stated. I had fun. Fun is fun. I will watch the bejeezus out of the prequel TV series that is, at least as of today, still moving forward, and I will hope for a second film that learns from the first, and that casts its Eddie and Susannah very well indeed.
Ultimately I'm a guy who likes and sometimes loves a lot of films that are divisive and wounded and strange. Films that may or may not ever gain a cult following, and which I seem predisposed to want to take in and cuddle from the outset. Today I add The Dark Tower to that list.
Long days and pleasant nights, all.