We all complain about movies that are too long. But it’s equally bad when a movie is too short. The Dark Tower is such a film; at just ninety-five minutes, it’s a dark fantasy/action thriller that feels so condensed, so in a hurry, that it never once comes off as the epic story it was obviously intended to be. This is surprising given its source material – not one but eight novels by Stephen King, his effort to be mentioned in the same sentence as fantasy masters like Tolkien, Lewis, and Martin.
With such a deep narrative well to draw from, you’d think the filmmakers would actually want to bring up a whole bucketful, if not two bucketfuls or more. Alas, they seemed content with only a few drops. An unquenchable amount for thirsty audiences.
The basic premise is fairly solid. The universe is essentially a wheel. The spokes are other worlds, other dimensions, one of which is our own. Jutting into the sky at the hub is the Dark Tower, which, since time began, has acted like a shield, keeping out monsters that – like Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, I’m assuming – are immortal cosmic horrors. In an alternate version of our world, a mix between the Old West and post-apocalyptic sci-fi structures, an evil sorcerer named Walter, a.k.a. The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), wants to destroy the Dark Tower and plunge the universe into eternal chaos. His reasons aren’t entirely clear to me, but then again, evil schemes typically fly in the face of rational thinking, especially in fairy tales.
Roland, a Western-like gunslinger (Idris Elba), is one of the few people who can resist The Man in Black’s cruel acts of magic, which is why The Man in Black killed everyone he cared about, including his own father. Now, a solemn Roland wants to kill The Man in Black, not to keep the Dark Tower standing but merely for revenge. His only way of getting to him, it seems, is a boy from New York City named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), who doesn’t realize he has telekinetic powers and has been plagued with visions of Roland’s alternate world. They come to him in the form of nightmares, which were traumatic enough to affect his school performance and put him into therapy. He enters Roland’s world via a portal in an abandoned Brooklyn house, the same portal The Man in Black’s inhuman minions use to enter our world and round up children, apparently the only beings capable of bringing the Dark Tower down.
It’s not the premise I took issue with. It’s the fact that the premise isn’t examined in great detail. Watching this film is like watching a recap; only the highlights are shown, with any semblances of context left out for the sake of getting through it as quickly as possible. We’re told about the feud between Roland and The Man in Black, but we have no real understanding of it, simply because we’re not shown any of it. Likewise, we get no full sense of the alternate world Roland inhabits – the pockets of human settlements, the select few that can read minds, the creatures that work for The Man in Black and hide their inhumanness behind masks of skin, the technologies these creatures use – and we never get to know Jake’s mother (Katheryn Winnick) and jealous, uncaring stepfather (Nicholas Pauling).
This isn’t a bad movie. It is, however, a movie that doesn’t live up to the potential it so clearly had. It has redeeming qualities, not the least of which are the performances of leads Elba and McConaughey. In the case of the former, we can clearly see his character’s pain, the fact that he has allowed his need for vengeance to overshadow all other considerations. Elba pulls it off convincingly. Likewise, McConaughey has a thorough command of his character, the quintessential fantasy villain; he isn’t too subtle, but he doesn’t oversell it, either. He finds the exact right balance between menacing terror and heightened theatricality. There are also some creative visuals, including the wooden floor beams of a house forming a tendril and trying to eat Jake alive. The mask-wearing minions were a nice touch, as well, and are in perfect alignment with the horror Stephen King is known for creating.
Strange, that a film called The Dark Tower doesn’t show a great deal of the Dark Tower. As I recall, the only times we see it are when The Man in Black restrains children in a chair, and we see a gigantic bolt of light shoot from the tops of their heads, fly through the sky, and crash into it – a psychic wrecking ball, if you will. What we get more of are references to several of King’s other stories and novels, which in no way advance the story and will only be understood by his readers. These include: Jake’s friend playing with a toy car that’s obviously a 1958 Plymouth Fury; the skeletal remains of a theme park, in which we clearly see concrete balloons and a marquee reading “Pennywise”; Jake’s repeated use of and references to his ability to “shine”; and the fact that the code for an interdimensional portal is 14-08. Being one of the rare films that actually needed to be longer, gratuitous inside jokes seem like a waste of time.