Despite being based on Stephen King’s Western fantasy magnum opus, The Dark Tower is mundane and underdeveloped.
Before composing this The Dark Tower review, I expected to hate the movie. Even without reading other reviews, the zeitgeist has it that the adaptation of Stephen King’s epic book series, which has seen a struggle to get made for years, is abysmal. Just have a look at its Rotten Tomatoes score.
Okay it’s not abysmal, exactly, but it’s by no means especially good. The Dark Tower is more unremarkable than it is odious. It’s a movie that has obvious load-bearing framework missing, like a gunslinger who just lost the draw but hasn’t quite yet realized that he’s supposed to fall over. The Dark Tower is too thin to be exceptionally bad; it’s missing too much of its worldbuilding, and it’s too light on stakes and character to be the kind of movie that bewilders or annoys.
Instead, The Dark Tower is just kind of there, firing off a few interesting-looking action scenes and distracting you with Stephen King references, before ending and disappearing from your mind. Somehow, the adaptation manages to make multiple worlds, sci-fi portals, a supernaturally powerful cowboy Idris Elba, and a mustache-twirling Matthew McConaughey just kind of … dull.
Destroying the universe, for reasons
The Dark Tower starts with an explainer that doesn’t do much explaining. There’s a tower at the center of the universe, the text reads, which protects the universe from something bad, and legend has it that the thing that will destroy the tower is the mind of a child. We then skip over to a strange subdivision of houses, where children are being kept near a weird pyramid, and then hooked up into a machine that sucks out their brains and turns them into laser beams to shoot at the tower. Bad guy Matthew McConaughey, the “Man in Black” villain of the story, is apparently taking the prophecy by its least-logical reading.
This is all meant to be a pretty big deal. The Man in Black wants to wreck the tower and destroy the universe. Roland is a super-powered gunslinger with preternatural aim and a cool jacket. But somehow, the movie manages to flit through scene after scene of McConaughey being ridiculously evil and Elba being ridiculously brooding, without really selling the gravity of any of it.
The Dark Tower just kind of there, firing off a few action scenes before disappearing from your mind.
A big part is that The Dark Tower is altogether too serious for its own good. It’s a movie about a kid (Tom Taylor) who finds his way into another world. He meets a gun-toting hero and finds purpose in defeating a ludicrously powerful villain.
Despite its attempt at epic, end-of-the-world stakes, the formula feels like it should also yield something lighter in pairing Earth Kid with frowny-faced guardian Elba, as it has for decades every time we’ve seen a Terminator 2-like kid-and-tough-guy team-up. But director Nikolaj Arcel gets little out of either their performances that isn’t a steely, sad trudging toward the end of the movie. It’s all the same serious note.
McConaughey brings a camp to his purely evil bad guy that suggests he expected to be in that more fun, lighter version of the movie. Roland and Jake aren’t, though, even though they eventually have to bring the Gunslinger back to Earth in a painfully obvious fish-out-of-water scenario. It’s like all the fun was excised in editing for fear The Dark Tower might not be dark enough.
Who are these people?
The problem with The Dark Tower is what’s missing. All the boring, vague fantasy dialogue stayed in — the “darkness” is coming; the tower has existed since the beginning of time; the Gunslinger is the last of his line — but all the characterization and explanation is gone.
The Gunslinger is out for revenge, but Elba’s not even especially angry about it — just driven. Jake has no real motivations other than a supernatural Bat signal he can’t shake off, and McConaughey’s entire character description is just the word “evil,” which is also the only answer for why he’s doing any of this. At one point, he randomly uses his magic powers on a small girl having ice cream with her mom as he walks past, whispering “Hate” as he goes. The little girl’s eyes go black and her expression falls. That’s the kind of guy Walter is: he ruins little girls’ relationships with their moms, because he can.
McConaughey is playing a B-movie villain to his fullest extent, but he’s operating on a different level than the rest of the material. If The Dark Tower were just a little less serious, he could maybe toe the line between being a charismatic love-to-hate bad dude and managing to be a little frightening. As it stands, he just comes off as overdoing it.
And that’s The Dark Tower’s ultimate problem. The stakes are vague, the goals are vague, and the people are vague.
The Dark Tower isn’t without its moments, although most made it into the trailer. Watching the Gunslinger take apart piles of enemies with revolvers, while he repeatedly does some impossible reloading tricks, can be a lot of fun, and Elba is more than capable of selling it in full bad-ass mode.
Elements like the strange world, the creepy rat-people who wear human skin to hide their true faces, and the various potential magical complications add mystery and depth to the setting. And at certain points, McConaughey’s veritable magic god character is spooky, and it’s fun to watch him lean into being as evil as any comic movie supervillain.
But it’s all just too thin. The Dark Tower isn’t the worst movie of the summer, because it has a couple of entertaining, action-y moments. But it is probably the least consequential. It’s a movie that slides right off you the second you’re out of the theater. As the Gunslinger might say, The Dark Tower has forgotten the face of its father.