Nikolaj Arcel’s “The Dark Tower (based on the seven book series by Stephen King) is a jumbled mess of Sci fi, Fantasy and Western. We’re thrown into a brand new world and introduced to a fresh, fairly complicated mythology. When done well, this can be a wondrous experience (think “Star Wars”) but “The Dark Tower” is frequently confusing and sometimes plain incoherent. Arcel moves the action along quickly-- at the expense of valuable world building and character development. Reading the Wikipedia entry on the entire series after my screening provided some clarification about what went on but I shouldn’t have to do that. The picture doesn’t stand on its own feet.
In the “Dark Tower” universe, there are two earths: the regular earth with technology and civilization and a second earth that’s in a barren, post apocalyptic state. At the center of the universe is The Dark Tower, a literal dark tower that keeps things in balance and prevents a force of demons from invading the worlds. The antagonist of a story is The Man In Black, (played with campy menace by Matthew McConaughey) a sorcerer who wears black and has telekinetic powers and really likes killing people. He wants to destroy The Tower and let the demons in because…he’s evil? That’s pretty much the extent of his motivation. How will he do this? He’s somehow built a state of the art power station on Earth 2, which has a device that can transform children’s minds into energy bolts because only children’s minds can destroy The Tower apparently. You still with me?
To assist him in his master plan, The Man has an army of loyal creatures that wear human suits for some reason. Are they aliens? Mutants? Demons? Do they originally come from Earth Two? How did they come into contact with The Man and why do they serve him? Are they at all connected with the force of demons threatening to break in? None of these questions are answered. Some of the human suit creatures also live on Earth One, blending in with regular society, so they can abduct more kids. They take them back to Earth Two using a portal. Oh yeah…there are also portals between worlds.
There’s plenty more but I’m starting to get a headache. Unlike a traditional adaptation that would center on one book, this film apparently incorporates elements from all seven "Dark Tower" books, making for an extremely messy result. All of this Sci fi/fantasy material is haphazardly crammed into a relatively brisk hour and thirty-five minutes, rendering it trite and surface level. A longer run time might have actually provided some clarity and depth. The picture has to cover so much ground that this universe never feels like a coherent, three-dimensional space. The screenplay by Arcel, Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner and Anders Thomas Jensen is utterly sloppy and lacking in focus while Arcel’s direction is rushed; the internal logic goes from inconsistent to nonsensical. In general, I don’t need every plot point and bit of exposition to be sounded out but this movie plays out as though everyone in the audience is as well versed in the “Dark Tower” mythos as King is. It feels like the third or fourth film in a series rather than an introductory chapter.
As a result of all this confusion, “Dark Tower” is flat line most of the time as it rushes through its convoluted story. There’s little in the way of tension or suspense; the central threat (demons trying to invade the universe) is hollow and vaguely defined. Making matters worse, the plot builds to the predictable and bland climactic fight sequence that’s become commonplace in recent super hero films. The movie doesn’t quite come down to an inter-dimensional portal having to be closed but it’s pretty close to that.
Luckily, the casting is superb. McConaughey looks like he’s having a blast and Idris Elba is very good as the film’s co protagonist, a supernatural/mythical gunslinger named Roland Deschain who wants to kill The Man in Black. Elba is cool and understated, with a touch of deadpan humor. The scenes where he visits New York on Earth One contain some wonderful fish-out-of-water humor. Honestly, I stopped caring about Elba’s character (the mythology involving Deschain is just as muddled and poorly defined as the rest of the film) and kept thinking about how great it would be for the forty four year old actor to be the gunslinger in an actual Western. He’s certainly got the swagger and gravitas; the scene where Deschain takes on an entire room full of human suit creatures with only two six shooters is giddy and exhilarating.
Thanks to Elba and McConaughey, “The Dark Tower” is never entirely unwatchable but they belong in a much better, more cogent film.