Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. The Dark Tower has been in my life since I was in Middle School. I've read and re-read each book in the series multiple times. It was my Lord of the Rings growing up. It was the fantasy world of my youth I loved to revisit from time to time.
Naturally that meant I've been hoping for a movie adaptation since way before the book series was even finished. Despite being such a fanboy for the books, I'm also quite aware that adapting a book line for line is a horrible idea. If Steven Spielberg had adapted Jaws verbatim there's zero chance that film would still be my favorite movie.
I didn't want a straight adaptation of The Dark Tower, especially considering the end of the book series and the license that gives to anybody smart enough to start the movie version off with Roland in possession of the Horn of Eld. But I did want something that even remotely felt like that books I loved so much. And that's not something I got.
What I got was a monotone, dull and unengaging jumble of a narrative that felt like they took all 7 books, set the shuffle setting and then hit fast-forward.
There is no gravitas to Mid-World or our central character, The Gunslinger. This man should be mythic. He should be unpredictable, dangerous. In this movie he's just kinda there.
Idris Elba does a fantastic job playing Roland's hard as nails inner self wrapped in an almost supernaturally gifted killing machine. His look is quite cool and Elba, naturally, does his part to bring some depth and charisma to this disenfranchised knight. He's failed at a script level and on a basic storytelling level by the questionable decision to make Roland a supporting character to Jake.
The character is never given any weight through framing, pacing or action. The only times you get any flair whatsoever on that front are the moments you've seen in the trailer of him being super fast at reloading his guns.
That puts us in a weird position because Elba's a good Roland in a movie that doesn't allow him to actually embody the character in any meaningful way. He's undercut at every turn. The strongest stuff in the film is when Roland and Jake are bonding, but that relationship is so accelerated that there's no room for an arc. The first time Roland and Jake meet, Roland doesn't want the kid around. Two minutes later Roland's tough exterior is broken and he's bonding with the boy as some kind of surrogate father figure.
Dramatically that is bananas. You eliminate any growth that character can have right away. But the movie is full of those kinds of shortcuts. Things just happen so that the next thing can happen. Nothing feels organic. There's no feeling of escalation, no tension, which gives the whole movie a flat feeling.
For instance, Roland gets sick (not because of giant lobster monsters biting off his fingers, sorry book fans) and needs medicine in Jake's world. Here's this powerful guy almost brought to his knees with a rapidly spreading infection. That's prime dramatic tension (and tension that held through almost the entirety of the second book) and you'd think they'd play with it a bit more, especially considering how it takes away some of Roland's edge. But nope. Roland gets to Earth, immediately gets treated and is right as rain for the rest of the movie.
The film is never allowed any time to breathe. Mid-World is something that should take your breath away in its scope and weirdness. The audience is never given anything to ooh and ahh over. Everything just happens because it's the next thing that happens, not done with any style.
That's the main thing that upsets me about this movie. I'd get it if they wanted to play to the back row, but that usually means spectacle over substance. This movie is pretty devoid of spectacle and that's a goddamn crime in and of itself.
As an adaptation there are many bones I could pick, but there's only one fatal flaw I see on first watch and I'm going to go into it, but it's pretty spoilerific, so if you don't want to know how the book series ends or some serious stuff from the third act of this movie I'd skip ahead about 6 paragraphs.
Like I said earlier starting Roland off with the Horn of Eld allows for just about any deviation from the books as that turns this into a sequel more than an adaptation. We know that in the books when Roland finally reaches the tower he's shown that he has lived this quest over and over again and never gets it right. He's doomed to start over every time he reaches the tower, back at square one with no memory of having attempted it countless times before.
King indicates in the book that Roland fails on his quest early on, when he sacrifices Jake in order to continue to pursue the Man in Black. The time that Roland chooses not to let Jake fall will be the time that he actually succeeds in his quest.
If this is his final go 'round then he has to make that choice. If this isn't leading to the final turn of the wheel that choice could be him letting Jake die. If this is the time he gets it right, he has to choose Jake's life over his quest for the tower.
The problem with this movie isn't that they cop out on a sad ending where Jake dies, it's that Roland is never presented with that choice. Ever.
I'm pretty sure they filmed that ending, but word I'd heard is that it tested badly and they redid it. I'm not sure how true that is, but the moment was certainly in the Pinkner/Goldsman draft I read right before Arcel came on board and the finale plays out almost exactly like that script.
My point is either direction would be valid, but not giving Roland that choice is a fatal misunderstanding of the source material to me and one that makes the smart decision to give Roland the Horn of Eld feel like a cheap and easy way to cheat on the adaptation.
There's nothing saying that they can't give him that moment in a later movie, which is one of the reasons why I think this thing could be salvaged, at least theoretically. Tom Taylor was fine as Jake, Elba's great as Roland and their chemistry is good enough that it makes you want to see the ka-tet (ie Roland's gang) built up. Nothing in this film stops them from bringing in a good amount of the fun fantasy adventure from Drawing of the Three and Waste Lands.
The problem here is two-fold. One, the movie's so inoffensively mediocre I don't see anybody actually clamoring for a sequel. Two, even if Arcel and company did set down this path they'd have to somehow do it under Tom Rothman's thumb and, likely, with Akiva Goldsman being the creative driver, which means we'd never get that movie anyway.
I'd like to blame the director for the shortcomings of this movie and I certainly do to an extent. I know his budget was paltry (for the material he was asked to create) and this being his first big American film meant he didn't have the clout to bully the studio into making if the way it needed to be made, but that doesn't mean the movie had to look so cheap. He could have used the editing, framing and sound design to make Roland feel larger than life, not just some dude who can reload really fast. There were things that were under his control (unless he literally had no room to bring any sort of creativity in as director) that he didn't capitalize on. I'll give him points for realizing at the last second how stupid Roland's glowy blue guns looked. You still see them in the trailer and on the poster, but they cut all that shit out of the movie, thank God.
But it's clear to me that Arcel knows the world. There are flashes throughout that shows he gets it. One of the very first images we see is an overhead shot on a playground as children play on a merry-go-round. As it spins it gives the impression of a wheel turning, visually telling us constant readers that this is another turn of the wheel. That's smart and plays to book fans without having to be confusing to the general audience.
Does he have a dynamic enough storytelling spark to be able to bring another, better installment to the big screen? That I can not say, but I'd have to imagine if he had all the freedom in the world and a slightly bigger budget we'd get something a lot more true to the source material.
As it stands now the movie we got is stuck in some weird purgatory between being an all-audiences movie and one that's playing to the fans of the book. Everything moves by at such speed that you kind of have to have an understanding of the book to fill in the gaps, but it's dumbed down and overly explained to such a degree that the fans of the book will roll their eyes at how quickly the storytellers demystify the Tower.
The little changes to make it more understandable to the average audience didn't bug me (like making the portals all sci-fi techy instead of cool free-standing doors). What did bug me was how average and boring Mid-World felt. What bugged me was how the main threat of the movie was either an exposition-spewing Matthew McConaughey or a gaggle of stuntmen in dark rags running through the night. What bugged me was that the filmmakers seemed to go out of their way to avoid anything that could ignite a passion in the audience, choosing instead to try to make sure not a single person was confused or offended. Being a little confused and offended is kind of what makes the original books so intriguing.
It bums me out, not because it's a terrible fucking abomination. I'd actually probably rather have that than something that's so inoffensive and middle of the road. At least that would mean they were trying for something.
No, it bums me out because they had so many of the elements right, but always undercut them at every turn. McConaughey was perfect person to play The Man In Black, but for every single thing they get right about the character they make him give some horrible exposition or weird Jedi force powers so there can be some kind of showdown at the end. Idris Elba has the steeliness to play Roland, but never gets to explore the character because they made him such a small part of the story. The Jake and Roland relationship shines but is so rushed that it doesn't feel emotionally satisfying.
This movie should have been Fellowship of the Ring. It should have been Season 1 of Game of Thrones. It should have been all about world-building and populating it with some of Stephen King's richest characters he's ever created. Instead what we got is a forgettable movie that has no highs and lows. No peaks of inventive action set pieces, no valleys of characterization. It's just always at the same level, trying to jam as much story at you as possible as it leapfrogs from one scene to the next like without giving a shit about making any of it cinematic. It pays lip service to the source material without actually getting at the core of what makes it special.
The biggest bummer of them all is this was likely the only shot we're going to get at this property being adapted, at least for a long while. Maybe in another decade we'll get a decently budgeted HBO or Netflix series taking another crack at this material, but I have feeling this was our one big shot at getting this series visualized.
And they blew it.