Stephen King’s seven-book series The Dark Tower has finally received a screen adaptation, and fans should brace themselves: it slaps a giant reset button on the series’ lore. (Which, a longtime series fan may explain to you, is somewhat appropriate.)
This long-in-production film lands with a clear emphasis on running lean. It’s a hair over 90 minutes long; its variety in scenery and locations is far from epic; and the story focuses on only three familiar characters. The result feels more like a Stephen King version of an ’80s misunderstood-teen film than you might expect, and, as such, its framework feels a little disposable—as if the names “Man In Black,” “Gunslinger,” and “Jake Chambers” could have been swapped if a license fell through at the last minute.
The great Dark Tower film we’ve wanted for years, this ain’t. But as an isolated, “inspired by Stephen King” piece of summer cinema, this first (and hopefully not last) Dark Tower film succeeds at finding a new angle to the series’ origin story, which is sold by a taut script, solid acting, and a compelling angle on what revenge looks like for both a boy and a man.
One in the Chambers
For starters, Jake Chambers’ origin story serves as a much larger anchor here than in any of the Gunslinger-heavy books—and he gets wrapped up with the Tower in a very different way. Jake, a brilliant-but-troubled pre-teen in modern-day New York City, is pulled into other worlds not by a murder but by his own visions and dreams.
The opening battle of the film, then, is with Jake trying to convince anyone about his visions of a giant tower, of enslaved children, and of the Man in Black and the Gunslinger. A school psychiatrist, a bully, a harried mom, an obnoxious stepdad, even a best friend: nobody buys Jake’s stories, even though they’re so vivid that Jake draws them out as elaborate sketches. Adults assume Jake is just having “darkness and fire” dreams because his dad died a year ago. (In this Dark Tower version, papa Chambers was a loving, supportive firefighter who passed too soon.)
One vision leads Jake to an abandoned house in Brooklyn, at which point we learn about the film universe’s version of portals. The film’s doors connect people to different worlds within the same universe, so long as they know a four-digit code. (The first one, if you’re wondering, is “19-19,” but this doesn’t appear to connect to any of the books’ “Ka-tet” brotherhoods.) Jake enters the code seen in his dreams, and he lands in a desert where he eventually stumbles upon a confused and pessimistic man named Roland Deschain (played by Idris Elba).
Roland has abandoned his duties as the world’s last remaining “gunslinger” after a fight years ago in which an evil Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) killed Roland’s father. The Man In Black cannot directly kill Roland (and we don’t learn why), so he has spent years killing everyone Roland has been connected to. MIB, by the way, also happens to run a very official “destroy the dark tower” operation, which Roland explains to Jake: so long as the tower stands, legions of demons on the outskirts of the universe can’t come in and kill all of humanity.
Oh, and those visions about tortured kids that Jake had? MIB is trying to find a child with enough “Shine,” a magical force that can be converted into tower-destroying lasers (sure, that makes sense). MIB has been sending disguised demons to Earth to round up kids and boil up their brains to convert into weapons. (MIB sent some to pick up Jake in the guise of “counselors,” whom he dodged before finding that abandoned house portal and bailing on modern-day Earth.)
Not a galaxy defender
Plenty of details about the film’s Dark Tower universe are left unclear. Beyond some of the vague plot bits mentioned above, we never learn whether Jake’s world and Roland’s are mirror images, or alternate dimensions, or what. At one point, Jake outright asks how demons can exist “outside of the universe,” to which Roland grunts and changes the subject.
It’s tempting to describe the story structure in this film as a hodgepodge of the first three Dark Tower novels, but that ignores the utter lack of primary book characters Eddie and Susannah. Additionally, we’re left with very little of Roland’s backstory beyond seeing his father die—no killing of an infant, no wiping out an entire town, etc. Instead, the only reason we have to care about the film version of Roland is an utterly badass performance courtesy of Idris Elba. And that’s fine. Less is absolutely more in Elba’s case, and Roland’s debut as a film character may have won out by having so many bristling, non-verbal cues handled by a serious actor instead of him being overwritten to fulfill so much lore and canon.
McConaughey, meanwhile, plays the MIB with a serious helping of cheese. A weird sound filter is applied to McConaughey’s voice so that his voice sounds like it was dubbed on top of the current action, and he tends to deliver brief, monotonal commands to anybody that peeves him. People die, keel over, stop breathing, and start fighting each other at his whim, all while he fakes like a sadistic camp counselor as he preys on insecurities in every conversation he has. I laughed at some of McConaughey’s lines at first, but by the end, I had fallen for his take on true evil.
Between those is Tom Taylor, the child actor who carries much of The Dark Tower’s weight as Jake Chambers. Taylor carries the ’80s child-as-hero torch with great confidence, and the film allows ample breathing room for Jake to grow into an unsure, can-I-really-do-this type of protagonist. During a touching scene in which Roland teaches Jake the Gunslinger’s Code—”I do not kill with my gun; he who kills with his gun has forgotten the face of his father. I kill with my heart.”—the moment is sold by both actors accepting a world-saving fate that neither seems quite prepared to undertake. They each aim guns, sigh in their speech delivery, and visibly mourn the fathers they both lost.
This is neither a masterwork of green-screen CGI nor epic battles, but we do get a few Elba-powered gunfights worthy of the term “Gunslinger,” along with a few child-against-the-odds chase sequences that are just damned good for a kid that age. One particular favorite moment comes during a ho-hum devils-versus-a-village scene in which we know Roland will succeed, but the filmmakers slow the whole scene down, anyway, so we can watch Elba stop, breathe, and focus on shooting his final bullet to save the day.
The Lawnmower Man is coming back, will let you “touch god” in VRUltimately, the worst part about The Dark Tower is its all-too-tidy ending. I couldn’t help but feel like it was tacked on by an unsure producer, terrified at leaving a loose strand open in case the film’s box office take doesn’t merit a sequel. I ultimately like that the film was cut to the bone for the sake of telling an emotional, spiritually allegiant story, as opposed to overshooting and screwing up so much Dark Tower lore. With that perspective in mind, I could tolerate this first film entry and its focus on the little boy, weirdly feeling like a Stephen King-ian take on Stranger Things.
But I wanted that decision to come with an obvious hook for a sequel, destined to open the series up to more of the lore (and characters) that made King’s originals so beloved for decades. I’ll hold out hope that these filmmakers will take series-worthy chances at some point—but those certainly didn’t come in film 1.
More Info: arstechnica.com