Film Review: The Dark Tower (USA, 2017) is tolerable for casual viewers but disappointing for die-hard King fans

Full disclosure, I have not read any of the Stephen King The Dark Tower series of books. As somebody who is unaware of the source material, I was going into the film adaptation of The Dark Tower with the simple expectation of wanting to enjoy a film, to be transported to another place, be invested in the characters and to be able to follow the story without being confused by any context I might be missing.

On all these counts, I’ll say that the film managed to live up to that task. But having been accompanied by my friend and fellow movie critic Fergus, somebody who had read the source material, I was informed that there had definitely been some hefty adjustments made. So knowing this, and being aware of some of the negative press after its release in the US last week, I’ve pondered over how to attack this review in as subjective a manner as possible.

The Dark Tower (film version) takes the journey of a young boy Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) who is having nightmares of a Man In Black aka Walter Paddick (Matthew McConaughey) attempting to destroy an enormous black tower and a Gunslinger aka Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) assigned to protect it. Jake soon discovers that all of this is real, and that Earth and his world are connected to a number of other worlds, including Mid-World where the tower is, and where Roland and Walter have been duking it out for eons. Should the dark tower fall, destruction and fire and monsters will consume all the worlds.

From a story point of view, The Dark Tower keeps it fairly straightforward. Young boy discovers new fantasy world and goes on an adventure with a gun-toting hero only to learn that he has a bigger part to play in saving the universe. Our gun-toting hero is grizzled and weary and the last of his kind, and also bent on revenge against our villain for killing his father and everybody else he loves. Our villain just wants to watch all the worlds burn for funsies and will kill everybody who gets in his way.

Director and also screenplay writer Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair), along with Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner and Anders Thomas Jensen all worked on the script. Any context you may require is provided so non-book people can follow without feeling confused or out of depth. However at a 95 minute runtime the film seems to tumble along at a pace that doesn’t really allow us to spend significant time lingering on any idea, place or other characters besides our core trio. That’s good because it never feels like it’s dragging but that’s bad because you never feel like you get to take a moment to enjoy what you’re seeing unfold or feel truly immersed.

Both Elba and McConaughey devour these roles in different ways and it’s fun to watch these two prolifically talented actors play off against each other. Elba is the strong silent stoic type, whilst McConaughey is all swagger and sass and supreme power. This chemistry works particularly well in the moments where Walter taunts Rowland using hallucinations and mental projections, where it looks like they’re facing off against each other but Walter isn’t even physically there.

The father-figure type bonding that Elba has with the young Taylor though is slightly less believable and doesn’t quite hit the mark. This may be due in part to the runtime and them having to rush the relationship building in order to get to the climax. Some of their better scenes together though are when Jake and Roland are back on Earth (or Keystone-Earth as it’s known in Mid-World) and Jake is trying to educate him on “Earth culture”, like eating hotdogs “What breed?” and “Do animals still talk here?”. And thrown into all of this mix is some wonderful cinematography and some well executed action sequences that can be appreciated by all viewers.

For the casual non-book fan The Dark Tower is actually a tolerable film to watch with two great leads and an easy to digest fantasy story-arc. It ticks some of those basic boxes you need in order to be able to just kick back and enjoy a movie. For those who are die-hard fans though it might feel a little disappointing that some significant adjustments to the story are made and creative licence taken in order to achieve the end goal. It remains to be seen whether the box office earnings and audience feedback will warrant a follow-up or any further film foray into the series. A teeny tiny hint (it’s not even a real post credit scene) at the very end of the credits suggests they’re leaving that portal open though.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 95 minutes

The Dark Tower is currently screening in Australian cinemas through Sony Pictures Australia