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The Dark Tower: A mediocre and sacrilegious Stephen King adaptation

The Dark Tower ignores its source material's thematic opulence and becomes a disgraceful, watered-down alteration of the mythos.

Imagine a Wonder Woman movie with Steve "Below Average" Trevor (Jake Chambers by Tom Taylor) as the main character, accompanied by Diana Prince (Roland Deschain by Idris Elba) with an obligatory flashback to support the feeble characterization. They fight Ares (The Man in Black/Walter O’Dim by Matthew McConaughey), a creepy warlord so insecure about his intellect and public image that he always finishes people’s sentences and terrifies shivering women. The movie, seemingly to raise awareness of kidnapping, revolves around the abduction of special kids to power a disposable Deathstar, shamelessly built from a sketch of Blade Runner’s production designer, to destroy the Yggdrasil tree (the Dark Tower, the lynchpin of existence between realms). Get the picture?


That's how Sony butchered and bastardized Stephen King's The Dark Tower books into this movie adaptation. It wasn’t a good sign when a summer flick from a major studio didn't get a proper trailer until spring. Tracing back to its production limbo, this project spent a decade doodling with the source material. It moved between a handful of big companies before landing at the helm of Nicolaj Arcel, who directed the Oscar-nominated A Royal Affair.

I doubt that the screenwriters—Arcel, Jeff Pinkner (The 5th Wave), and the notorious Akiva Goldsman, did any homework on King's novels (or even the abridged version) before churning out their script. For starter, its PG-13 rating blocks out the elements of magic, vulgarity, and anguish. Dark Tower is based on a vast mythology of Gunslingers, dark fantasy, and horror, but ironically, the movie skips almost everything about this richness. It crams the content of at least seven books into the screenplay. Absolutely no visible effort to cross the genres can be seen as this colorless story tears apart the books’ ideologies and smears that generalization with disrespect.

Arcel even fails to build believable environments where characters breathe and veritably inhabit. Mid-World and Keystone Earth are flat, sterile re-constructions of the worlds King assembles, rendering a commonplace sci-fi adventure. Not for a moment will the audience stop to contemplate about any events, conversations, or images. The director breaks down magical Western settings into generic post-apocalyptic wastelands consisting of small settlements and haphazardly re-imagined technologies. Obscure portals with zip codes for different worlds only sneak in an Easter Egg for the infamous number 19 and another for King’s 1408 (I’m afraid these portals are meant to be the Thinnies). Other Easter Eggs are subtle enough, from a derelict Pennywise theme park to a Rita Hayworth poster and a Christine car toy, but one of the most important factors, The Crimson King, appears as a tasteless wink to his presence. Other chores of worldbuilding are irresponsibly undertaken through one or two explanations.


In the coming years, movie enthusiasts will use Dark Tower as the go-to example of how not to direct action, like the fence-jumping scene in Taken 3. Some fun speed-loading scenes from the trailer are insignificant next to how Arcel shoots and edits gun fights with the least amount of engagement possible. Salient components, i.e. the mythos and character traits, don’t fare better under broad strokes of sweeping clichés. Roland has a stupid plot device to protect him from Walter's dark magic. Their feud, instead of the cat and mouse dynamic, is liquefied into the outdated trope of a solo hero going against faceless rag dolls (one of them is Jackie Earle Haley). Elba tries his best to be the laconic Roland, but there’s only so much to do with a sidestepped major character. In the same vein with the marginal lore, little background information about the famous Gunslinger is discernible. He only mentions Gilead once, and the flashback to the last stand beside his father (Dennis Haysbert) looks like a low-budget fan film. In an out-of-character act, Roland carries out a stealthy task without firing his gun once. He, instead, slits the throats of a dozen goons.

Rewritten into a gloomy, bad-tempered teenager who recently lost his father, Jake surely blows off his clichéd angst on a school bully. He’s also disturbed by nightmare-inducing beam-quakes before sketching out images of a C-movie mystery. To redeem the character, Taylor’s eyes exudes an impressive amount of emotional intensity, but this thankless job doesn’t boost Jake’s traits. The story fixes him in The Chosen One position with a hazy superpower named The Shine (look, another reference). It’s powerful enough to one-shot the Tower, so the boy becomes the target for Walter’s army of identifiable monsters.


To make him relevant to the Gunslingers’ credo—“...the face of his father,” Jake’s memory of his deceased dad creates a weak paternal connection with Roland. The boy, taking over the hollowed-out motivation, throws Roland a fit of vague temper about responsibility and willpower—whereas The Gunslinger fails to save his world, Earth Keystone still has hope. In a plain development, the movie hurls at them a medium-sized Balrog to prove Jake’s courage and to justify the bungling pre-climax stoppage when Roland teaches him to shoot. As for The Man in Black, the role and McConaughey are respectively inept and uninspired with Walter’s telekinetic hand-waving. I never imagined McConaughey's face could humor the audience as it does in the ending.

Overall, Dark Tower is coherent—but in an offensive and dense fashion. To appeal to the mainstream, the production team doesn't welcome its bizarre nature and swaps thematic opulence of King’s esoteric world with bland conversations. It becomes a disgraceful, watered-down alteration of the Dark Tower mythos. As Arcel’s insubstantial morass moves to its overdue ending, the lack of basic building blocks from the first half becomes more and more banal. The finale provides a sense of finality for the story, so that's not a great start for a franchise with sequels and a TV spin-off. Unless they could utilize the wheel of ka.